This woman has a rare, deadly heart condition — and the symptoms mimic pregnancy

Christi LeClair, 9 months pregnant with swollen face and feet. Years later, doctors diagnosed her with a rare condition that mimics pregnancy. (Courtesy Christi LeClair)
Christi LeClair on a trip to Florida. She uses a pacemaker and medicine to control a rare heart condition that mimics pregnancy symptoms. (Courtesy Christi LeClair)

For years, Christi LeClair never thought much of the unusual symptoms she’s experienced throughout her life — the fatigue, cold arms and legs and shortness of breath.

“I was always cold as a child,” she said. “I grew up in Minnesota, so, who isn’t cold? But I was cold in the summer.”

At one point, she and her husband decided to start a family. During LeClair’s three pregnancies, the symptoms worsened and included some new ones, too. She battled extreme fatigue and swollen ankles.

When the symptoms continued long after childbirth and doctors only advised her to exercise more, LeClair decided to search for answers.

“I just kind of had it,” she told WTOP. “I knew something wasn’t right in my body. I couldn’t keep up with my friends or bike with my family. I could do it, but then I’d come home and be on the couch for the rest of the day.”

She found nothing, kept exercising and suffered with the symptoms.

But a turning point came a couple of years ago on a ski trip in Beaver Creek, Colorado. As LeClair scaled down a mountain, she snapped several muscles in her knee, and medics rushed her to the hospital.

Before surgery, the hospital staff checked her heart and discovered the culprit.

Doctors were then able to diagnose the 58-year-old with a little-known, but deadly heart condition called peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM).

It weakens a woman’s heart during pregnancy and in severe case can lead to heart failure, said Dr. Minisha Kochar, a cardiologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado.

“Some patients recover fully, other patients will never recover,” Kochar said. “Some patients are referred for transplant.”

Since symptoms mimic those of pregnancy, many pregnant women don’t realize their hearts are impacted, causing the condition to go untreated.

Symptoms of PPCM include:

  • Shortness of breath with activity when lying flat
  • Swollen ankles or feet
  • Cough
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Less common symptoms may include a feeling of heart racing or skipping beats (palpitations), fatigue, increased nighttime urination or lightheadedness, especially when standing up.

While PPCM is rare in the U.S., about one in every 1,000 women are diagnosed with it, and the number of patients diagnosed is increasing, according to the American Heart Association.

The heart health organization also reports that most women with PPCM are diagnosed in the last month of pregnancy and in the weeks following delivery.

There’s also no way to prevent PPCM, as most women, like LeClair, have a genetic predisposition, Kochar said. She urges moms with symptoms to get tested.

“I never thought about my heart,” LeClair said. “I have no heart anything in my family. I have a great-grandfather who fell over at 42 of a heart attack. That’s it. I never thought about my heart, it’s just in there beating.”

LeClair suffers with severe symptoms because she had a congenital heart defect she did not know about until she was diagnosed with PPCM. It explained her lifelong struggle with health problems.

Now, she controls PPCM with a pacemaker and medicine, and will most likely need a heart transplant in the future. She frequently encourages women who suffer with similar symptoms to have their heart checked.

“The hardest thing you can do to your heart is have a baby,” LeClair said. “It makes me just feel like anybody who’s thinking about getting pregnant needs a full cardiac work-up.”

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