Mother of four survives heart failure after childbirth

Sherri Willis-Prater nearly died of postpartum cardiomyopathy, a form of heart failure that occurs after childbirth, two months after giving birth to her fourth child. Now fully recovered, she, her family, and her medical team are telling her story of survival.

Video Transcript

SHERRI WILLIS-PRATER: I have four children. I have a 21-year-old son. I have a 13-year-old daughter. And I have a 10-year-old daughter. And this little one-year-old sugar pie. I am 43. At the time I was 42. And after you turn 36, it's like, oh no. You shouldn't be having a baby. Well, it happens.

This pregnancy was-- it was heavy. I had to start wearing a belt. I never wore a belt before. It's to hold the baby's weight up. And I gained like 50 pounds really fast. When I would take a deep breath, my heart-- I could feel a flap. If you've been breathing your whole life, you don't feel a flap. But I was already insecure about being so old and having a baby. I didn't want to bring up any, see, I told you. You shouldn't be having this baby. I just didn't want to deal with any backlash. I didn't even tell my husband. He was born February 22.

When I went for my six week checkup, I remember laying back and taking shallow breaths so she wouldn't ask about my breathing when she put the stethoscope on. I was supposed to go to work that following Monday. My six weeks is up. It's time to go back to work. That Sunday, I couldn't even make it up the stairs. My husband saw me going through distress. And it's like, uh, you all right? But when I couldn't walk up the stairs, he was like, yeah, I'm taking you to the hospital.

The last thing I remember was laying on the floor in the hospital. OK, now you know they don't want you on the floor in the hospital. But I couldn't breathe. So I was trying to figure out how to catch a breath.

MARLON EVERETT: Postpartum cardiomyopathy, or peripartum cardiomyopathy is, basically, a period of time where the heart becomes weak after or around pregnancy. So Sherri was interesting, because she, basically, arrived to the hospital, and we had to intubate her emergently. Luckily, she came at the time she did, or things could have been much different.

SHERRI WILLIS-PRATER: He was two months old, and I was gone for seven days.

AUSTIN PRATER: I called-- aw man, and people got so sick of me talking and calling and figuring out, what's this, what's that, because I thought it was COVID. I was like, oh, God, did I give my wife COVID? The social worker at the hospital, her name was Miss Eleanor, she really was so comforting. She explained everything to me.

ELLEN KUBISZ: He had never fed the baby before. And he didn't know what to do. I introduced myself, and the first thing he did when he heard my name, Ellen, was he said to me that Sherri's mother was named Ellen. And he started to cry.

SHERRI WILLIS-PRATER: A woman named Ellen just told me that you're going to be-- yeah, this is going to work out just fine. And what sealed the deal, Ms. Ellen had a pin on her shirt of Mickey Mouse. And I don't know if you can tell if you look around a little bit, I might have a little you situation going on with Mickey Mouse.

ELLEN KUBISZ: She saw my Mickey pen, and the smile on her face was unbelievable.

- But Mom, it just said, we love you Mom. You couldn't go in.

AUSTIN PRATER: No visitors.

- Yeah, no visitors at all. But she, luckily, had a low window that was kind of close to the parking lot, close to the street. I stood outside and I called her. And I had her come to the window. Made me feel really good.

MARLON EVERETT: Fortunately, we were able to get rid of the fluids. We were able to get rid of the breathing tube, so she felt much better. And then we started implementing medications for her weakened heart. When people have a weak heart, they have an unfortunate chance of a heart just flat-lining. The heart can just stop, and there's nothing you can do about it, except for get electrical shocks. So this is what Sherri had. She had a life vest that she wore every day, all day long, until her heart recovered.

SHERRI WILLIS-PRATER: He put the best on, and just in case your heart stops, it's going to shock you back. So this is the best part of the story, right? So how is my heart now?

MARLON EVERETT: Her heart recovered from a pumping function up 20% up to normal once she recovered, after taking her medications for about six months.

SHERRI WILLIS-PRATER: The only reason I was on that path is because from the very beginning, I had a Black cardiologist who cared about my life. He was invested in my life. Black on Black love is the realest thing you'll ever see in your whole entire life. If this crazy man hadn't called that hospital over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, none of these things would have transpired.

AUSTIN PRATER: That whole period, from her going into the hospital then coming out, it was like, oh my god, what am I going to do? I wanted this baby so bad. Now I might be all alone. I have my other children, but I can't do it by myself. This little guy-- the day it happened, he smiled at me. This was the first time he smiled, because he's just in baby mode, could barely see. And that night, that Sunday night, I was like, man, what are we going to do? And he smiled at me the biggest smile. Oh man, it just melted my heart. I knew it was going to be OK.

SHERRI WILLIS-PRATER: He was the party waiting to happen. He smiles. He brings us smiles. He brings the whole family smiles with his insanity on a regular basis.