- Marian Dancy started to feel exhausted, out of breath, and weak six months after giving birth.
- She went to the doctor four times before she was diagnosed with a rare form of heart failure.
- She’s sharing her story to help raise awareness of the signs of heart disease.
Six months after giving birth to her fourth child, Marian Dancy’s muscles started to feel weak and tired. As time went on, things got worse.
“It started out slow. Something every once in a while, and then it progressed to a daily thing, and then it progressed into an unbearable thing after that,” Dancy, 39, who lives in Colombus, Ohio, told Business Insider. When she began to feel like she couldn’t breathe properly and experienced a few seconds of temporary blindness, she sought medical help.
As Dancy had no family history of cardiovascular disease and a previously clean bill of health, the doctor said that nothing seemed particularly concerning.
“It was like, you’re young, you’re healthy, there’s nothing in your history, let’s just keep an eye on the symptoms. So I left that appointment with no answers,” Dancy said.
Soon after, she visited a second doctor who said she probably had a virus and should just wait for it to pass, but her symptoms kept getting worse. Her muscles were so fatigued that she couldn’t walk to the bathroom just a few feet away, and her chest felt so congested that she couldn’t lie flat.
“I was struggling. I was dragging my body around. I was extremely tired,” she said. “I felt like I was suffocating.”
Undiagnosed heart failure made her feel like she was dying
When she simply couldn’t take the symptoms anymore, Dancy took herself to the ER, where she was misdiagnosed with pneumonia after fluid was found in her lungs. But taking the antibiotics and inhaler doctors prescribed just seemed to make things worse, she said.
“When I started the treatment of pneumonia, I really felt like I was dying. I didn’t know what death felt like. I didn’t know what really being ill felt like, but I knew that this is not getting better, and I shouldn’t feel like this,” Dancy said.
At that stage, she returned to the ER, for her fourth medical visit, and was finally diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy, a rare form of heart failure that happens toward the end of pregnancy or in the months after birth. She was 35 at the time.
At the time of her diagnosis, Dancy was shocked to find out that she had such a serious health condition because she wasn’t aware that heart disease could affect younger people.
However, she also felt that doctors dismissed her symptoms because she was young and seemingly healthy. “I know that personally, I did feel that I wasn’t heard, but I’d also played a part in that. Not going in there prepared,” she said.
Cardiovascular disease kills more women in the US than any other condition
Cardiovascular disease, which is the umbrella term for conditions that affect your heart or circulation, is the number one killer of women in the United States, causing one in three deaths each year, according to the American Heart Association.
Heart failure is one type of CVD where the heart doesn’t pump properly, usually because it has become too weak or stiff. This means it’s not meeting the body’s need for blood and oxygen.
Heart failure typically occurs as a result of another health condition, such as a heart attack, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, or heart rhythm and valve abnormalities.
Smoking, being overweight, eating foods high in fat and cholesterol, and living a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to heart failure because they increase the risk of developing heart conditions associated with it.
Peripartum cardiomyopathy is diagnosed in one in every 1,000 to one in every 4,000 deliveries, but cases appear to be rising, according to the AHA.
Other than being pregnant, there is no known cause of peripartum cardiomyopathy, but risk factors include being obese, having a poor diet, smoking, old age, multiple pregnancies, and being of African American descent.
Heart failure cases are rising in younger people
A weakened heart can cause symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelling in the legs and abdomen due to fluid buildup in organs, including the lungs. It can make carrying out everyday activities such as climbing stairs difficult.
Although heart failure most commonly affects older people, it can happen at any age, as evidenced by Dancy’s case. A 2022 study found that heart failure-related deaths in people aged 15 to 44 increased between 2012 and 2019, and Black adults were at greater risk than their white counterparts.
It is usually a lifelong condition, but can be managed with treatment such as medications, surgery, devices implanted into the chest, and lifestyle changes.
Dancy was given medication, a pacemaker, and told to start a low-sodium diet and heart-healthy exercise routine. Her cardiologist also asked her about her stress levels, which led her to seek therapy.
“I did some unpacking and got tools for how to deal with stress. And then I also kind of carved out some time to learn how to give to myself. I put myself last up until that point,” she said.
Dancy wants people to know the signs of heart disease
Dancy’s condition has improved and she has more good days than bad. “Physically I feel great,” she said.
Dancy, an American Heart Association Go Red for Women ‘Real Survivor’ volunteer, wanted to share her story to help raise awareness of the signs of heart disease and ways to look after your heart health.
“Heart disease doesn’t look like what you think it does. We don’t know who it can affect. So it’s really, really important to be educated about these matters,” she said.