Sometimes, remarkable things happen in the most challenging of circumstances. For Tiara Johnson and Schvon Wadlington, this meant finding a new best friend dealing with the same serious medical condition.
“I never thought I’d have heart failure,” says Tiara of Sterling Heights, Michigan. “But having someone to go through it with definitely made things easier.”
Both women were united once they realized they had both fought to overcome the same, often-deadly disease known as postpartum cardiomyopathy. Women with this rare condition experience heart failure the month before giving birth or up to three to four months after giving birth. The heart muscle, slowly degenerating, causes shortness of breath. It doesn’t improve on its own.
Postpartum cardiomyopathy came as a shock to both women, since neither had any previous heart problems. Five years ago when Tiara gave birth to her second child, all seemed to be going well. But four days after giving birth, she began experiencing fatigue. Four months later, tests would reveal that her pregnancy had induced heart failure. Worse, further tests indicated that she would one day need a new heart.
“It was devastating to hear the news. I was only 25. I felt way too young for all that. I hoped it was just going to clear up, but that didn’t happen,” remembers Tiara.
I was only 25. I felt way too young for all that. I hoped it was just going to clear up, but that didn’t happen.
Not only did her symptoms not improve, but over the next four years, Tiara’s heart was at less than 10% functionality.
Meanwhile in Warren, Schvon was going through the same thing.
“I had my first baby in 2002, when I was 22,” she says. “A month before the birth, I started having breathing issues. My doctor diagnosed me and said I had pre-eclampsia, but did not evaluate for heart failure. So the day after my child was born, I was put in the ICU for cardiomyopathy.”
For the next 13 years, doctors did everything they could to sustain Schvon’s failing heart. But in 2015, they realized they could do nothing more for her medically and suggested she go to the Michigan Medicine Frankel Cardiovascular Center.
There, heart failure/transplant cardiologist Dr. Reema Hasan assessed Schvon and determined she needed a heart transplant. But because her heart was rapidly failing – and because it could take one to two years to get a new heart – it was determined Schvon would need immediate help with an LVAD device.
Known as a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, this durable heart pump is surgically inserted into a patient’s heart and assists a weakened heart in getting blood to the brain and other vital organs. “An LVAD can be used as a bridge to transplant, allowing a patient to be kept alive and active while waiting to receive a heart transplant, or for those who may not be eligible for a transplant, an LVAD can be used as destination therapy,” explains Dr. Hasan, who was the cardiologist for both Tiara and Schvon. Since the device weighs just six pounds, patients can carry it with them in a bag or purse and live a relatively normal life with some adjustments.
A Chance Encounter
By sheer coincidence, in 2016 Tiara discovered that her daughter’s head start teacher also had a daughter, Schvon, going through the same cardiomyopathy. Tiara knew she and Schvon needed to meet. Her heart kept getting worse, year by year, and at this point she was getting ready for her own LVAD. Schvon had plenty of advice to offer.
“Schvon really helped me to understand what I was about to go through with the LVAD,” remembers Tiara. “And the LVAD team at Michigan Medicine really helped me when things we’re coming down to the wire. I felt supported on all sides.”
“Having a good support system with both caregivers and peers is invaluable for our LVAD patients and makes them more successful,” says Angela Rose, a physician assistant who sees patients from initial evaluation through the entire time they have an LVAD.
Schvon, who is doing well as she waits for a new heart to become available, says, “I wouldn’t be here if not for the LVAD.”
And while Tiara also awaits her heart transplant, she says her LVAD is giving her the energy she was missing to take on her life.
“I’m building a website for other moms seeking help, which makes me feel happy and helps me to go through the challenges of all of this,” says Tiara, a graphic designer.
Moving forward, Tiara and Schvon are grateful for the help they found at Michigan Medicine. And for their ongoing friendship.
Says Schvon, “You never know what little surprises you’ll find along the way.”
Do you have a remarkable patient story? A moment of breakthrough or discovery? We’d love to hear about it!