One Woman Was 35, Healthy, and Pregnant Until a Heart Condition Threatened Her Life

When Eliz Greene was 35 and pregnant, the unthinkable happened—she had a spontaneous coronary artery dissection and her heart stopped. This motivational speaker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, shares her dramatic story.

Eliz GreeneCourtesy Eliz Greene

When Eliz Greene was 35 and pregnant with twins things didn’t go the way she’d hoped.

“I thought I’d be the kind of pregnant mom who would have a cute basketball tummy and work up to the day of my delivery,” Greene, now 53, says. “That isn’t what happened.” A month before her twins could be delivered, Greene went into preterm labor and ended up in the hospital on bed rest.

“I had to eat lying down so I had heartburn all of the time,” she says. “I was allowed to get up to go to the bathroom and if I wasn’t contracting too much. I was able to get up and take a shower.”

One morning she was taking a sitting down shower when the burning in her chest started—one of the many sneaky symptoms of a heart attack. “I initially assumed it was yet again more heartburn but it became more and more intense,” she says. “By the time I got out of the shower and put my hair in a braid I was in a lot of pain and started throwing up. It was unlike any vomiting I had had before and that was a clue to me that something was really wrong. I rang for a nurse to help.”

Greene was experiencing spontaneous coronary artery dissection, a rare but not unheard of, complication of pregnancy, where one of the coronary arteries develops a tear causing blood to flow between the layers which forces them apart. From that minute on, her whole life changed.

“I often say that other than having the heart attack, everything went my way that day,” she says. “The nurses came in right away, my high-risk obstetrician happened to be doing rounds at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning 30 feet from my room. She started asking me a lot of questions, including ‘did anyone have an early heart attack in your family?’ I remember thinking she was crazy but it was 11 minutes from the time I first rang the nurse, to the moment my heart stopped. They had to do CPR and assist my breathing.”

Another lucky thing: A team of cardiologists was also at the hospital that morning.

“They were on the way to my room even before my heart stopped, and were able to restart my heart using the defibrillator,” she says. “That was the beginning of a long day of diagnosing what had happened, a trip to the cardiac catheterization lab, an emergency c-section to deliver the girls, and then open-heart surgery and a triple-bypass.”

Having heart issues was never something Greene could have predicted.

“I didn’t have a family history of early heart attack,” she says. “I was very healthy—in fact before I got pregnant I was a dance teacher and choreographer, so I was in really good shape. The reason I survived and had a full recovery is that I was in good shape to start with—other than having had a heart attack.”

Ever since that day Greene has become super vigilant about her health and doing everything she can to avoid having a second heart attack. This includes keeping her cholesterol levels in check.

“Now, as I’m aging and have reached menopause, I’ve learned that cholesterol can tick upward,” she says. “So my doctor and I are keeping an eagle eye on my levels and making sure I control all my risk factors.” Check out the most important thing these survivors did after a heart attack.

She follows her doctor’s orders to the letter, too. “I exercise, I eat a healthy diet, and I partner with my doctor in my healthcare,” she says. “I talk about everything I’m experiencing or taking, whether it’s an over-the-counter remedy or supplement. I often say that a stethoscope isn’t a mind-reading device. We have to tell our doctor what’s going or otherwise they don’t know.”

One unforeseen benefit of her incredible health journey: Greene became a motivational speaker who helps others take control of their heart health.

“My daughters have grown up with me on this mission to make sure other busy people, especially busy women, pay attention to their heart health,” she says. “I think about my heart every day. I think about my family all the time. My daughters are going to be graduating from high school this year and, if I hadn’t done the work to make sure that I’m healthy and strong while really paying close attention to my risk factors, there would have been a strong possibility that I wouldn’t have been here to experience it all.” Next, find out the 30 ways to reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke.

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Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD, on March 09, 2020