A Pulmonary Embolism Caused This New Mom to Die "Without Warning"

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A 29-year-old Louisiana mom died of a pulmonary embolism one day after she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and her partner says it happened “without warning.” Jean-Luc Montou recently announced on Facebook that his baby boy Julian was born and in the same post heartbreakingly revealed that his partner, Sarah Bertrand, “didn’t make it.”

Montou later shared on a GoFundMe page set up for his family that nearly 24 hours after giving birth, Bertrand “died due to a pulmonary embolism that stopped her heart instantly.” Montou says his partner was so happy to be a new mom. “I had never seen her so strong, so confident, and so joyful as when she held her new baby boy,” he wrote. “While she will be missed so much, I want to honor her memory by raising Julian to be the best man I can make him, but it will be so hard with her sudden loss.” He also noted that Sarah didn’t have life insurance so he’s “left with my daughter Jane and my brand new son Julian with nothing to help.” Montou wrote that the GoFundMe page was created to help pay for funeral expenses and raise money for his newborn son.

According to the Mayo Clinic , a pulmonary embolism is a blockage in one of the pulmonary arteries in your lungs. It’s usually caused by blood clots that travel to the lungs from a person’s legs. Bertrand’s story is tragic all around, but the “without warning” aspect is especially scary—and it’s not uncommon for pulmonary embolisms, Cynthia S. Shellhaas, M.D., M.P.H., a professor in the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at The Ohio State University Medical Center, tells SELF. “Unfortunately, there are no clinical signs or symptoms that are specific for pulmonary embolism,” she says. “Patients present along a wide spectrum ranging from no symptoms to shock and sudden death.”

Pregnancy increases a woman’s risk of venous thromboembolism, or blood clots , which then makes the risk of a woman experiencing a pulmonary embolism much higher than if she wasn’t pregnant or postpartum, Jessica Shepherd , M.D., an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of Minimally Invasive Gynecology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago, tells SELF. A woman is most at risk of a blood clot right after she gives birth, Jennifer Haythe, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, tells SELF. “The rates of venous thromboembolism are highest on the first week postpartum and steadily decline through week 12,” she says. Symptoms of venous thromboembolism include tender or painful areas in your leg (especially in your calf), swelling in the leg, and skin that is red or warm to the touch.

Some women are more at risk of developing blood clots than others, including those who are obese, are smokers, had high blood pressure in pregnancy, had a C-section, and are 35 or older, Shelhaas says. Lack of physical activity can also put women more at risk, Shepherd says, which is why new moms are often encouraged to get up and move around after they give birth. If a woman develops a blood clot and it’s detected in time, she’ll be given blood thinners to help break it up or even surgery, Haythe says.

Unfortunately, pulmonary embolisms during pregnancy or postpartum can be hard to detect. One major symptom of a pulmonary embolism, for example, is shortness of breath, but this is also a normal symptom of pregnancy, Sherry Ross , M.D., women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period. , tells SELF. Other symptoms include chest pain, cough, and sweating, as well as swelling in the legs—nothing that out of the ordinary for a woman who is experiencing many bodily changes during pregnancy. “The problem is that there is so much overlap with the clinical symptoms of pregnancy and pulmonary embolism,” Tim Smith, M.D., a UC Health cardiologist and assistant professor in the UC College of Medicine, tells SELF. “There’s often no way to get a clean diagnosis until it’s too late.”

Luckily, pulmonary embolisms are rare: The risk of having a pulmonary embolism is less than 0.001 percent, Shepherd says. Experts say new moms shouldn’t stress about their risk of having a pulmonary embolism, but they should be aware of the signs. “It’s always important to be aware that a postpartum pulmonary embolism can occur even if it’s is exceptionally rare,” Ross says. “For those women who have shortness of breath or chest pain following a delivery, it would be essential to bring it to the attention of your doctor—it could save your life.” Smith agrees: “We don’t want to make people paranoid—know that it’s very treatable if it’s recognized.” Bertrand’s tragic story has helped raise awareness about the condition, which her partner addressed in a recent Facebook post. “I am so overjoyed that Sarah’s become such a legend in the world,” Montou wrote . “Her sacrifice is being recognized all over the world.”

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