CLEVELAND – An Ohio mother will celebrate this upcoming Mother’s Day as her “rebirth” after a horrifying brush with death shortly after delivering her first daughter.

The rare heart condition that nearly killed 36-year-old Whitney Keller, of Marietta, is often missed. Now, she is warning new and expecting mothers about the potentially deadly condition.

A busy mother of four, Keller said she started to struggle immediately after coming home from the hospital in November after welcoming her baby girl.

“I just couldn’t take a deep breath,” said Keller. “I felt like I was literally air hungry.”

She was rushed to a hospital where her heart stopped beating for six minutes as her care team performed lifesaving CPR.

“Broke all of my ribs,” said Keller. “The most pain I’ve been in ever. Even now, it’s still tender.”

Transferred to University Hospitals in Cleveland, Keller learned pregnancy took a physical toll of her heart. Previously diagnosed with preeclampsia, she knew her pregnancy was high risk but was not aware of the dangerous heart condition threatening her life. A condition her doctor said is often missed.

“Whitney was diagnosed with what we call peripartum cardiomyopathy,” said Dr. Chantal ElAmm, a cardiologist at University Hospitals. “It is a newly diagnosed heart failure that happens towards the end of a woman’s pregnancy or five months after delivery.”

ElAmm, a heart failure and transplant cardiologist who directs the cardio obstetrics program, said the rare condition weakens and enlarges a pregnant or recently pregnant woman’s heart.

She said the condition, although rare, is occurring more frequently than before, happening in one of 2,000 U.S. births and more often in other nations.

University Hospitals Harrington Heart and Vascular Institute is the first in Ohio to enroll postpartum women in the study of cardiomyopathy.

Keller spent 12 days in the ICU and was enrolled in the REBIRTH study (Randomized Evaluation of Bromocriptine in Myocardial Recovery Therapy for Peripartum Cardiomyopathy), a multi-center NIH-sponsored trial. 

“Basically, my heart was working worse than what an 80-year-old man who had congestive heart failure for 20 years. It was just barely functioning,” said Keller.

The dangerous condition, ElAmm said, is often undiagnosed due to its similarity to pregnancy-related issues including shortness of breath. She encourages patients to seek care and never minimize symptoms. 

“It is quite the dangerous condition, the chances of you recovering in the first six to 12 months of your diagnosis are around 70%,” said ElAmm. “Still 30% that don’t recover and out of those 5 to 10% will experience death or need a heart transplant.”

Keller’s life is dramatically different post-surgery — she has a defibrillator, had to step away from her job as a nurse and cannot keep up with her young active family like she could previously.

“Just trying to comfort them and tell them not to be afraid. ‘Mom’s okay. I’m okay,’ when deep down I’m like, ‘but are you really though?’ I don’t know,” said Keller, wiping a tear.

As for a gift this Mother’s Day, Keller said she already received the best kind, life, and more time to spend with family.

“My rebirth Mother’s Day. It’s pretty special to me after all of this just to be here,” said Keller.