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A Grateful Heart

Springfield woman uses experience with heart disease to educate others.

From the outside, Shannon Schroeder has had a perfect life. She has been married seven years to her husband, Ted, with two beautiful daughters, Anna, 4 and a half, and Kyla, 2 and a half, whom she raises as a stay-at-home mom.

On the inside, however, a defibrillator makes sure her heart beats steadily.

"I was out at a picnic with Anna when she was a year and a half old. I was three months pregnant at the time," said Schroeder. "My heart started racing, out of the blue. My whole body was fluttering."

After five minutes it stopped, she said, so she didn't think much about it. When it happened the next day, and every day after that for almost a week, she became a little concerned.

"I called my obstetrician and she thought I was just dehydrated," Schroeder said. She promised to drink more water and to see a doctor if it happened again.

A few days later, her husband took her to the emergency room while on a family trip in New Hampshire.

"I felt like such a wimp but I didn't want to make a big scene about it, so I went reluctantly and tried to describe to the doctor in this little New England hospital what was going on," she said.

The doctor ran a series of tests, Schroeder said, trying to figure out what could be making the heart of this seemingly healthy 31-year-old beat erratically.

His apprehensive diagnosis was about as unpredictable as they come. "He said I might have heart disease," she said.

Schroeder and her husband, a submarine commander in the Navy, were promptly placed in an ambulance and sent to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston.

"I was really scared. I mean, here I am, in the back of an ambulance, when my OB thought it was just dehydration," she said. "The emergency technician was really nice, he tried to calm me down and put in a movie for us to watch. Ted was up in the front with the driver, he had no idea what was happening."

THE FIRST ROUND of tests at the hospital in Boston didn't give any clear diagnosis, she was told to rest overnight and she'd be sent home the next day. Concerned for her health and the safety of their unborn child, Schroeder decided to try her best to make her heart race again.

"I went up and down stairs to get my heart going," she said, knowing any sign of an irregular heartbeat would cause her heart monitor to sound an alarm.

As she walked past a nurse's station on the way to her room, her alarm started going off.

"Ted told me it was like a movie, the nurses started running around, grabbing equipment and trying to help me back to my room," Schroeder said.

The next day, she was told she had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition characterized by heart palpitations, shortness of breath and chest pains. Her particular condition was the result of her heart muscle being thicker than a normal muscle, making it difficult for her ventricles to pump oxygen-rich blood through the rest of her body.

"In my case, my heart was beating too fast but only in the lower half," she said. "It can lead to cardiac arrest and possibly sudden death."

Shannon Schroeder and her husband spent eight days in the hospital, being checked for heart rhythms and talking with a high-risk obstetrician to make sure their baby was safe. In the meantime, before she could be released, all the members of her immediate family had to be trained to use a defibrillator in case her heart needed to be shocked into beating regularly.

"Everything seems like such a crazy dream now, like it was a nightmare," she said.

For the remainder of her pregnancy, she lived with her mother, Diane Fitzpatrick, in New Hampshire, with her daughter Anna. Ted Schroeder was stationed in Seattle at the time, but his sister, brother-in-law and their young son lived with Fitzpatrick as well, to help take care of Schroeder and Anna.

Labor was induced during her 38th week and Kyla was born healthy, she said, with the help of 17 doctors, nurses and specialists. "I was the first pregnant woman they ever had in the cardiac unit at the time, so Kyla was a huge hit," she laughed.

A MONTH AFTER Kyla was born, Schroeder underwent another series of tests before a defibrillator was installed in her chest, to shock her heart into beating normally if it went into arrest again. The next month, mother and daughters moved to Seattle, the first time the whole Schroeder family had been together in eight months.

Schroeder's defibrillator has only gone off once, she said.

"I was taking cupcakes into Anna's preschool for her birthday and I had Kyla on my hip when it felt like we were having an earthquake. I felt this wave of energy, but when I looked around, no one else was reacting," she said. "Up to that point, I had no idea what it would feel like or what to expect."

The defibrillator has not gone off since that day, nearly two years ago, Schroeder said.

One day, while looking for a way to help other women in her situation, she came across WomenHeart, a national organization of women with heart disease.

THIS SUMMER, Schroeder went to a symposium sponsored by WomenHeart at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. There she met and spoke with other women and learned how important it is to talk about her condition.

"I was being selfish by not talking about it," she said. "My job now is to go out and talk with women's groups and get the information out there because heart disease kills more women than anything else. Everyone knows about breast cancer but no one talks about heart disease," she said.

Other than taking medication for her heart every morning, Schroeder lives a normal life with her husband and their daughters in Springfield. "My doctor told me to pretend that I'm normal, so I keep exercising and eating right and keep a positive attitude. I'm so thankful that I'm here, playing in the leaves with my children," she said.

Diane Fitzpatrick is thankful her daughter is still alive.

"It was such a bizarre situation," she said. "There's no history of heart disease in our family. It was such a shock, Shannon's always been a healthy person."

Fitzpatrick said she and her husband, Bill, didn't think twice about welcoming their daughter and granddaughter into their home, and renovated a smaller house on their property to live in while Shannon was pregnant so they could live in the main house. "It was a very busy time for all of us. We were only 100 feet away, but someone had to be with Shannon at all times," she said.

ALTHOUGH SCHROEDER hasn't had an episode in several years, Fitzpatrick said she still worries. "I think I'm doing a good job, but we had to work through the whole separation thing again. I feel I need to help and support her, but she wants to show me that she's fine and can do things on her own," she said.

She and Anna continue to have a "special, close relationship," the result of Fitzpatrick assuming a motherly role while Schroeder was essentially bedridden for the majority of her pregnancy.

"This whole ordeal has taught me to appreciate my family more," Fitzpatrick said. "You realize you could lose someone you love so unexpectedly, and it might be the last person you'd imagine it to be," she said.

Ted Schroeder remembers a time when "I just didn't want to see doctors any more, because each one we saw gave us more bad news."

He was in Seattle when Kyla was born but made a trip back to Boston a few days afterwards and felt better when he was reunited with his family in Seattle a few months later.

"Things with us have been great," he said of their life now. "Shannon and I have a great relationship, we have a great family. It might not be as normal a life as we'd like, but it gives us a different focus on what's important."

Instead of thinking about how he could have lost her, Ted Schroeder said he now appreciates "every minute I have with her." He knows that her illness has given her the courage to reach out to other women, something she's always wanted to do.

"If this could happen to Shannon, it could happen to anyone," he said.

Women are less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease because, historically, it occurs more frequently in men, Shannon Schroeder said.

"There is so much information out there for women to use to empower themselves," she said. "I tell women that if something doesn't feel right, get it checked out. No one else will be your advocate but yourself, so don't be afraid."