Mother of four on South Side survives heart failure after childbirth

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Sherri Willis-Prater nearly died of postpartum cardiomyopathy, a form of heart failure that occurs after childbirth, two months after giving birth to her fourth child.

As a 42-year-old at the time of her pregnancy, Willis-Prater said was feeling self-conscious about her age. So she kept her symptoms - including breathing trouble, substantial weight gain, and the feeling that her heart was "flapping" - a secret.

"I just didn't want to deal with any backlash," she said. "I didn't even tell my husband."

But two months after coming to term, she found herself unable to climb a small set of stairs. Her husband took her to the hospital immediately.

"The last thing I remember was laying on the floor in the hospital," Willis-Prater said. "You know know they don't want you on the floor in the hospital, but I couldn't breathe. So I was trying to figure out how I could catch a breath."

Her cardiologist, Dr. Marlon Everett, said peripartum and postpartum cardiomyopathy are an especially dangerous type of heart diseases. About 50 percent of the time, Dr. Everett said, it can result in a required heart transplant or implant.

Willis-Prater ended up hospitalized for a full week, leaving her newborn baby and three older children alone with her husband, Austin Prater. After two days of panicking and calling the hospital nonstop for updates, a nurse care manager at Advocate Trinity hospital got in touch.

"The social worker at the hospital, her name was Ms. Ellen (Kubisz). She really was so comforting. She explained everything to me," Prater said.

Kubisz recommended several brands of formula baby food, and comforted Prater as he waited at home.

After Willis-Prater met Kubisz in the hospital, she believed that the universe was starting to conspire in her favor. Not only was Willis-Prater's mother also named Ellen, but the nurse and patient shared a love of Mickey Mouse. Kubisz even wears a Mickey pin on the outside of her scrubs. When Willis-Prater saw that pin, she said, "this is gonna work out just fine."

When she spoke with ABC7, Willis-Prater was wearing Mickey Mouse t-shirt, sitting next to two Mickey balloons, and pointed out a basket filled Mickey stuffed animals. Her youngest, Austin Prater IV, was wearing Mickey Mouse pajamas.

Since the pandemic had just started, Willis-Prater's family couldn't visit her in the hospital. So they would drive out to the parking lot and hold up a sign outside that read "I love you, mom."

After seven days of hospitalization, she was finally able to go home to her family. But her heart was still at risk. So Dr. Everett prescribed her medication and a LifeVest, a wearable defibrillator which works automatically after detecting heart failure. She had to wear the vest 24 hours per day for several months after her hospitalization. Six months later, she had fully recovered.

"Her heart recovered from a pumping function of 20 percent up to normal, once she recovered after taking her medications for about 6 months," Dr. Everett said.

Willis-Prater said that "Black on Black love" is the reason she's alive today. Her children, husband, and cardiologist all did their part to take care of her.

"The only reason I was on that path (toward recover) is because, from the very beginning, I had a Black cardiologist who cared about my life. He was invested in my life," Willis-Prater said.

Austin Prater IV is now nearly a year old and is completely healthy. Willis-Prater, who works at a school cafeteria, has spent the entire year at home with her new baby and three older children. Their family have spent more time together than they could have ever imagined.

"He was the party waiting to happen," Willis-Prater said. "He brings the whole family smiles with his insanity on a regular basis."
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