A “very healthy” 39-year-old mother felt like she had the flu. She then suffered a cardiac arrest

After going on vacation in July 2022, Loree Benigni, then 39 years old, came home and felt like she had the flu. When her symptoms did not improve, she went to a medical center, where doctors ran tests and detected a problem with the electrical signals in her heart. They recommended that she go to an emergency room, and there Benigni knew that her condition was serious.

“At that time they told me that I was one of the patients in the worst condition in the emergency room,” Benigni, who is now 41 years old and lives in Pittsburgh, told .com. “The last thing I remember was giving them my husband's phone number and then passing out.”

He lost consciousness because he went into cardiac arrest due to viral myocarditis, an inflammation of the middle layer of the heart muscle caused by an infection, according to the American Heart Association. Affects the heart's ability to pump blood properly.

“I must have caught a virus, like a cold or the flu, while I was on vacation,” Benigni said. “That was what attacked my heart.”

Difficulty breathing after vacation

For their 15th wedding anniversary in 2022, Benigni and her husband visited North Carolina and spent time hiking. When she returned home, she became concerned because she was experiencing difficulty breathing when she moved.

“I've been pretty healthy my whole life,” she said. “I workout every day. “I was hiking up a mountain.”

Benigni took several COVID-19 tests, but they all came back negative. He wondered if he had the flu or pneumonia, so in mid-July he went to the local clinic. The doctors realized how sick she was and sent her to the emergency room. Once at the hospital, the situation quickly worsened.

“I was out of breath,” he said. “(When) the nurse took my temperature, I became physically ill, and they rushed me to a room.”

They did a CT scan to obtain internal images of his body, but he was beginning to lose consciousness. She suffered cardiac arrest and woke up two days later, confused.

“They rushed me to another hospital,” he said. “I didn't know where she was. (…) I was very swollen because of everything that had happened to me.”

It took him a few days to wake up and understand what had happened to him. She was stunned by the news that she had suffered cardiac arrest and had myocarditis, an illness that can cause heart failure. Doctors told his family that he only had a 5% chance of survival.

“I was stunned because I had never had heart problems and I heard the word 'heart failure,'” she said. “It all happened so fast. I was on vacation and then I was in a hospital bed.”

Doctors wanted to implant a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) called the Abbott HeartMate 3 LVAD to allow his heart to rest and recover. An LVAD helps the heart pump blood from the left ventricle to the body. Although he was hesitant to undergo open-heart surgery to place the pump, Benigni agreed because he wanted to return home to his children. She expected it to be implanted right away, but she had developed pneumonia in the hospital.

“They wanted to give my body time to rest and regain strength,” he explained. “I had to learn to walk again. I remember the first time the physical therapy staff came and I tried to get up. I never thought I would be able to walk again or get out of bed. I was very weak”.

Additionally, she worried that she would not be able to care for her children.

“I was thinking, 'Will I ever be able to come home? What happened? What have I done wrong?”. Benigni recalled. “You ask yourself all these questions.”

Within a few weeks, in early August, he had recovered enough to have the LVAD implanted.

“I was going to have to stay in the hospital for a couple more weeks,” Benigni said. “But I was hoping I could go home.”

What is myocarditis?

“Myocarditis (…) means there is a problem with the heart muscle and that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood,” Dr. Robert Kormos, vice president of the heart failure global medical affairs division, told .com. Abbott, who did not treat Benigni. “If myocarditis is not detected, it will lead to heart failure.”

Loree Benigni

Myocarditis can also cause a stroke or cardiac arrest, as occurred in Benigni's case. Viruses, such as the flu or COVID-19, can cause viral myocarditis. Cardiologists have seen an increase in these cases during the pandemic, Kormos explained.

In some patients, the first signs of myocarditis can go unnoticedsuch as palpitations or irregular heartbeats.

According to the American Heart Association, other signs of myocarditis may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Short of breath
  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • accelerated heartbeat
  • Feeling faint
  • Flu symptoms

Doctors have several treatment options, ranging from medications to LVAD implantation, all aimed at helping the heart function better while it recovers from myocarditis and heart failure.

“If you give the heart muscle time to recover (…) you are giving the heart a chance to heal,” Kormos said. “In a period of six to eight months, (a patient) can rehabilitate himself and his heart with the right medication and a heart pump.”

Although treatment is available, Kormos said women with heart problems are often “misdiagnosed.”

“Many doctors say, 'You have the flu. You're short of breath for another reason,'” she explained. “(It is an evil that is) poorly recognized. “It is a real challenge.”

In Benigni's case, doctors soon diagnosed her correctly.

“This young woman was very lucky. She had immediate attention, and the medical team and the cardiac surgery specialist made the quick decision to give her the care (that she required), ”she stressed. “Approximately half of the women in this country are not aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death among them”.

Kormos recommended that patients see their doctor periodically to learn their heart disease risks. If you suffer from hypertension or diabetes, you should make sure you are receiving the right treatment to reduce your chances of complications. Kormos also believes that doctors should be more attentive to signs of heart disease in women and make a diagnosis early.

My children need their mother

After the LVAD was placed, Benigni spent more time in the hospital before returning home for her children's first day of school in the fall of 2022.

“It was like a little gift for me to be there on the first day of school, because I never missed it,” he said.

Loree Benigni

Her family, husband and neighbors helped her while she was in the hospital and after she returned home. To regain strength, she began taking short walks near her house. At first, she went three houses away from him, but each day she began to go a little further away from him.

“Seeing that I could walk again that I wasn't out of breath (…). That gave me the motivation to want to do more,” she recounted.

Benigni continued walking, took his medicine, and included plenty of healthy food in his diet.

At his first follow-up visit with the doctor, his “ejection fraction,” a measure of the heart's ability to pump blood, had returned almost to normal. In January 2023, Benigni was doing so well that doctors believed they could remove the pump and his heart would function well on its own.

“I cried. She was very happy “, he confessed. “I did everything I could to help myself. She was ecstatic.”

Recovery was easier after the second operation, although it was another open heart surgery. Within a few days she could walk through the hospital hallways and soon returned home. Benigni is back to work and caring for her children, and she feels incredibly grateful.

“Every day I am grateful for being able to go to my son's baseball games and taking my other son fishing,” he said. “I knew my children needed their mother and I fought every day to recover.”

Benigni advised people to seek help if they feel something strange in their body. “Go to the doctor”, he stressed. “Don't wait.”