“‘She’s not asleep yet,’ I heard as I lay flat on an operating table, struggling for air and feeling as if I were drowning in my own lungs. There was a sense of urgency in the room as a needle dug into my arm and an oxygen mask was placed over my mouth. My world gradually drifted to darkness. Two days later I awoke in the ICU, fumbling upon what had transpired over the last 48 hours. The birth of our first child was not at all what we had anticipated.
At the age of 27, I felt like everything was going according to plan. I had so many of the things I had been working toward for a long time. A great husband, a successful career, a home all our own, and now our first baby on the way. My pregnancy seemed to be moving along well, and my husband David and I were excitedly starting to plan for bringing our new baby home. But, at the start of my third trimester, things took a drastic turn.
For almost 3 weeks I battled a variety of symptoms, including on-and-off fever and chills, and later, a racing heart rate. I was treated with a course of antibiotics during this time with a brief week of relief, but symptoms relentlessly returned. Eventually, against my stubborn nature, David convinced me to go to the emergency room.
Numerous tests were completed, initially not showing a cause for my symptoms. Just as I began worrying I was overreacting, I found myself in a room with a cardiologist. I was diagnosed with endocarditis; an infection in one of the main valves of my heart. It was an answer I never expected. I was admitted to the hospital overnight to start high dose IV antibiotics and monitor things closely.
The following morning, I was briefly sedated to complete further testing of my heart. I woke up feeling quite groggy, but sharpened quickly as the words poured from the cardiologist’s mouth. At 31 weeks pregnant, I was being transferred to a larger hospital to have my heart valve replaced. The infection destroyed my aortic heart valve and surgery was no longer just a question, but an answer.
Upon arrival at the next hospital, we were greeted by a revolving door of medical specialists ready to discuss the best plan of care for myself and our baby. David and I were initially somewhat guarded to the magnitude of my condition. Reality sunk in when surgery was scheduled for early the following morning without the option to prolong it any further. The plan was to deliver our baby nine weeks early via cesarean section, followed by open heart surgery to replace my struggling heart valve.
The night before surgery, my condition rapidly deteriorated. I was moved to the ICU with close monitoring. They placed me on oxygen, but my breathing labored with any movement. My heart was starting to fail and my lungs were filling up with fluid. It was those last hours before surgery I truly understood how sick I was. I have seen and cared for illness in others, but it can be hard to see it in yourself. Despite how stoic I tried to remain, I could feel I was starting to lose the fight. By the following morning, I was tired, struggling, and full of emotions. While waiting to be taken to surgery, a nurse looked at me and said, ‘It’s not your fault.’ Somehow she knew that was exactly what I needed to hear.
Nurses wheeled me into the cold, brightly lit operating room. My body felt heavy, as if weighed down by illness. I could not find the energy to move myself from the cot onto the operating table and needed assistance. A needle went into my arm while I fought the oxygen mask over my face, feeling like I was suffocating. Panic set in as I drifted to sleep.
Carson James was born via c-section on Monday, February 12th, 2018 at 8:50 a.m., weighing 3 pounds 12 ounces and measuring 16 inches long. He was stabilized and brought to meet his dad in the waiting room, who accompanied him on his arrival to the NICU. As his mother, I will forever feel a void by not having any memory of his birth or getting to be the first one to look into his eyes. I was not even able to meet him on his birthday, but the pride in David’s voice when he talks about the moment he saw Carson fills my heart.
After Carson was delivered, focus was shifted to repairing my heart. Unfortunately, the strain had already been too much. I went into cardiac arrest following the delivery of Carson and CPR was started. Multiple attempts to shock my heart were unsuccessful. After 58 minutes of intense efforts by all in the operating room, I was successfully placed on ECMO, a form of life support. My aortic valve was then able to be replaced, but my fate was unknown at that point. The day David became a dad was also the day he was faced with the fear of losing his wife. I often think about the moment my parents and husband sat in a small room with the surgeon, discussing the complications of surgery and instability of my condition. It overwhelms me with sadness and guilt, imagining the emotional storm they must have endured. But, I also find feelings of gratitude. I know the odds were stacked against me, yet here I am, telling this story.
Hours after my heart stopped beating, I started responding to commands and showing signs of cardiac activity. I remained sedated for the following two days to give my heart some time to heal. It was on Wednesday, February 14th, that the breathing tube was removed from my mouth. I awoke in a bed surrounded by tubes, wires, beeping machines and a picture of our baby. My parents were the first to greet me that morning. I struggled to get my first words out, but eventually said, ‘Did it not go well?’ They just smiled and told me everything was fine. David soon followed into my room, greeting me with a large grin and a blue bear to tell me we had a boy. I asked him what day it was and he said, ‘Wednesday.’ I simply replied, ‘Happy Valentine’s Day.’
When I awoke that day in the ICU, I entered a state of shock as I gradually grasped onto what had happened to me. A nurse explained to me what had occured over the last few days and all I could respond was ‘most people don’t survive that.’ Throughout that day, a large team of doctors, nurses and other care providers came in and out of my hospital room, wanting to see for themselves that I really was awake.
Carson was five days old when I was stable enough to go to the NICU to meet him. He was still on a respirator due to having a collapsed lung, so I had to wait a few more days to hold him. I really struggled with not having a birthing experience with an ounce of normalcy. It was hard to have other people tell me about my own baby, without having looked into his eyes myself. However, after I was finally able to meet him and touch his sweet face, it all felt real. The pain, suffering, and excruciating healing process became purposeful. I was discharged from the hospital after 10 days, though I felt like a walking zombie for weeks. We made daily hospital trips during Carson’s 34 day NICU stay. The feeling of finally getting to bring him home and be together as a family of three was indescribable.
Life is defined by the choices we make. We did not choose for this to happen to us, but we do get to choose how to move forward. Our current days are filled with gratitude, though it did take time to get to that point. I am so fortunate to have made a full recovery and to have an energetic, happy two year old to chase after, but I also felt angry at the world for quite awhile. Sometimes life just feels unfair when bad things happen that we did not ask for, but I am learning to not let those types of thoughts overwhelm me.
My body is now full of scars and battle wounds that provide a daily reminder of my previous wars. I have chosen to keep on fighting and remember that nothing in life is a guarantee. We are also so very fortunate to have had access to advanced healthcare and an amazing, skilled medical team with compassionate hearts. They have inspired me in caring for my own patients as I have returned to my work as a physician assistant. Most importantly, without the ongoing love and support from our family and friends, we would not be where we are today. Life is so very short. Show the people in your life you love them and enjoy your days.
Valentine’s Day now has a new meaning in our house. It is a day to remind us of the power of love. I thought I understood love prior to this, but I don’t know that I really did. Love is endless and relentless. Love is getting down on your knees and praying for miracles. Love is having that one person walk into your hospital room and lifting the fear and pain away for a few moments. Love is helping your wife do everything she used to do independently, reassuring her that someday she will be able to do things on her own again. Love is seeing pieces of each other in your child as you watch them grow. Love is wiping away each other’s tears, remembering together that the future is bright, despite the dark shadows of the past. Love is real.”
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