Duke High-Risk Pregnancy Experts Help Heart Transplant Recipient Have a Safe Pregnancy and Healthy Baby

By Esther L Ellis
January 29, 2024
Brianna Ellington walking with her partner and son

Brianna Ellington had a stroke on her 18th birthday, only months after the birth of her second child. Three months later she had a heart transplant at Duke University Hospital. When she discovered she was pregnant with her third child, Ellington turned to the high-risk pregnancy experts at Duke Health for help. They worked with Ellington throughout her pregnancy to ensure she and her baby were safe. “They were there for every move,” Ellington said. “They made me feel confident in myself.”

An Unwelcomed Birthday Surprise

Ellington’s stroke was a complete shock because she appeared to be in good health -- she’d recently given birth to her second child and nothing seemed unusual. After extensive tests, doctors determined that Ellington’s heart muscles had weakened so badly during her second pregnancy that she needed a new heart as soon as possible. She underwent a heart transplant at Duke University Hospital after being bedridden in the hospital for three months.

Learn more about Ellington's story and how the Duke Pregnancy Heart Center takes care of high risk patients. 

Pregnancy After Heart Transplant

When Ellington found out she was pregnant with her third child three years later, she worried about the possible complications and sought help at the Duke Pregnancy Heart Center. Maternal fetal medicine specialist Jeff Federspiel, MD, explained the risks. “We talk about, what is it like to be pregnant when you’ve had a stroke, when you’ve had heart failure, and a heart transplant,” said Dr. Federspiel.

Heart transplant recipients are at high risk for heart complications during pregnancy. Ellington’s history of stroke made the risk of birth complications for her and her baby even higher. Dr. Federspiel assured Ellington that whether or not she moved forward with the pregnancy, she would have support. “He told me he was going to be by my side the whole way,” she said. “He made me feel really safe when I was scared.”

Receiving care at the Duke Pregnancy Heart Center meant Ellington had a team of specialists trained in high-risk obstetrics, cardiology, and anesthesiology working together to support her. “The Pregnancy Heart Center allows us to see high-risk women with heart conditions in one place, to care for them,” said cardiologist Cary Ward, MD. Throughout her pregnancy, Ellington routinely met with specialists who adjusted her medications, answered her questions, and monitored her and her unborn baby.

Complications Lead to an Early Delivery

At 33 weeks pregnant, Ellington was admitted to Duke University Hospital with preeclampsia, a condition characterized by dangerously high blood pressure. A week later, doctors delivered her baby, Landon, by cesarean section after monitoring detected he was in distress. “The scariest part of the whole pregnancy was the delivery,” said Ellington. Following his birth, Landon was transferred to Duke Regional Hospital where he spent a week in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Ellington was healthy enough to go home within days of her delivery. 

Happy and Healthy a Year Later

More than a year later, Ellington and her son are happy and healthy, and Ellington said she is grateful she had a resource like the Duke Pregnancy Heart Center. “What I would say to another woman experiencing what I went through is to not to give up and to trust Duke,” said Ellington. “Duke really took care of me.”

Learn More About
Heart Disease in Pregnancy