It was supposed to be the happiest time of her life.
In 2011, then 28-year old Rachel D’Souza-Siebert just celebrated the birth of her first child, a son named Cameron. After a few days in the hospital following a C-section, D’Souza-Siebert and her husband brought their baby boy home.
“I was happy to have finally met my little boy and to start this new journey of motherhood,” she said.
But just days after the family came home, everything slammed to a halt.
It started one morning in the bathroom.
“I was brushing my teeth and all of a sudden this pain began,” D’Souza-Siebert remembered. “And I don’t know how to explain it any better than it felt like somebody had just start of hit me in the back with a baseball bat.”
She felt pain in her chest and a tearing feeling in her arms. At first, she tried to lie down on the couch. When that didn’t help, she mentioned the pain to her husband. Assuming this was related to her recent delivery and C-section, they called D’Souza-Siebert’s doctor. Then they raced to the nearest Emergency Room: SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond Heights.
“They did an ultrasound of my heart and what they saw was – the very bottom portion of my heart wasn’t beating very well.”
After many tests, doctors diagnosed her with a rare type of heart condition that led to a heart attack: Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection, or SCAD.
“Basically you get this spontaneous tear in the vessel. Blood flows down the wrong side of the wall and you basically get blockage of flow to the muscle,” explained St. Mary’s cardiologist, Dr. Stephanie White.
White did not treat D’Souza Siebert.
The doctor explained, this type of heart attack is very rare -- and usually occurs in younger, traditionally health patients.
“The trickiest part is, you’re having very typical symptoms of a heart attack in a very atypical patient,” White said.
Doctors say the tear can sometimes occur after strenuous activity or a connective tissue disease. For others -- like D’Souza-Siebert -- it can happen after a pregnancy. Dr. White said hormones can sometimes weaken the muscle wall in the heart.
D’Souza-Siebert was certainly an atypical patient for a heart attack.
“I was young. I was healthy. I didn’t smoke,” she said. “I was doing all the things people tell you are the right things to do to leave a long, healthy life.”
Dr. White said it can be difficult for a SCAD patient to understand what is happening with their heart.
“How do you convince someone who is running or playing tennis on a daily or weekly basis that they’re basically having a heart attack?” she said. “They’re in disbelief. I think the important part is to recognize the symptoms and then get attention instead of blowing it off.”
Symptoms mirror a traditional heart attack. Dr. White said they include chest pain, shortness of breath, and pain in the arms, jaw or face.
After D’Souza-Siebert’s diagnosis, doctors put two stents in her artery to allow blood to flow again.
When D’Souza-Siebert got back home, she started to research her condition. She learned about other patients around the country, and efforts to study SCAD patients who had survived, rather than only fatal cases.
She also learned another pregnancy could be risky. But after more research and under the watchful eye of her doctors, D’Souza-Siebert and her husband decided to try for another baby.
“It changes the way you think about your life, and the things that you want to do and the way that you want to live.,” she said.
In 2015, D’Souza-Siebert welcomed a daughter, Emelia. Mom and baby were both healthy.
Together, the family of four eats a heart-healthy diet and stays active. D’Souza-Siebert keeps a close eye on her heart health, and has become involved in the American Heart Association to encourage others to do the same.
“I remember sitting in my hospital bed the day after I had my heart attack, realizing that for the first 28 years of life, I never thought that hard about my heart and I never thought that hard about my health. Because I was blessed with good health,” she said. “We don’t often think about the way we treat our body until there is something wrong with it.”
She hopes by sharing her story, other women will be inspired to pay closer attention, and, if they recognize the symptoms of a heart attack -- to not ignore it.
“Maybe there’s some women… who will do one healthy thing, make one healthy change,” she said. “And hopefully that means that someday, if we keep talking about this and we keep sharing our stories, there isn’t going to be another new mother that goes through the experience that I went through.”