You can read as many pregnancy books as your heart desires. You can take the prenatal classes that teach you how to take care of your body and “breathe through the labor” (best you can). You can listen to friendly advice of love and ignore the not so friendly, downright rude opinions of others. You do what you can to stay healthy for the baby and yourself because it’ll be beneficial; particularly during labor and delivery. Suddenly, it’s 9 months later and you’ve been handed a beautiful, tiny and occasionally (just kidding, it happens a lot) screaming baby. What a ride! But you’ve done your research; you’ve attended the classes, ate your vegetables (mostly) and you feel prepared. Terrified, but prepared to take on this baby. If it’s not your first “rodeo”, no problem, you’ve done this before!
Question: Are you truly prepared for when a doctor walks into the room and tells you that your perfectly healthy looking baby has a broken heart?
On the day my daughter Indiana was due, I was woken up from a sound sleep with “gas pains” at 4:00 am in the morning. The night before, I went on a date with my husband and tried out what ended up being delicious frozen yogurt from a local restaurant. As you may or may not know, frozen yogurt is loaded with gut magic aka probiotics and you can end up a little gassy afterwards. Under the impression my stomach was acting up, I was in and out of the bathroom practically all morning. The pain felt exactly as how I’d experience gas issues pains before and it did not even occur to me that labor had started.
[ My older daughter, Quinn, was born via cesarean and her labor/delivery was much different. Long story short, I did not have a spontaneous labor but an induction instead as I had been a week late and there was meconium in the amniotic fluid. I skipped over the part where you lose your mucus plug, water breaks and contractions that kick-start labor. Instead, after 26 hours and 5 minutes of pushing, I ended up having the cesarean because my daughter was stressing out in the womb. At 5:05 pm on January 30th, 2015, she was pulled out from my belly via surgical incision. Four years later, she is a healthy, happy and incredibly energetic 4-year-old big sister. Because of this, I did not have any sort of idea of what pre labor would feel like since I did not experience it the first time around. ]
Around 7:30 am, after numerous visits to the bathroom and no bowel movement, it was my Dad who spoke up first.
“Maybe you’re in labor,” he said matter of fact, tearing his eyes from his kindle to look at me.
I shrugged, hunched over the kitchen counter, “I don’t know, maybe. It just feels like I have to poop and I know this feeling. I feel like it.”
I watched as he shrugged his shoulders, pressing his lips together and giving me a look that said, “if that’s what you think” and went back to his reading.
My mom was getting ready for work, moving around me and putting together her morning coffee. She looked up at me, feeling me now focused on her and she signed, stirring in the creamer.
“Do you feel like you’re in labor?”
Again I shrugged, “I have no idea! I mean, maybe? I’ll call my midwife if it continues.”
And of course I can’t forget my husband Alex giving me eyeballs from across the room, as if the baby was just going to fall out of me right then and there.
“So am I going to work or staying here?” he asked, looking ready to throw me in the car and drive to the hospital immediately.
“Go to work,” I responded, waving him off, “I’ll let you know what the plan is if this continues.”
And that was that. Mom and Alex went to work, my Dad and my daughter Quinn went outside to decorate the “Easter Egg Tree” in the backyard. Myself, I bounced gently on my yoga ball texting my best friend and googling the word “contractions”.
I should have known something was up when our yellow lab, Justice, was following me from room to room. He is a sensitive dog who clearly knew what was up; I tend to watch him when he interacts with people, as he’s a good judge of character (seriously). He loves my husband so I knew Alex was a good guy when Justice met him for the first time 10 years ago. Justice obviously knew I was in labor as he continuously paced around me and kept nudging me with his nose periodically. I should add, Justice is a guard dog when it comes to Indiana. He treats her like a little puppy by giving her kisses and sitting right up against her chair, or the door of the room she is sleeping in. The true definition of “goo boy.”
A few hours passed, I decided finally that I must be in early labor and immediately called the doctor’s office. They told me to come in for an exam immediately so I called Alex and met with one of the midwives about 40 minutes later. She confirmed I was 3 cm dilated, water still unbroken and sent us to the hospital to get admitted. Technically they could have sent me home but because I was a previous cesarean, being 40 weeks pregnant and attempting a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean)… it was a safe bet to head to Newton-Wellesley right away.
23 hours in labor including 3 hours of pushing later, I successfully delivered Indiana Harper via VBAC at 3:54 am on April 17th with the help of an amazing team of midwives, nurses and my personal cheerleader, Alex. Indie and I met skin to skin, covered in all sorts of fluids; she personally greeted me by peeing AND pooping all over my stomach. Her first score on the APGAR scale was an 8, followed by a 9. An almost perfect score that matched our daughter Quinn four years ago. She had ten fingers, ten toes, a quiet cry and a full head of hair! That old wives tale about having a ton of heartburn meant hair on your baby? TOTALLY TRUE. At least for me.
I went through a textbook pregnancy, labor and delivery. I was pregnant for 40 weeks and a day. I went into spontaneous labor the morning she was due. I lost my mucus plug during labor, my water broke a few hours after and delivered vaginally with no episiotomy and one stitch for a “minor barely there tear”. I could not have asked for a smoother experience. And like I said, the team of medical personnel were AMAZING and my postpartum nurses fucking rocked (swearing for emphasis). I experienced post partum depression after delivering Quinn almost immediately and I was so pleased that this time around there was not an ounce of it within me. The feelings I felt after delivery I remember even thinking to myself “Wow, this is how it was supposed to feel before.” I was happy, relieved that I pulled off a VBAC and felt a sense of peace. My baby girl was here with us – safe and healthy as could be… right?
That afternoon when the resident pediatrician arrived, I was in mid diaper change with Indiana and my husband had gone to pick up Quinn to meet her new sister. He was aware of the pediatrician coming and I remember him saying, “If they offer to do the ultrasound, please tell them to do it.”
A few months prior, we found ourselves at Boston Children’s Hospital receiving a special ultrasound from a pediatric cardiologist. There was a finding of an enlarged aorta and a bright spot on her heart during a routine 20+ week ultrasound. Afterwards, the cardiologist reviewed this and told us there was absolutely nothing wrong as far as she could see. The aorta was a little enlarged which could mean it’s just been a genetic trait, like “having a big nose or freckles” and the baby would eventually grow into it. There were no other findings. We were given the option that after birth, Indiana could have a newborn ultrasound just to make sure everything was fine.
“I read in her chart that if you and your husband would like, she could have an echocardiogram just to check the aorta. Give yourselves some peace of mind that everything is okay.” The pediatrician said while examining Indiana.
“Yes, we’d like that please.” And it was scheduled later on that day.
The echocardiogram was done down the hall from us in the nursery so my husband and I took turns sitting and watching the echo being performed. It made us feel better sitting there… even if Indiana had no idea we were just outside the room, we were quietly watching. Funny enough, Indiana didn’t seem to bothered by it; she stayed still, very serene looking as they took pictures of her tiny heart. It took over an hour or so but soon after our little girl was wheeled back into our room. We were told the resident doctor would come in later to talk about any findings and left us be.
I remember thinking; “it’s all-good, no worries. “ incredibly confidant that there were no issues and that maybe she did grow into it. There was no reason to think otherwise, she looked as healthy as can be. She was, and still is, incredibly alert – quietly watching us with her big eyes, wondering how the hell did she go from a dark place of warmth to this bright cold room. Her skin was bright pink and she has the chubbiest cheeks, weighing in at 8 lbs 4 oz. And she slept! She actually slept! Our Quinn hasn’t slept in 4 years; my long running theory is because she does not want to miss out on anything. Indiana is beautiful and lovely and practically perfect in every way. How did we get so lucky?
A woman walked into our room a little while later… she was the resident doctor and I could tell something was off by the way she approached us. She smiled at us, almost hesitantly and her eyes were clearly showing a different emotion: dread. This woman was about to deliver us news we were not prepared to hear and she was choosing her words carefully. The doctor then explained to us that our perfectly healthy looking daughter has a congenial heart defect called a VSD, a ventricular septal defect. Simply put: there is a hole in her tiny heart.
As she spoke, my head instantly started reeling and my family history popped up in my head. There is a cardiac history of heart attacks, strokes and SVTs but nothing on a birth defect that I could think of. The next question that popped into my head was “What did I do wrong?” and started questioning my pregnancy. I ate much better than the first; I stayed active all the way up to delivery, gave up coffee (begrudgingly) and gained an acceptable amount of weight. How could this have happened?
I remember nodding my head listening and looking at my husband, who wore a furrowed brow and clenched jaw. She finished her spiel and studied our faces stating almost comically, “You guys are taking this very well considering.” Alex and I looked at each other, then back at her remarking that we hadn’t slept in two days and were probably too tired to react. What I wanted to say was “What is it you’d like us to do? Cry? How is that going to change things?” Of course I want to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to break anything I could get my hands on. It’s right there on the screen in black and white, clear as can be; our little Indiana has a hole in her heart.
The doctor apologized to us, the first of many we’d hear for the next few days, as our room became a revolving door of nurses and doctors. I found myself still feeling relatively calm regardless of the diagnosis. Holding our daughter, I still felt happy to be able to hold her close, to smell her and give her kisses as much as I wanted. With each medical personnel that came in for rounds, we waited with baited breath for what they would tell us next. Nothing else came about her diagnosis except for the scattered “I’m sorry”s and worried looks. They looked like they anticipated one of us to break down at any given moment and I’m sure were surprised when we didn’t.
The day continued into the night with sporadic exams on Indiana and myself. Passing time awaiting my timed medication because I too am a patient, not just the baby. My comfort levels resided on doses of Motrin, stool softeners and cranberry juice. I was in and out of the bathroom tending to my own traumatic wounds, all the while thinking about our baby’s little heart.
In a single moment, I went from conquering one challenge to two; not only would I be recovering for 6 weeks with various post partum bumps and bruises… but also being initiated into the heart parent community within a small window at the hospital. We’d be busy getting constant flows of information from various doctors and nurses. “Cardiology”, “surgery”, “doctors visits” “heart defects” will become regularly used topics in conversations.
I will find myself reading up on everything to know about pediatric cardiology and focusing on congenital heart defects. Recording times of how much Indie feeds, how many ounces consumed and for how long. My little family being thrust into a community I never imagined of joining… not in a million years.
But then again, does anyone?
Thank you for reading and I hope you’ll follow along as I invite you with us on Indiana’s journey as a heart warrior and my own as a new heart mom. This is just the beginning.
Keep your heart strong,