For Cardiac Success Story, Survival Starts with Self-Awareness

After recovering from a potentially fatal heart condition, a mother promotes the lifesaving value of intuition.

7:00 AM

Author | Jane Racey Gleeson

Erin Sargent is healthy and happy to be alive.

The mother of two young children also wants to spread an important message: Listen to your body.

SEE ALSO: Living for Years Without a Heart Is Now Possible

Sargent, now 36, experienced daily fatigue and fever shortly after the delivery of her son more than five years ago, but her doctors couldn't make a proper diagnosis.

"I knew something was wrong," recalls the resident of Canton, Michigan, "despite the fact that no one could determine what it was."

After enduring three months of symptoms, Sargent was ultimately diagnosed with infective endocarditis by her referring physician, infectious disease specialist James Gordon, M.D.

An inflammation of the inner tissues of the heart, the condition can lead to a life-threatening infection of the heart valves.

She was referred to the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center for treatment.

Finding the source

Sargent was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, an abnormality that predisposes some people to certain health problems, including heart valve infection.

A normal aortic valve has three leaflets that open and close to control the flow of blood into the aorta. But a bicuspid aortic valve has only two leaflets, which prevents the valve from functioning properly.

People with a bicuspid aortic valve over time can develop aortic stenosis — a narrowing of the valve that makes it difficult for the leaflets to open sufficiently. They also can be susceptible to aortic regurgitation, an inability of the valve leaflets to close properly, allowing blood to flow back into the heart each time the heart contracts.

Infective endocarditis, likewise, is more common among patients with bicuspid aortic valve. It is thought that bacteria in the bloodstream can stick to the aortic valve because of the abnormal structure of the leaflets — or possibly as a result of more turbulent flow of blood across the valve.

The condition is typically treated with intravenous antibiotics for several weeks.

Unexpected trouble

Despite a regimen of antibiotics, Sargent's infection worsened and led to life-threatening complications.

A sudden, severe headache ("the worst of my life," says Sargent) led to a diagnosis of subarachnoid hemorrhage, or bleeding around her brain. The bacteria had destroyed her aortic valve, which led bits of the infection to travel up to her brain and cause the bleed.

SEE ALSO: A Congenital Condition that Lead to 'Surprise' Heart Surgery

U-M cardiac surgeon Himanshu Patel, M.D., performed emergency open-heart surgery and replaced her aortic valve with a bioprosthetic valve created from animal donor valves or tissue.

Sargent says she felt "10 times better" just two weeks after surgery. She has steadily improved since.

A new chapter

With a second pregnancy underway in 2015, Sargent and her bioprosthetic valve were monitored by Melinda Davis, M.D., a U-M cardiologist who specializes in cardiovascular disease during pregnancy.

"This was something we watched closely," Davis says. "Prior to becoming pregnant again, Erin's artificial valve was evaluated to ensure it was working properly."

Such valves require long-term observation. They may start to deteriorate after about 10 years, Davis says, noting that the scenario could happen earlier in younger patients.

Artificial valves also can develop blood clots or become too tight. And they're more prone to infection, a central concern, given Sargent's health history.

With input from a multidisciplinary team of cardiologists, obstetricians and anesthesiologists, Davis followed the case carefully to ensure all aspects of Sargent's well-being were addressed. 

"Erin's second pregnancy went smoothly, without any cardiac complications," says Davis, who will continue to follow her case.

A stable echocardiogram during a recent routine appointment was great news for Sargent, whose children now are 1 and 5½ years old.

Meanwhile, she continues to spread a survival message that enabled her own: Listen to your body.

More Articles About: Heart Health Aortic Valve Disease Valve Disease Adult Congenital Heart Disease Cardiovascular: Diseases & Conditions
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories Provider takes a pulse oximetry reading from a patient's finger
Health Lab
Inaccurate pulse oximeter readings could limit transplants, heart pumps for Black patients with heart failure
Racially biased readings of oxygen levels in the blood using pulse oximeters may further limit opportunities for Black patients with heart failure to receive potentially lifesaving treatments, such as heart pumps and transplants
Illustration of a magenta heart with white plaque on a golden background.
Health Lab
What is heart disease?
Tanuka Piech, M.D., a cardiologist at the University of Michigan Health Frankel Cardiovascular Center, answers questions about heart disease, why we should care and what we can do to help prevent it.
Woman sweating hot flash fan
Health Lab
Menopause and migraines: New findings point to power of prevention
Women who have both migraines and a long-term history of hot flashes and/or night sweats have a slightly higher risk of heart disease and stroke, and young women who have migraines have a higher risk of later persistent menopause symptoms.
News Release
Statewide cardiovascular consortium, hosted at Michigan Medicine, receives national award for patient safety, quality efforts
A collaborative partnership dedicated to improving statewide cardiovascular care and outcomes — hosted at Michigan Medicine — received national recognition for efforts in patient safety and quality. BMC2 received the award for its significant improvements in the documentation of radiation use, a decrease in high-dose radiation exposure and reduction in opioid prescribing rates for patients.
Animated illustration of weight loss drug container with a heart
Health Lab
Should heart patients consider taking weight loss medications?
Cardiologist shares how weight loss medications may impact cardiovascular health.
Health Lab Podcast in brackets with a background with a dark blue translucent layers over cells
Health Lab Podcast
How AI is helping to predict death and complications after heart procedures
It showed high levels of accuracy at predicting death, major bleeding events and the need for blood transfusion. Visit Health Lab to read the full story. The BMC2 Probability of Events Following PCI application can be found here.