Ashley Ruhlig shares how she beat the odds, had a baby, and survived serious complications from her congenital heart defect.
Ashley and her family
When Ashley Ruhlig was born, she was diagnosed with tricuspid atresia, a congenital heart defect in which the tricuspid valve between the heart’s two chambers isn’t properly formed.
Blood is not able to flow freely between the heart and the lungs with this condition, so the lungs are not able to supply the body with the oxygen it needs to survive.
Twenty-eight years later, Ashley is married to her love, Mark, and they are raising Lucy, born on March 10, 2014, in the pretty lakeshore town of Ludington.
She’s feeling great.
The chances of this scenario, Ashley now realizes, were slim to none.
A heart defect like Ashley’s put her at high risk for pregnancy. Although she had a life-saving Fontan procedure performed when she was an infant, Ashley’s doctors had cautioned her to consider motherhood very carefully.
Dr. Joseph Vettukattil, chief pediatric cardiologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, explains the Fontan procedure: “Ashley has hypoplastic right heart syndrome, the opposite side of the heart as most such patients. The Fontan procedure is done after a heart catheterization. It’s the third stage of a procedure to build a connection between the right ventricle to the lung and the pulmonary artery.”
Pregnancy and going into labor, Dr. Vettukattil says, were indeed very risky for someone with Ashley’s heart defect.
And still, following her heart, Ashley and her husband, Mark, decided to try for a baby.
“I prayed a lot,” says Ashley, who works as a church secretary. “I had my annual checkup a couple months before we started to try, and I asked my doctor, Dr. Helayne Sherman, if I went ahead, what I could expect. She explained all my options and my risks to me. In the end, it was my choice.”
When Ashley quickly became pregnant, she felt it was meant to be. Her pregnancy, under the close watch of Dr. Sherman, went smoothly. Two weeks before her due date, Ashley went into labor, and her husband drove her – fast – to Spectrum Health, where Ashley underwent a Cesarean section, which put less stress on her heart than a normal delivery.
“It all went well,” Ashley smiles. “I just had to take some blood pressure medicine when I went home.”
A couple weeks after going home, Ashley was looking forward to an outing with her husband and baby girl. The family went to the grocery store together. As Ashley got out of the car, however, she started to feel odd.
“It was an eerie feeling,” she recalls. “I couldn’t breathe. I thought maybe I was having a panic attack.”
Ashley rested for a moment then tried to return to the car, but the uncomfortable feeling persisted. She was fighting for air, and Mark knew she was in trouble. He rushed her to...