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Ohio State is helping women with heart conditions experience motherhood

The Harris family, Crystal, Camden, Bryce. Credit: Lydia Weyrich | Lantern Reporter

After a lifetime of being told having a baby would kill her, Crystal Harris experienced a successful pregnancy because of a program at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.

Seven years ago, Harris, who was born with a complex congenital heart defect, gave birth to her son, Camden, through the one-of-a-kind adult congenital heart disease program at Ohio State. Dr. Curt Daniels, the director of the program, was the first doctor to give Harris hope when it came to motherhood.

“There’s something about being a woman and wanting to experience pregnancy,” Harris said. “[Dr. Daniels] was the first doctor that even entertained the idea.”

Daniels explained that doctors typically tell women with congenital heart defects to avoid pregnancy because of the strain carrying and delivering a baby puts on their heart, but Harris was determined.

Harris said Daniels explained the risks and advised against a pregnancy, but said if she did become pregnant, he would be there every step of the way.

Without Daniels and the adult congenital heart disease program at Ohio State, Harris said she would have never attempted to be a mother.

With a mortality rate of less than 1 percent, Daniels said the program has cared for more than 800 women with congenital heart disease in the past 15 years.

“We have a plan going in. Everybody knows the patients, and this has really helped to create tremendous success,” Daniels said. “This is a unique program.”

Though there are similar programs, Daniels said Ohio State has the longest-standing program in the country.

“There’s never going to be a ‘thank you’ big enough for [Ohio State],” Harris said. “‘Thank you’ will never be enough.”

Daniels said that because of medical advancements in the cardiovascular field in recent decades, more and more people born with these heart conditions are living to adulthood, and many of those women want to have children.

It quickly became clear there needed to be a “coordinated effort” between the high-risk obstetricians and the adult congenital heart disease program in order for at-risk women similar to Harris to receive the highest level of care, Daniels said.

“We found that many of these women were becoming or wanted to become pregnant,” Daniels said. “This led to us developing a program aimed at how to care for them.”

The program consists of obstetricians, both at Ohio State and local to the patient, anesthesiologists and several cardiovascular doctors, Daniels said. Using the expertise of all the doctors involved, the team develops a plan that is best for each patient.

Harris said her prenatal care at Ohio State was extensive, and she had an ultrasound every week to make sure her baby was healthy.

“All [the doctors] kept a very close watch on me,” Harris said. “It was very in-depth.”

“I looked at my nurse and said, ‘Why did they let me live?’ … She looked into my eyes and said ‘Honey, when you see your baby, you’ll know exactly why we fought so hard for you.’”—Crystal Harris

At 25 weeks, Harris was admitted to the Wexner Medical Center where doctors began preparing her heart for delivery using IV medications. Three weeks later, during one of her weekly ultrasounds, Harris’ doctors realized the baby was not receiving enough oxygen to continue to grow.

Harris said she was told that she had to deliver via C-section the next day. After Harris had her C-section, the rest of the surgery became intense, fast.

“I woke up in recovery, and everything was fine. I just didn’t feel right, something wasn’t right,” Harris said. “I remember the nurses bringing in a lot of blood.”

Harris soon learned she had suffered massive internal bleeding.

Daniels explained that with Harris’ condition, blood clotting issues were expected, and though doctors did not expect it to be Harris’ biggest issue, they were prepared.

She was taken back into surgery to try to locate the bleeding. Daniels, along with many other doctors, could not determine the source of the bleeding, and Harris was put into a medically induced coma for the following 12 days as the doctors continued their search.

On day 10, Harris’ bleeding stopped for reasons still unexplained, and on day 12, she was woken up.  

Harris said the days following her coma were excruciating, but she experienced some of the most memorable moments of her life.

“I looked at my nurse and said, ‘Why did they let me live?’” Harris said. “She looked into my eyes and said ‘Honey, when you see your baby, you’ll know exactly why we fought so hard for you.’”

Despite the amount of pain Harris experienced due to back-to-back surgeries, she said she will remember that moment forever.

“[The medical team] literally fought and fought and fought so I could meet my baby,” she said.

Harris said she received one-on-one care at Ohio State, and her nurses were almost as excited as she was when she finally got to meet her son. The neonatal intensive care unit at the Wexner Center accommodated her in ways she did not expect, Harris said.

The nurses in the NICU were eager to meet the mother of the baby for whom they had been caring for weeks, and they made special arrangements for Harris and her hospital bed when she finally got to visit.  

“There were tons of babies in there,” Harris said. “And here [Ohio State] was making room and going out of [its] way for a special moment like this.”

Harris described her first moments with her son as surreal.

“I was scared to love him,” she said. “I was told my entire life I was never going to be a mother.”

Harris’ son Camden is now 7 years old, completely healthy and loves playing Minecraft.

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