At the end of my second trimester of pregnancy, I answered a call from an unknown number.
To be pregnant is to exist on a never-ending receiving line of advice, whether we want it or not.
"I know your due date is approaching," said a stranger at the other end of the line, completely freaking me out. She identified herself as being from Natera, a company that my doctor had used for genetic testing I had consented to months ago.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"Have you considered cord-blood banking?" she said.
"No, I'm not doing that," I said. I had read enough about cord-blood banking, the process of saving stem cell-containing blood from your baby's umbilical cord, to understand that my family was in the vast majority of those that would with extremely high likelihood derive no medical benefit from it. Of course, in the societally sanctioned spending spree that accompanies new parenthood, plenty of companies are happy to charge anyone hundreds if not thousands of dollars plus annual storage fees to collect and manage your cord blood.
"Why not? Have you considered all the bene—"
"I'm not doing it and I don't want to explain my decision," I said before hanging up. I would later learn I neglected to check a miniscule box on my testing consent forms at the doctor to opt out of solicitations. Still, I was angry that I was being telemarketed unnecessary and costly medical services by someone who had been trained to immediately call my judgment into question. I was annoyed that my doctor's office would allow such intrusions at all. When I asked my OB about it at my next visit, she told me there's no way Natera would have gotten my information from them. Apparently even she didn't realize what was on those forms.
The incident with Natera did nothing to heighten my trust of the medical establishment during my pregnancy. I was hardly alone. Almost every mom I knew had expressed a similar sentiment.
"I don't trust doctors," read the text of a loved one when I told her I would probably get an epidural after my doctor recommended getting one because, she said, it can help relax the pelvic muscles during labor. But this friend, a highly educated woman who had had done her research and had two unmedicated births, believed firmly otherwise. "Look it up," she said. Thus commenced more of the furious Googling I found myself doing multiple times a day since deciding I wanted to become pregnant.
To be pregnant is to exist on a never-ending receiving line of advice, whether we want it or not. Information presents to us from Google's never-out-of-reach search bar, friends and family eager to use our pregnancies as an excuse to recall their own, and the doctor's office, where the wisdom of medical professionals neatly comingles with brochures and free samples from myriad companies that would really, really like our business as new moms. Separating the "good" advice from the rest is a Herculean task that many pregnant women manage only with vigorous fact-finding missions of their own.
The medical community in America is poorly equipped to help women navigate the enormous pressures that come with birth and transitioning to motherhood.
Doing my research during pregnancy felt like a defense against the scary unknowns, overabundance of opinions, and disturbing marketing schemes that come with entering parenthood. The medical community in America is poorly equipped to help women navigate the enormous emotional and societal pressures that come with birth and transitioning to motherhood. Too much of what pregnant women experience at the doctor has to do with dated ideas about our care, mandated by tradition or a fear of being sued rather than medical necessity. These practices, like weigh-ins at every appointment or medically unnecessary C-sections (which are estimated to account, horrifically, for almost 50 percent of all C-sections performed in the U.S.), only heighten anxiety.
Meanwhile, things that might alleviate stress – like having thorough discussions about the kinds of interventions we might be asked to accept at the hospital during labor and delivery – are left to outside educators and doulas that insurance plans typically don't cover. The net effect isn't better health outcomes for mom and baby, but rather a normalized sense of distrust many American women feel toward their OBGYNs, and the burden of going to every appointment and the delivery room on the defensive. Instead of being wed to dated medical practices and tangled in America's new motherhood industrial complex, shouldn't our doctors, of all people, be our biggest advocates?
As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I devoured Expecting Better, by Emily Oster, an economist who embarked on her own fact-finding mission during her first pregnancy, predicated on the belief that the advice OBGYNs have been giving pregnant women for decades is out of date and unnecessarily restrictive. The book includes controversial stances, like that having small amounts of alcohol while pregnant is OK. (More recent research has called this view into question.) Oster writes that for the vast majority of pregnant women, it's perfectly fine to lie on your back, do sit-ups, and eat Brie — all things I was relieved to learn I wouldn't have to give up for nine months, despite the traditional advice, which my doctor also gave to me.
Oster recommends hiring a doula, based both on research and personal experience. It's a worthwhile investment for those who can afford it: according to one study, 20.4 percent of laboring women with doulas had C-sections compared with 34.2 percent of women without them. A doula can do many things for a pregnant client, including helping her write a birth plan, massaging her back in labor, and cheering her on, which is especially useful for women who plan to labor without pain medication. Use of doulas is on the rise; according to DONA International, the world's largest and oldest doula association, the number of doulas who have been certified to date is over 12,000, up from 2,000 in 2002.
But the most significant role a doula plays is that of patient advocate in the hospital. This is a profound commentary on the way the medical establishment handles childbirth, a medical event that 86 percent of women aged 40 to 44 had gone through as of 2016. Recognizing the maternal mortality crisis in the U.S., where women are far more likely to die as a result of childbirth than anywhere else in the developed world and black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, a few states now allow Medicaid to cover doulas. Can you imagine feeling the need to hire an independent non-medical care provider to help you run interference with your doctors and nurses for something like an appendectomy?
I wouldn't have been aware of all the imminent interventions during my labor if my doula hadn't told me about them. Things happen fast in the hospital and doctors and nurses may rush patients to consent before proceeding with things like breaking their water or hooking them up to an IV of Pitocin. Only because my husband and I had spent six hours in birth class — a suggestion by my doula — did I realize that I was empowered to say "no" to such procedures.
Expecting more trustworthy advice to come from my doctor than books or Google or even a doula hardly seems unreasonable.
Of course, we all feel immense pressure to become good parents, and questioning conventional medical wisdom is a natural response to that pressure. "Looking around at the world and saying, who am I as a parent? What is important to me? Who are the wise people? What do I think wisdom is? What is a good decision? If you're a certain type of introspective person, if you're really asking those questions, that's going to include like taking a second look at things that doctors, for example, say," says Koyuki Smith, a doula and birth educator.
Expecting more trustworthy advice to come from my doctor than books or Google or even a doula hardly seems unreasonable. Yet my doctor's office seemed more concerned with checking off a list of boxes rather than providing me with personalized care that might have relieved my understandable anxiety about my first birth. When I still hadn't gone into labor around the time of my due date, my doctor encouraged me to be induced because my baby appeared to be large. I declined but scheduled an induction to "hold my spot" around the 42-week mark.
When I asked what medication would be used for an induction if I had one and she said Cytotec, I told her I had read that drug could cause serious complications, but she dismissed my concerns after I told her they stemmed from a book I read on natural childbirth. The FDA's page on Cytotec isn't exactly reassuring.
The nurse who took me in triage after I went into labor a week past my due date practically scolded me for waiting to go into labor naturally instead of opting for induction sooner. My doula told her while I was struggling to speak through labor pains to get off my case about it. I hadn't even become a mom and I was already doing so many things "wrong." Because I had done my own reading, I felt confident that my choices weren't harming my baby or me.
Becoming a mom would be less daunting if the medical community found a way to help women navigate the pressures of motherhood instead of adding to them. "Our culture at large doesn't support women enough in the complicated emotions that are a part of this process," said Alexandra Saks, a reproductive psychologist and author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions From Pregnancy to Motherhood. "I hope that every practitioner that works with women around reproductive health prioritizes her emotions around her experience."
For many of us, that will mean doctors who help us understand the pros and cons of conventional advice, don't use their offices as marketing channels, and don't pressure women into medically unnecessary inductions. Moms should also receive more attention after delivery both in the hospital and after they get home; a single, quick postpartum visit at six weeks is not an adequate way to care for women recovering from the trauma of childbirth, nor is it an adequate way to ensure women are emotionally supported during the transition. While several people interrogated me about my mental health at the hospital and my doctor's office just before and after birth, if I had been concerned about postpartum depression, I can't imagine feeling comfortable enough in those moments to tell strangers filling out obligatory worksheets.
It also means figuring out how to talk to patients who are prone to Googling their pregnancies with gusto every single day. It would be impossible for many women to shun independent research during pregnancy altogether. But it would also be nice if our doctors didn't add to our impulse to do it.
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."