The Heart of the Matter

I’ve never taken an anatomy course. English teachers don’t need that. I can diagram a sentence, but I cannot dissect the human body. I mean, I know my basic bodily systems and where major organs are located (...I think...), but ask me to distinguish between the heart’s right atrium and right ventricle and I’ll change the subject real fast. Because I know those things are there but exactly where and what they do besides just ‘make the heart work’...?? I have no idea.

Well, had no idea. Until Lydie was born.

According to one book I read, about 40-60% of people with Down syndrome have heart defects. Whatever the exact statistic is—it’s high. So checking out Lydia’s heart was one of the first things the doctors did. They couldn’t hear any murmur, and our first x-ray looked good. In all the prenatal ultrasounds with MFM, her heart looked perfectly healthy. It wasn’t until we got our first echocardiogram that we learned that Lydia does indeed have heart defects. Four of them.

First echocardiogram, five days old

First echocardiogram, five days old

When you’re in the NICU (at least in ours) and they run big tests like that it goes like this: tech comes and conducts echo on child. Tech forwards test images to off-sight cardiologist. Tech speaks with cardiologist and asks if more images are needed. Tech leaves. Cardiologist reviews images that day or maybe the next. Cardiologist sends report to hospital which is reviewed by the visiting pediatrician who then conveys the information to the parents. This is all to say we 1) had to wait for the results and 2) got the results through a pediatrician reporting the cardiologist’s findings. Which makes it hard to ask questions and get detailed answers.

Dan wasn’t there when the pediatrician came to tell me the results of the echo. Wish he had been, since Dan HAS taken anatomy and probably could have explained it all to me. As it was, the soft-spoken pediatrician gently wrote down a list of conditions they had found, and when I looked confused drew a diagram for me. I recognized a few terms: “bicuspid valve” and “defect” being the primary ones. I knew what we were talking about was a big deal, but the pediatrician also said things like, “shouldn’t cause an immediate problem,” and “could fix itself over time.” So in my naïveté, I wasn’t as concerned initially as I perhaps should have been. Plus we were literally on our way out the door to have Lydia’s pictures taken for the hospital (more on that later), and I was running on the classic new mom quota of zero sleep, so my mind was a scattered mess. I’ve learned that it takes my uneducated self a couple exposures to medical information before I GET it. I’ve also learned to ask a lot of questions, take notes, and google the heck out of medical terms.

Anyway. With three echos, an EKG, an x-ray and a dozen exams in the books, this is what we know. Lydia has a bicuspid aortic valve, a VSD (hole between two ventricles), an ASD (hole between two atria), and an open PDA (tube that should have closed right after birth). She will need open heart surgery, and we are planning on that occurring sometime this summer.

It is a major blow and continues to be an enormous source of stress for me. Once again this is not the way things were supposed to go and is something you would never want your child to have to face, but here we are.

Having said that, the surgical procedures that they will perform on her are very common and straightforward, and we have access to an outstanding children’s hospital and surgeons, for which I am grateful.

It’s just open heart surgery. On my baby.

I wish I could leave you with a peppy, optimistic view of the thing, but it all weighs pretty heavily sometimes. Not all blogs have to have a moral, right? Especially the kind of blog that is unfolding in real time as you learn to deal with life and that you write so people can know what you’re going through but you don’t have to experience the pain of explaining it a million times?

Having said that, the prognosis is quite positive and the doctors tell me that once she has the surgery, she will likely lead a normal, active life. Her heart condition does affect a number of things right now—primarily energy levels and her ability to eat/gain weight, but we’re working through it. I will be glad once we have the procedure done and it can help her.

The last two months have tested me beyond anything I ever imagined. Things I never considered happening in my life plan are now realities. I’m not a natural crier, but I tear up more than usual. I eat ridiculous amounts of dark chocolate. I pray, I study, I call my mom, I avoid awkward conversations with strangers (and sometimes anyone), and I crash in bed at night. Sometimes there is so much to feel that I just don’t feel anything.

But I also sit and hold my baby and stroke her soft head and force feed her a million times a day so she can gain weight and just try to take it one day at a time and be grateful that we have her. Because she’s the sweetest, her smile is adorable, and her snuggles fill my heart. Sometimes when she’s sleeping I stare at her long eyelashes, analyze the red tint to her hair, or just listen to her breathe. In those moments I do feel. In those moments there’s joy and even peace.