Real Woman 2022 Zuleyma Santos

Zuleyma Santos heart failed after giving birth to her daughter – now a battery pack keeps her alive.

Zuleyma Santos, 37, needs a new heart.

For now, the mother of two carries 10 pounds of batteries with her to power a surgically implanted device that helps her heart pump.

“Now that I know that anything can happen to you when you’re pregnant at any age, always speak up, anything you feel,” said Zuleyma, who never imagined having a baby could lead to heart failure.

“Don’t think that you are stuck because you don’t have a voice. We do have a voice.”

Zuleyma’s problems started after the birth of her daughter in August 2019 when Zuleyma struggled to breathe in the hospital. Doctors diagnosed her with peripartum cardiomyopathy, an uncommon form of heart failure that happens during the last month of pregnancy or up to five months after giving birth. She has an enlarged heart that doesn’t pump effectively enough to meet her organs’ demands for oxygen.

For a few months, she went to a cardiologist and thought she would be fine because she was young. By the next summer, she was constantly nauseous and exhausted, but thought it was due to the heat. In the fall, she was in and out emergency rooms and given medicines that didn’t help.

“One night, I was feeling so sick, I was rushed to the hospital,” the Los Angeles woman said. “When I got there, I was intubated. Little did I know that my heart was working so fast and so hard that my organs were also shutting down.”

Zuleyma was in stage 4 heart failure. She woke up days later and had undergone surgery to insert a temporary heart pump called an Impella. It kept her alive for the next two-and-a-half months in the hospital. In mid-December, surgeons removed the Impella and implanted a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to buy her time for a heart transplant.

“When I came home, I came with 10 pounds of batteries and 14 scars,” said Zuleyma, who undergoes treatments to reduce her antibodies to receive a new heart and avoid organ rejection.

Zuleyma’s husband, Christopher Valdez, took care of things at home when she was hospitalized. Meanwhile, he was waging his own battle with cancer and had undergone chemotherapy. Zuleyma was home for five weeks and regained enough strength to drive and lift their kids before her husband needed to be hospitalized. Chris lost his battle with cancer in March 2020.

“I do feel that he pretty much waited until I got home for him to go to the hospital,” she said.

Despite everything, Zuleyma maintains a positive outlook and wants to inspire others to “live your life.”

“Live every minute, and live in the moment,” she said. “Don’t think about tomorrow. Live today and grow today and be better and healthier today and happier.”

Zuleyma relishes the “little things” with her children, including running and playing with them at the park. She vows to fight to survive for them.

“Me and my LVAD are going to keep on going,” she said. “If it means I have to carry it, anytime, I will carry it. Once they tell me we have a heart, I will take it off gladly.”