Mont. Mom Survives Rare Pregnancy-Related Heart Attack

Mont. Mom Survives Rare Pregnancy-Related Heart Attack

News Jan 01, 2013

Dec. 31--If any one thing had been slightly different that fateful day of Dec. 18, Emmy Ort and her newborn daughter Grace Joy would not be here to celebrate the new year.

But as it happened, all the people were in all the right places -- and made all the right decisions -- as Ort suffered a rare pregnancy-related heart attack while waiting in line at the Kalispell Post Office.

She was raced by ambulance to Kalispell Regional Medical Center, where she underwent an emergency Caesarean section and double-bypass heart surgery -- one surgery right after the other.

"All the troops arrived," heart surgeon Dr. Drew Kirshner said about the diverse medical team that seemed to assemble out of nowhere. "I don't know how half of them even heard about it, but everyone rallied. How fortunate that was."

It was a pretty ordinary day for Emmy that Tuesday before Christmas. The 37-year-old mother of four, who was also 37 weeks into her pregnancy, had been to her midwife for an appointment that morning.

"I had an ultrasound; everything was A-OK," she said.

So she went about her busy day, and had a few packages to mail before her oldest son's concert began at Kalispell Center Mall. She was about halfway through the long line when she began sweating profusely. Then it was hard to breathe, pain in her left side jabbed and the back pain was excruciating.

That's when the first angel appeared.

Kim Vierra, an emergency medical technician with West Valley Fire and Rescue, was standing next to Emmy.

"I'm an EMT, are you in trouble?" Vierra asked.

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Emmy had taken lifeguard training years ago, and recognized the symptoms.

"This wasn't a baby thing," she said. "It felt like I was having a heart attack."

Vierra quickly sent her daughter to the car for an oxygen bottle. Someone called 911 and in the couple of minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive, Vierra and the postal clerks cared for Emmy, who was now vomiting on top of all the other symptoms.

Dr. Bob Blair was the emergency physician on duty.

"From the EKG it was pretty clear she was having a heart attack," Blair said. "We're not used to seeing that in a healthy 37-year-old."

Blair and his staff summoned the needed professionals: cardiologist, heart surgeon, obstetrics physician and others.

The problem turned out to be a coronary artery dissection. The lining of Emmy's artery had split. It's the kind of rare condition a heart surgeon typically never sees.

"I've never seen that before and I'm not sure I'll ever see it again," Blair said.

Dr. Kirshner was one of the doctors called in to handle the emergency. He, too, immediately realized how rare this kind of heart attack is. He's been a heart surgeon since 1990 and had never seen or heard of it, and he was among the busiest heart surgeons in Maryland before relocating to the Flathead Valley a few years ago.

Kirshner quickly called his younger brother, also a heart surgeon and one of the busiest cardiac surgeons in Arizona. Had he ever heard about this condition?

Nope.

Kirshner then called his other heart surgeon brother, an acclaimed doctor in New York.

"We bounce cases off each other all the time," he said about his brothers. That brother also had not heard of such a thing happening to a young, healthy pregnant woman.

So Kirshner did a quick Internet search and found one reported incident of a C-section and bypass surgery with a good outcome in the Netherlands.

As he discussed the case with the medical team at Kalispell Regional, a couple of the assistants had seen one or two cases, but always with "horrendous results," he said. It's not uncommon to lose the mother or the baby -- or both -- in this situation.

The team had three choices: Do nothing and administer medication, put a stent in or do surgery. Surgery quickly became the obvious choice, and that meant taking the baby before the bypass.

The C-section incision was left open for observation during the bypass surgery, and when it was finished, Grace Joy, 6 pounds, 5 ounces, had been born and Emmy had a mended and grateful heart.

Kirshner again marveled at the response from his colleagues and the collaboration. The anesthesiologist with extra expertise in cardiac surgery appeared, the heart and lung specialist, all the necessary doctors.

"Having worked in big cities, that doesn't happen," Kirshner said.

Emmy and her husband, Jeff, also know the outcome could have been deadly.

"If one little detail had been different ..." Emmy contemplated. "God had his hand on protecting Grace and I."

From Emmy's point of view, another fortuitous twist was that Jeff was watching their 20-month-old foster son, Ian, that day. Normally she would have had him in tow at the post office.

What struck Blair when Emmy arrived in the ER was her calm demeanor. Jeff, too, was level-headed, albeit surprised when he arrived. Blair recalls Jeff saying matter-of-factly, "OK, let's do what needs to be done."

"We had an amazing peace," Emmy recalled. "I wasn't afraid. The hardest part was handing my husband my wedding ring. I thought, 'Lord, let me come back to wear it again.'"

The Sunday before their extraordinary day, Emmy and Jeff had portrayed Mary and Joseph, complete with biblical attire, in a Christmas cantata at their church, Central Bible Church in Kalispell.

The words Emmy had spoken during that cantata kept coming back to her, during her heart attack and later during her recovery: "I know that God always hears our prayers and always answers them, but we must be prepared for the answer to be something far from what we would've planned."

The night before Emmy's emergency surgeries, she had packed her bag for the hospital, even though her Jan. 6 due date was still three weeks away.

"I posted on Facebook, 'Grace can come any time now,'" she said.

There were other angels among them beyond a top-notch medical staff.

The Orts' good friends, Jeff and Lori Cormier, took care of the couple's four children -- Keith, 13, Jacob, 11, Kara, 8, and Simon, 5 -- and their foster son while Jeff stayed at the hospital.

Cardiovascular Services Manager Renae Solum staged a birthday party for Kara, who turned 8 on Dec. 22 while Emmy was still in the intensive-care unit.

And those postal workers who cared for Emmy? They brought gifts to the hospital.

"We got lots of special treatment," Emmy noted.

The Orts' church family rallied in many ways, too, such as stepping in to help the family finish a painting project Jeff was in the middle of. Many supporters of the Orts' mission program, Camp Promise (conducted at Big Sky Bible Camp for children with special needs), sent financial help and Christmas gifts for the family.

Jeff is the director of Camp Promise and works throughout the year with special-needs children and young adults. Emmy runs the camp's craft program during the summer.

It was the camp that brought the family to Montana a decade ago; the Orts met at a similar camp in Pennsylvania.

Emmy's mother, Karen Corbitt, has arrived from Mississippi to help out while her daughter recuperates. With a lifting restriction of just 5 pounds, Emmy won't be able to pick up her daughter for three months.

"I'm feeling better and better," Emmy said, adding that she's even able to nurse her daughter, though it was painful at first.

Corbitt, too, is in awe of how the whole ordeal transpired, and immensely grateful to the hospital team.

"There were so many different things that showed God's hand all over this," she said, smiling down at her newest granddaughter.

As for Jeff, he said he feels a little like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life."

"I'm the richest man in town," he beamed.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

Copyright 2012 - Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont.

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Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont.
Lynnette Hintze
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