Real Woman 2021 Meredith O'Neal

Meredith O’Neal of Plano, Texas, faced a life-threatening aortic dissection and two emergency surgeries at 37 weeks pregnant.

She knew her family history of the condition put her at risk. But the 35-year-old was not prepared for the emotional journey of being a new mom with a heart condition. Now, Meredith uses her experience as inspiration to help others.

Meredith O’Neal can recount detail by detail the day she had her son, Geoffrey, in 2018. What makes her story different than other moms, however, is that she faced a life-threatening heart condition that included a dramatic Care Flite helicopter ride to the hospital and two emergency surgeries.

Meredith knew something was wrong at 37 weeks pregnant, when she started having headaches, intense back pain and numbness in her leg. The symptoms were worrisome because her family has a history of aortic dissection, a tear in the wall of the aorta, the major artery carrying blood out of the heart.

Five family members in four generations had the heart condition. This included her mom, Margaret, who had life-saving surgery for it when Meredith was 5 years old. She said the family referred to aortic dissection as “the big bad wolf.”

“Every family has something, and this was our thing,” said Meredith, 35, of Plano, Texas.

Pregnancy increases strain on the heart and put Meredith at higher risk, she said. But she thought there was no reason to worry because she always had a “take-charge attitude” about her health and had a normal heart scan at 20 weeks into her pregnancy.

Her health nightmare came true, she said, when she found out her symptoms were the result of a type A aortic dissection. It meant she needed an emergency C-section to save her baby and then surgery to repair her heart.

Meredith remembers the details of that day: Multiple healthcare “angels” helping her, praying with a chaplain for what she thought was the last time, and saying goodbye to her husband in case the surgeries failed.

It was a whirlwind of events, she said, that had a good outcome.

“I remember waking up, and I was just so grateful to be alive and that Geoffrey was perfect,” she said. “All your maternal instincts are amplified when you go through trauma.”

Meredith stayed in the hospital for six days. She credits husband Kyle for being Geoffrey’s main caregiver during the first months at home while she recovered.

“My journey wasn’t simple,” she said. “I did have some bumps along the way.” Numbness in her leg continued and follow-up procedures were needed to heal an infection around her chest scar, she said. Plus, the emotional strain made her realize the importance of caring for her mental health.

“This isn’t just a heart issue or just a women’s health issue,” she said. “You’re a whole person. You need to take care of your whole self.”

Through it all, she said, one thing that helped save her life was the education on cardiovascular health that she received from the American Heart Association. She was previously vice president of the AHA’s annual Côtes du Coeur gala fundraiser.

“I was definitely working for the right place at the right time,” she said. From an early age, she knew of the AHA’s work to reduce deaths due to cardiovascular conditions, she said.

“I do what I do because the American Heart Association saved my mom’s life,” she said. “And I always thought, ‘One day it may help save mine.’”

That drive is what still inspires her to keep raising money for heart disease research.

“My heart is perfect now,” she said. “But I still have two sisters, one niece, one nephew, one son who all may be at risk of the same condition someday. I keep working for them. My fight isn’t over yet.”