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'A second chance at life': B.C. woman undergoes open-heart surgery while 15 weeks pregnant

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Shina Biblow was expecting her second child last year, when she began feeling unwell.

“My heart was racing,” the B.C. woman said, and also recalled developing red, itchy spots on her skin. “Then near the end of July, beginning of August, I started to have trouble sleeping and breathing.”

Biblow, who lives outside Williams Lake in the Central Interior, said her mother-in-law drove her to the hospital on Aug. 12.

“That was the last time I saw my son until Sept. 2,” she said. “It was very emotional and scary.”

The urgency of Biblow’s situation resulted in her being airlifted to Kamloops, and then to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.

Biblow already had a connection to St. Paul’s. She had been born with a narrowing of the aortic valve, and underwent surgery as an infant. After being followed by B.C. Children’s Hospital for years, she then became part of the Pacific Adult Congenital Heart Clinic at St. Paul’s as an adult.

Cardiologist Dr. Marla Kiess said it became clear Biblow had an infection in her heart.

“She had a very aggressive infection,” Kiess said. “Basically, her aortic valve was destroyed, and was not working at all. It was leaking very badly, and she was going into heart failure.”

Biblow said it was soon decided she would have open-heart surgery: a complex procedure that also posed a risk to her pregnancy, which was 15-weeks along at the time.

“We didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, but it had to be done,” she said. “Without me, there was no baby, so it was our only option.”

Kiess said Biblow’s aortic valve needed to be replaced, which requires the use of a cardio-pulmonary bypass machine during the surgery.

“That machine doesn’t produce a normal blood pressure, and in a way, purposely, we’re trying to sort of hibernate the body,” she said. “But this could potentially also have a negative effect on the fetus, which of course is dependent on the mother’s blood supply.”

Kiess said the mortality of a fetus at that stage of pregnancy on a cardiopulmonary bypass “is high.”

“We had to prepare her for the fact that the fetus may die during the surgery,” she said. “She was really sick before going to surgery, and we were very worried that she might not even make it to surgery.”

The three to four hour procedure replaced Biblow’s valve with a mechanical one. Kiess said there is also an option for a bio-prosthetic valve from an animal, but added there are pros and cons with each choice.

“With a mechanical valve, usually you’re talking about one surgery in your lifetime. It lasts forever, but you do have to take a blood thinner because the valves tend to clot,” she said. “Or you can choose what we call a bio-prosthetic valve, or a valve from an animal, but then you’re going to look at another surgery in 10 years.”

Kiess said the hospital only performs open-heart surgery on pregnant people “once or twice a year.”

“There’s a huge team of people that’s involved in caring for a complex patient like this,” she said. “We had a number of meetings with people to put together the best possible plan.”

With a team of specialists, doctors and nurses on hand, Biblow’s surgery last August was a success.

Biblow said she’s grateful for the care she received.

“They were awesome...every nurse that we had was just amazing and so attentive, all the doctors were great and how they worked together so quickly,” she said. “A very scary situation and they made it a lot easier for sure, and we’re so grateful for that.”

In January, the 32-year-old returned to St. Paul’s to give birth to her second son, Merritt. They’re now back at home with her husband and Merritt’s big brother, two-and-a-half-year-old Morris.

“We’re so glad to be home,” Biblow said. “It’s kind of like a second chance at life. You look at life differently and you appreciate things a lot more, for sure...it’s just an incredible feeling.”

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