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Your Financial Life
By Don Mitchell / Oct 4, 2016

Strong at Heart: A Young Mother’s Story

23022_tlpbdmp1016_10_4_don_profile_of_maria_luelan A few days after giving birth, most moms are at home bonding with their babies.

Transamerica’s Maria Lueken was battling for her life.

In 2008, nearly a week after her second daughter was born, Lueken was rushed to the hospital after collapsing during a gathering with family and friends.

She had suffered an aortic dissection, a life-threatening tear in the wall of her aorta, the major artery that carries blood from the heart.

She was only 27.

“It’s been a long journey,” Lueken said. “It’s not just about me. This is about the future of my children and grandchildren. This also affects my husband, because this is something we’ll have to think about the rest of our lives.”

Lueken, director of Contract Development and Filing at Transamerica, is thrilled the company formed a three-year partnership with the American Heart Association® (AHA), a leading funder of cardiovascular research.

Many don’t know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing nearly 615,000 Americans each year. Through this partnership, Transamerica intends to promote heart-healthy lifestyles and diet as keys to a healthy financial outlook.

Lueken served as a Transamerica team captain at the Heart Walk on September 11 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was the fourth straight year she’s participated in the event.

When Lueken thinks back to 2008, she hadn’t experienced many symptoms before her collapse.

“It was such a shock,” she said. “The week before my daughter was born, I had slightly elevated blood pressure. The doctor said I should consider getting induced, and the delivery was normal. Everything was fine, and then I went home.”

On the fourth day, Lueken noticed minor pressure in her chest and mentioned the symptom to a nurse during a home visit.

“She took vitals and didn’t see anything that looked crazy,” Lueken said.

A day later, Lueken experienced light pain in her back, but that wasn’t unusual. She had felt similar symptoms after her first child was born.

Lueken was preparing to play host to friends on day six when she noticed some light jaw pain. She told her mom she was going to take a nap. When she woke, Lueken fed her newborn, Reegan, and sat on the floor with friends to open a gift they brought.

“I wasn’t able to concentrate,” Lueken said. “All the sudden, I blacked out. I was having a seizure when I came to.”

An emergency CT scan at Cedar Rapids hospital revealed the aortic dissection. From there she was rushed to the University of Iowa Hospital, one of two facilities in the state that could handle her case.

“The sooner you address the issue, the higher the likelihood of survival,” she said. “They got me down there quickly. It was a true emergency surgery.”

Six hours later, her aorta was repaired.

“It took me nearly one-and-a-half days to wake up from the surgery,” Lueken said.

Throughout her six-week recovery, Lueken was restricted on how much weight she could lift, making it a challenge to take care of her baby.

“From a motherly perspective, one of the most emotional things for me was not being able to lift my own baby up,” Lueken said. “I was fortunate to have a mother and mother-in-law that helped.”

She was also fortunate to work for a company like Transamerica.

“My boss at the time was very supportive,” Lueken said. “It was at a time when working from home wasn’t that prevalent. They let me ease back into work.”

Lueken is not the only member of her family who works for Transamerica and Aegon. Her husband, Ben, works in Aegon Global Technology, and her brother-in-law, Josh Lueken, works in Finance Investment Reporting.

While thankful to be back at work, one thing still bothered Lueken: She wanted to know why she developed heart disease.

She ate right, exercised, and took good care of herself. And she was only 27.

Lueken received an answer a few years later when a cousin on her mother’s side survived an aortic dissection while still carrying her baby.

The family visited the genetic department at the University of Iowa and learned a genetic disorder caused the dissections.

Lueken said her mother and grandmother carry the gene, and so do both her daughters.

She will need to take medication to control her blood pressure the rest of her life, and she will inevitably need to undergo more heart procedures later. Lueken also said there’s hope her daughters won’t have to endure a similar hardship.

Despite all they’ve been through, the family has discovered a silver lining in the experience.

“It has changed our perspective and approach to our financial planning, because we have to be realistic and realize our medical bills will likely be higher than average.

“That’s one advantage we have is that we’re already aware and cognizant that we need to plan for those expenses,” Lueken said. “All of us should be thinking about that so that we can set ourselves up for financial success.”

Lueken encourages people to educate themselves about the basic warning signs of heart disease – which can be found at heart.org.

“I think the first step is for people to stop and recognize this could happen to them, and for most of us, unfortunately, it will,” she said. “But we can fix it, and that’s what we’re setting out to do.”

That’s why Lueken has been doing her part to spread awareness at the Heart Walk.

“It’s a great event,” she said. “It’s a way to help loved ones who have heart disease, and to help support the Heart Association. Maybe I’m a little biased, knowing heart disease is the No. 1 killer.”

Now 35, Lueken is proud about how she’s bounced back from her ordeal. She is happily married and enjoys spending time with her 12- and 8-year-old girls.

“To think I was recovering from a baby and heart disease – looking back, it’s a lot of personal, physical, and emotional strength,” she said. “But I did it, and it reminds me how strong a person I am.”

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