After surviving loss and heart failure during pregnancy, Yanela Vickers’ journey led her to understand how she and her family can have a healthier future. She is passionate about encouraging other women and kids to know their body, find their voice and be their own health advocate.
Yanela Vickers was pregnant with her first child as a high school senior in 2007. Although otherwise healthy, she started having worrisome symptoms during her pregnancy. She knew something was seriously wrong but felt dismissed by doctors because she was an 18-year-old Cuban woman.
“I felt alone and frustrated,” she said. “It was a repetitive cycle trying to get answers that left me emotionally, physically and mentally drained.”
During a visit to see her family in Cuba, she began bleeding and doctors put her on bed rest for the rest of her trip. Back home, her symptoms worsened. She had migraines and was too fatigued to get out of bed. She also developed high blood pressure and would faint when showering or exercising. Her abdomen grew very quickly and was often painful.
She made several trips to the emergency room when her symptoms seemed alarming, like severe cramping. Because her vitals looked normal, the doctors told her she was experiencing typical pregnancy symptoms.
In her third trimester, during another ER visit, she insisted to the doctor that something needed to be done.
After an ultrasound, she was told to report to her OB-GYN the next day. That’s when she learned her baby had fetal hydrops, a rare condition that causes swelling and fluid buildup. The fluid went into Yanela’s uterus and lungs as well, causing strain on her heart.
Eventually she was admitted to a Level 1 trauma hospital and delivered the baby naturally at 32 weeks. Tragically, her daughter did not survive.
Shortly after delivery, Yanela went into complete heart failure and was in the intensive care unit for more than a week. A cardiologist diagnosed her with peripartum cardiomyopathy, a type of heart failure that occurs during pregnancy.
The first year after losing her baby was very difficult. She was grieving but also had to deal with her own medical recovery. To cope, she made diet and lifestyle changes and continued seeing her cardiologist.
In 2009, she got pregnant again even though she was told it would put her heart —and life — at risk. She was afraid to tell her doctor. But she remembers him saying, "because I am your cardiologist, I am going to do everything in my power and my efforts as your practitioner to keep you alive.”
This time she had doctor visits every two weeks and took other precautions. However, Yanela went into labor early at 34 weeks and needed a cesarean section. Despite worrisome odds, Yanela did not experience heart failure during delivery again and gave birth to a healthy daughter. A year and a half later, she gave birth to her son.
Yanela, now 35, still deals with lingering symptoms. She gets fatigued easily and has heart palpitations and fluttering. She also was recently diagnosed with autoimmune diseases rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, and scleroderma, which are often linked to heart problems in Hispanic women.
Her medical issues led her to explore her family’s health history. As young as age 8, she remembers being an English translator to doctors when her mom was ill. But it wasn’t until she learned an aunt also has cardiomyopathy that “everything almost hit a state of epiphany.” That family connection paved the way for more discoveries.
“My experience had a rippling effect on my family,” she said. “Talking about what we’ve been through has made everyone in my family more aware of their medical conditions, more in tune with their bodies and more open to discuss these things with each other.”
She also strives to pass on her “healthy combativeness” to her two children.
“I talk to my kids on a regular basis about heart health,” she said. “They know how to do CPR. They’re educated and aware. They go to Heart Walks with me. I introduce them to new medications I’m taking so that if something happens, they’re able to communicate what’s going on. They need to know the power of their own voice and how to be their own best advocate.”
Yanela, who lives in Port St. Lucie, Florida, juggles working as a program specialist for an organization that provides funding for children and as a per diem certified EMT.
“I get to save lives now,” she said. “What happened to me has flipped, and I’m able to make a very terrifying situation into a better one and helping other people is the most exciting part.”
Yanela also volunteers with the American Heart Association and participates annually in the Palm Beach County Heart Walk, along with friends and family. She also often speaks at events about maternal health and living with heart problems.
“It is a fire and a drive inside of me to help other women find their voice,” she said. “I want to encourage others that they are their own subject matter, and they are the expert of their own body.”
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