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An Unraveling Heart

Young mother's arteries tear after pregnancy, requiring open heart surgery

An Unraveling Heart - John C. Lincoln Deer Valley Hospital Cardiac Care Services
Willie and Leisha Drone, with baby Amariah, are grateful for the efforts of interventional cardiologist Andrew Antiemo, MD (top). The intra-aortic balloon pump he inserted bought Leisha enough time for open heart surgery.

When you're 37 years old with a newborn at home, no one thinks you're having a heart attack. Or that it will become a matter of life and death.

Leisha Drone of Phoenix initially thought it was nothing more than severe heartburn. After all, her third child, daughter Amariah, was born Aug. 27 by Caesarian section, without complications.

But on Sept. 5, when Leisha talked to her OB/GYN on the phone about her symptoms โ€“ chest pain and pain radiating down her arms โ€“ she was told to go to the emergency department (ED). Quickly.

As Leisha and her husband Willie climbed into the car, her voice had faded to a whisper. But when he headed for the closest hospital, she yelled: "Don't take me there! "I don't know why I said that to him," she said later. "But I've lived with divine intervention for years. I've learned to listen."

Instead, they went to John C. Lincoln Deer Valley Hospital with top- level cardiac services.

At Deer Valley, ED physician Barbara Celestina, DO, called Andrew Atiemo, MD, an interventional cardiologist, to evaluate Leisha's symptoms.

Heart Attack Symptoms

  • Chest discomfort.
  • Discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the less common symptoms of shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

"When I viewed her EKG remotely, it was very abnormal," Dr. Atiemo said. "I wasn't too concerned at first. I was cautiously optimistic because she was young." He asked the ED physician to arrange a CT scan.

Tears in the Arteries

When he saw Leisha's elevated levels of troponin, a heart enzyme indicating a heart attack, he hurried to the hospital. The heart catheterization he performed revealed tears in two of her coronary arteries.

"Her heart was failing," Dr. Atiemo said. "I installed an intra- aortic balloon pump, but she was hanging on by a thread."

He called in an open heart surgery team headed by Kenneth Ashton, MD, a cardio- vascular surgeon, in the middle of the night.

"When I got there, Leisha was in cardiogenic shock โ€“ low blood pressure, a speeding pulse and breathing difficulties," Dr. Ashton said.

In the O.R., he discovered that the layers of two of Leisha's arteries were unraveled. "I sewed the layers together again, using a leg vein and an artery running along her chest to bypass the damaged arteries," he said.

At the end of the two-hour surgery, "she looked better, but I was worried about her survival," he said. "She was very sick."

Twenty-four hours later, he told Willie he should play the lottery. "It's a complete turnaround; your wife should live a long life."

A motivated patient, Leisha did everything her nurses said. In just nine days, she went home.

"Leisha's condition is very rare," said Dr. Atiemo. "There was no history of heart disease in the family. We concluded that her pregnancy weakened her coronary arteries and led to the heart attack."

Leisha and Willie rave about the care she received. "Your mission statement is lived through your people," they agreed.

Sedated and intubated in the Critical Care Unit (CCU), Leisha indicated she needed to write. "Thank you, thank you," she scribbled to all her nurses.

One of her favorite nurses there, Sara Boyd, "left Leisha's side only to run to the restroom and take five minutes for lunch," Willie said. "She was amazing."

So was Gary Mikut, RN, the CCU nurse who prepared her for care on a med/surg floor. "He trained me, through his kindness, to get my own water, to go to the bathroom on my own," Leisha said. "I didn't think I could do it. But I did."

Doctors from all around the hospital came to see me," she continued. "They told me, 'This is what we live for. When we see something like this, it reaffirms what we do.'"

Leisha returned home two days before her 8-year-old Elyshia's birthday. Nine-year-old Samuel was thrilled to see her, too. But the baby pulled away.

"My mother lives with us, and she told me to pray," Leisha said. "What I heard was to tell my baby what happened. I told her I was sorry I hadn't been here for her, that the doctors had to work on my heart so I could live a long life and take care of her. One tear rolled down my baby's face, and she pulled my finger to her chest. We never skipped a beat after that."

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