When Wendy Baruchowitz moved to Rye in 2010, after stints in Manhattan and Hoboken, her future seemed bright. She and her husband Mitch, an investment banker/lawyer, had a 5-year-old son, Braden.
By Denise Woodin
When Wendy Baruchowitz moved to Rye in 2010, after stints in Manhattan and Hoboken, her future seemed bright. She and her husband Mitch, an investment banker/lawyer, had a 5-year-old son, Braden. Wendy was working at an ad agency and just settling into her new home when she became pregnant.
But from the beginning, the pregnancy felt off, Wendy recalled during a recent conversation at the Rye Y. And when she started having contractions at 15 weeks, her doctor ordered her to bed for the duration of the pregnancy.
Wendy followed doctor’s orders, until she couldn’t any longer. One week before her delivery date she stood up. All of her muscles had atrophied. Even more alarming, her heart rate shot up. She felt her blood pool down to the baby and to her feet. She was so light-headed she had to sit down again. When the symptoms didn’t go away, Wendy turned to the Internet, where she learned about POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), a disorder of the body’s autonomic system. With POTS, functions that most people take for granted — the steady rhythm of the heart pumping blood, the flow of air in and out of lungs, the body’s ability to stay cool or warm — become de-regulated, off on their own agendas.
“I kept telling my family, I kept telling my obstetrician, my internist: ‘I think I have POTS.’ But they assured me that ‘everything would resolve itself’ once I had the baby.”
In June 2011, Wendy gave birth to a healthy boy, Blake, but her health went from bad to worse. “I literally became debilitated overnight. My heart rate, just from moving, would race up to 150-160. I couldn’t sleep. I was incontinent. I was spontaneously vomiting. I was crawling instead of walking because every time I tried to stand up, I felt dizzy.” Wendy paused. “And I had a newborn whom I couldn’t hold.”
Wendy began making the rounds — to cardiologists, neurologists, and psychiatrists. No one had heard of POTS, and those doctors who researched it told her that it was more common in teenagers due to their changing hormones. She was told it was post-partum and that it would pass. She was given anti-anxiety medications. “I was made to feel like I was crazy.” And each day, just getting out of bed, changing Blake’s diaper, showering, even swallowing food, became increasingly difficult.
“It was the worst time of my life,” Wendy recalled. “I was all alone. Everyone, even friends and family, was saying that I was crazy.
Mitch was supportive, but conflicted. The doctors were saying one thing and his wife another. He was scared for Wendy and as supportive as he could be, but he had to return to work. “I think for a while he was in denial and couldn’t grasp what was happening because none of the doctors were validating it,” Wendy reflected.
In September 2011, Wendy finally found the answers she was looking for when a cardiologist in New Jersey diagnosed her with POTS. And he gave her advice that would start to turn her life around: “Exercise like you’ve never exercised before” Drink as much fluid as you can during the day and increase your salt intake.” He recommended that she start in the pool.
“I was one of those people who would sit on the couch and eat an entire box of chocolate chip cookies,” Wendy admitted. “Before I had Blake, I never exercised.”
So, she joined the Rye Y and started swimming. At first, she could barely complete one lap. And the logistics of her new regimen were daunting. “Getting dressed, getting myself downstairs, into the car, parking, walking from the car to the entrance to the locker room, getting into the pool, showering afterward… by the time I got home, I was already back in bed.”
But she went every day — in rain, snow, on weekends and holidays. On the rare times the Y was closed, Wendy swam at New York Sports Club. On Christmas, she called the Marriot in Port Chester and told their staff that she had a medical condition and needed to swim. They let her use the hotel pool. Wendy started working with Y swim instructor Sheila Viger who attended a seminar to learn about the best exercise for people with heart conditions. After three years, Wendy had worked up to 30 minutes in the water.
But she still couldn’t stand for long. Then Wendy learned about a Toledo-based POTS specialist, reputedly the top in his field. She added her name to the doctor’s yearlong waiting list and, in October 2013, Wendy and her mother-in-law boarded a plane for Ohio. The trip changed everything.
“He told me about different medications,” Wendy said. “He said that swimming is great, but I also needed to do more cardiovascular and more orthostatic, or upright, exercise.”
When she returned to the Y, Wendy walked into the fitness center. “I was so intimidated. I told Laura Laura, [the Y’s Member Wellness Coordinator] ‘I have a medical condition. I might pass out. Can you just watch me on the treadmill?’” She walked for one minute and called it a day.
Today, Wendy runs two miles. She works out with Rye Y trainer Peter Lopez. On her off days, she takes yoga classes, bikes, and walks five miles a day. “I started to train my autonomic system to pump blood back up to my heart,” she explained.
“Exercise gave me my life back,” she said. “I’m not saying that I’m 100 percent perfect. I still have my bad days, but I feel I’m back to functioning like a normal person.”
She credits the Rye Y for her return to health. “It’s because of this place and the support they’ve given me,” she said. “Every single person I’ve come in contact with has reached out and helped. I’ll never leave this place — ever.”
When Wendy first told her story to the Y staff, she held her struggles close. “I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me,” she noted. “I didn’t want to be viewed as this sick, pathetic person.” She added, “In the beginning, I tried to hide it from Braden, my older son. Slowly, I started to talk to him. I wanted to show him a person could have a disability but fight it and lead a happy life.”
As she continues her journey to recovery, Wendy wants to spread awareness about POTS and ensure that other women don’t have to struggle as she did. “Over one million people in the United States are known to have POTS. It’s more common than Parkinson’s or M.S,” she reports.
Wendy is busy organizing a one-mile walk/run to benefit Dysautonomia International, a non-profit organization working to find a cure for POTS and other autonomic disorders. The POTS Take a Stand Walk/Run will be held at Rye Recreation Sunday, October 4 at 9:30 a.m.
The author is Director of Community Impact and Social Responsibility at the Rye YMCA.