STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. – Married two years ago, Shawna and Paul Gurgul of Sterling Heights, Mich., were thrilled to learn they were expecting a baby.
"I was ecstatic," Paul said. "We were both really happy."
The pregnancy started off well.
"I didn't have any morning sickness. I had a very easy first trimester," Shawna said.
At 17 weeks, Shawn's blood pressure was high, so doctors put her on medication and monitored it closely.
The couple found out they were having a boy and started preparing to welcome their son.
"We had everything prepped and ready, his room, we were all set to go," Paul said.
But as the pregnancy progressed, Shawna was getting more and more uncomfortable.
"My ankles were giant. I had to buy shoes that were two and half sizes bigger than my normal shoe. I wore flip-flops a lot because I couldn't fit into any shoes," Shawna said. "When I brought it up to the doctor, they said, ‘Well, some woman swell more than others and that's pretty normal.'"
Shawna was also having some shortness of breath, which she also attributed to the pregnancy.
"The doctor said because of my blood pressure issues they wanted to induce me about a week early," Shawna said. "The last thing I remember is packing up and leaving the house, and I don't remember anything after that."
Paul said Shawna was just beginning labor at the hospital when her heart stopped.
"There was just doctors and surgeons running in, rushing her out. I just remember seeing her face and I told her I loved her and that everything would be OK," Paul said.
"I technically died for a few minutes and then they brought me back with CPR and my emergency C-section to save Ethan," Shawna said.
Paul said he was told his wife was in a coma but his son was OK.
Shawna spent more than a week in a coma, and when she woke up, she couldn't remember any of the events surrounding her son's birth.
"I had no memory of being in labor, of anything. I had no recollection of checking into the hospital," she said.
It was 18 days before Shawna even met her son. To her dismay, it was too late to breastfeed, and for weeks, she was too weak to care for him without help.
"That part's tough because there's a lot that I missed out on during that time. All the things you plan for your whole life. I just missed out on everything," she said. "When my husband said, "We need to get his birth certificate," I said, "Oh, my gosh. I didn't even sign it."
So what caused Shawna's brush with death? It's a condition called peripartum cardiomyopathy. It's a form of heart failure that affects previously healthy women in the final months of pregnancy or the weeks following delivery. It happens in about one in every 4,000 pregnancies and anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of those affected don't survive.
"They told me I'm just a mirable. That's what everyone kept saying," Shawna said.
Doctors don't know what causes peripartum cardiomyopathy, but researchers are investigating several possibilities: including genetics and various viruses.
Experts said what makes peripartum cardiomyopathy especially difficult is that the symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling and heart palpitations can be mistaken for normal pregnancy symptoms.
"I'd never heard of it before, never. Which is why I wanted to do this," Shawna said. "I wanted other woman to know the possibility that this could happen. If you have a cough that's lingering, that if you're feeling short of breath that you don't think is normal, the things that I kind of dismissed as being normal, because I didn't know any different, I want them to know, maybe you should get it checked out further."
Paul urges couples to ask their doctors more questions and take potential risks seriously.
"I wouldn't want anyone to go through what we went through," he said.
Shawna and Paul can't risk another pregnancy because of the likelihood Shawna would experience similar problems.
"We planned on having more children. So, that's very difficult to deal with," she said. "I also think that maybe that's something we have to go through, maybe that there's a son or daughter out there we need to find. Maybe we're going to adopt or there might be other ways of expanding our family in the future."
"We have a beautiful son, and we love him very much, and he's our life. He's our little shining star and knows we'll do anything for him," said Paul. "I cherish, every moment with my wife and my son now. It's all that matters to me."
There is an effort underway to recruit survivors of peripartum cardiomyopathy for a nationwide study.
To learn more about the research, click here.
To learn more about peripartum cardiomyopathy, click here.