Thursday, February 7, 2019

CHD Awareness Week: My Heart Story (So Far)

Grandma Dorothy holding me at 5 months of age
In February, 1974 when my mom took me home from the hospital, she thought she had a perfectly healthy baby. But when her mom came for a visit five weeks later to see her granddaughter, she asked why my lips looked discolored. Grandma Dorothy also noticed I slept a lot, even for a newborn. Mom assured Grandma she would ask the doctor about it during my six-week checkup.

Mom took me to the same clinic in Wolf Point, Montana, where I had been born. She and Dad were living in a tiny town called Luster, where Dad worked as a ranch hand. My regular pediatrician was unavailable. A young doctor, fresh out of medical school, examined me instead. Dr. Mattley quickly agreed the bluish tint to my lips was disconcerting and because of it dubbed me a blue baby. “Her body isn’t getting enough oxygen, which is why her lips and fingernails are cyanotic,” he said.

He also detected a heart murmur. An X-ray confirmed a possible heart defect. Following the examination, Dr. Mattley called the clinic in Great Falls, which employed the closest pediatric cardiologist in Montana, 300 miles away.

At the age of three months, I had my first electrocardiogram. I also had a second set of X-rays. The cardiologist admitted to my parents that he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. “There’s nothing we can do at this time. We’ll just have to wait and see. She most likely will need to have heart surgery someday.”

There was no Internet or access to medical information for doing research. My parents had no other alternative than to believe I would survive long enough to have surgery.

When I was four months old, my parents moved back to their hometown in North Dakota. Mom heard about a pediatric cardiologist in Bismarck and my parents took me there in June.

Dr. Katrapu had ordered another round of X-rays, an electrocardiogram, and blood work. “It is possible she has a hole in her heart,” he told them. “This is common for babies. A simple surgery should take care of it.” He went on to explain that a diagnostic test called a heart catheterization would show any anomalies in my heart. “Unfortunately, we can’t do the test here in Bismarck. The closest place is the University of Minnesota Hospital in St. Paul.”

At six months old, I weighed only twelve pounds. My lips and fingernails were getting more cyanotic by the day. I slept most of the time. Drinking from my bottle completely wore me out. My appointment in Minnesota could not come fast enough.

In August, Mom and Dad loaded up their Ford Galaxy (with no air conditioning) to make the 600-mile trip to Minneapolis–Saint Paul. They set out from home on Grandpa Lawlar’s farm twenty miles north of Watford City to a place completely foreign to them. Dad drove down the highway and then on the Interstate with Mom sitting on the passenger side and me lying on a blanket between them, which was completely legal at the time. Not having me restrained in a car seat made it much easier to feed and change me during the twelve-hour drive. The biggest city they had ever visited was Fargo, where Dad had gone to college. They were completely overwhelmed by the size of the Twin Cities but somehow managed to find the hospital.

My parents met with four different doctors, including Dr. Bessinger, the pediatric cardiologist. Following the usual tests, a nurse carefully placed me on a large gurney, making me look much smaller than I was. In response to the panicked looks on my parents’ faces, the doctors assured them the routine heart catheterization would take only a couple of hours. They explained they needed to locate the hole so they could operate the next day. I had been gone for over three hours when Mom and Dad, stuck in the waiting room, started to get anxious. Finally, five hours after my parents had last seen me, Dr. Bessinger gave them the grim news.

He told them I did have a hole in my heart, but I also had much more going on than originally suspected. An exact diagnosis could not be determined. The doctor explained to my parents how a normal heart has four chambers but only three of mine were fully functioning. He also said I had some blockage to one of the main arteries attached to my right ventricle. I would need to have a shunt placed between my pulmonary artery and aorta, allowing more oxygen to flow through my body. Without the shunt, I would eventually suffocate to death. He warned my parents it would not be a permanent fix. As I grew older, I would have to get another one placed. My parents were informed that my particular heart defect was rare and the prognosis was uncertain. Even with the shunts, I might not live to see my twenties.

Following my surgery the next day, the doctor asked a nurse to take my parents to the Intensive Care Unit to see me. The surgeons had opened me up on the left side of my body. Along with several IVs, I had a tube down my throat and a big machine near my bed pumping oxygen into my body. As the machine pumped, they could see my little chest move up and down. Though tubes, lines, and bandages obscured much of my body, Mom did notice my lips were not as blue. Dad, completely unprepared for what I would look like, nearly passed out when he saw me. Fortunately, a nurse standing close by steadied his wavering body. As they stood over me, nurses came in to draw blood from my heel every ten minutes.

A couple of days later, the doctors discharged me from the ICU and moved me to the pediatric floor. Mom and Dad did not have enough money to stay in the Twin Cities during my entire hospital stay. They were forced to leave me in the hospital and make the long drive back home. The only thing connecting them to me was the daily long-distance phone calls to the nurses. The nurses always reassured my parents if anything ever changed someone would get in touch with them. Four weeks later, the one phone call they had been waiting for finally came.

Dad had just walked inside from milking cows. “They called and said we could come and get Cari,” Mom told him.

They dropped my brother off at Grandma and Grandpa’s, just down the road, and drove all night to be reunited with their baby. When they reached the hospital twelve hours later, they were relieved to see that I looked like a normal, healthy baby. My pinkish skin plus the weight I had gained nearly shocked Mom. “It’s hard to believe this is the same baby,” she quietly remarked to Dad.

They stood there for several minutes watching me kick my legs around in the crib, marveling at the amount of energy I had. Within hours I was discharged and Mom and Dad were back on the road bringing me home.

Celebrating my 45th Birthday with my daughter!
Four years after my first surgery, I had another one, and then at 10 my Fontan. In between surgeries I had been officially diagnosed with Double Outlet Right Ventricle (DORV). In 1999 at the age of 25, I had my fourth open heart surgery and 3 months later, a pacemaker implanted. 

I am beyond grateful for the wonderful medical care I have received through the years, and that despite what doctors said, I was able to have a child. My daughter, Faith is the most wonderful gift the Lord could have ever given me. 

I know my heart journey is far from over, as this spring I will most likely need to go to Mayo for a heart catheterization during which they will give me a Fontan "tune-up" and possibly another surgery to have my pacemaker completely replaced. After that, I'm not sure what the future will bring. What I do know is that through it all, God will be with me, just as he has been all these years.

By the way, my nephew, Preston is raising money for the American Heart Association. On his donation page he says, "I'm excited about raising money for other kids - kids with hearts that don't exactly work right and to help fund new medicines and treatments to be discovered." Research in the area of pediatric cardiology is helping the one in 100 babies born with CHD every year to live into adulthood and have a high quality of life!