“STOP, I can’t breathe! NO! I can’t lay down! PLEASE, don’t make me lay down, I can’t do this right now!” This is what I wanted to forget about my firstborn’s birth story. But the picture of a young Asian-American man in a mint green suit (scrubs) forcing me to lie down on a cold metal table to get an image of my chest was something I could never forget. Welcome to the BEST and WORST day of my life.
I have a non-congenital heart defect, which means my heart has a defect that I wasn’t born with. When I was 13, I had strep throat that was undetected and untreated which led to rheumatic heart fever. According to the CDC:
“Rheumatic fever is a disease that can affect the heart, joints, brain, and skin. Rheumatic fever can develop if strep throat and scarlet fever infections are not treated properly. Early diagnosis of these infections and treatment with antibiotics are key to preventing rheumatic fever.”
As my first year as a teen, graduating from elementary school and heading into this big brand new junior high school, I thought it would be the best teen year of my life. New friends, old friends, and a great year, but to my surprise I started not eating and lost a lot of weight. I got sick and just kept on going with my teen life.
Then at one routine well-checkup, my doctors had detected something that was just not right: a heart murmur (a whooshing sound in the heart caused by uneven blood flow between valves). The heart murmur affected my mitral valve and caused my heart to pump and work harder and faster, and even enlarge.
As a teenager, I just wanted to be normal and do what the other kids did. But I ended up hospitalized and not really understanding why. I was hospitalized for a long time, which felt like forever in teen years. The hospital diagnosed me with mitral valve regurgitation which is, according to the Mayo Clinic:
“Mitral valve regurgitation — also called mitral regurgitation, mitral insufficiency or mitral incompetence — is a condition in which your heart’s mitral valve doesn’t close tightly, allowing blood to flow backward in your heart. If the mitral valve regurgitation is significant, blood can’t move through your heart or to the rest of your body as efficiently, making you feel tired or out of breath.”
The severity of my condition had the doctors preparing me for open heart surgery to replace the valve right away, but my body was not prepared. I kept getting a fever, and they could not operate unless I was cleared of being sick. This was an undercover blessing in disguise.
Another Blessing in Disguise
It was imperative for me to gain weight as well as be 100% free from a fever to have the surgeon repair the “hole in my heart.” A doctor had told my parents I would not be able to have children. I remember my parents arguing with the doctors and staff about my situation, and they made the best decision and moved me to a different hospital system. This was another blessing in disguise.
At this new hospital, I remember feeling more at ease, comforted, and cared for. Instead of a burden or another person to fix, I actually felt like these wonderful nurses, doctors, and all the staff workers wanted to see me get better. And I did!
I started to gain weight and my mitral valve regurgitation seemed like it was getting better to where I didn’t need surgery at all. I was homeschooled for a bit and still longed to be like all the other girls in my school. But I knew I wasn’t. Time, support, and the right hospital system are what helped me get to where I needed to be.
High school was where I finally felt normal. My rheumatic heart fever dissipated, and the mitral valve regurgitation was mild. I ended up going back to dancing and singing and joined the show choir my first two years of high school and then joined the dance team my last two years. This was a miracle in my family’s eyes! My parents prayed that this would happen, and God listened.
Pregnant in NYC
Detroit Mom readers, always get a second opinion and never give up. Doctors said I wouldn’t be able to have children, but let’s fast forward a bit to the birth story of my firstborn. My husband and I resided in New York City during our mid-20’s and my pregnancy was monitored carefully with monthly checkups.
Being pregnant for the first time and commuting by train and bus every day was such a different lifestyle than it is here in the suburbs of Detroit. I definitely got my perfect share of exercise, which is good for any pregnant woman and especially for a pregnant lady with a heart defect–to make sure that my heart was strong for both of us.
Then my water broke three weeks before my due date. We called a cab and headed into the city. Everything during my labor was going fine, until I started to have shortness of breath. The nursing staff gave me oxygen, but it just wasn’t helping. On top of that, I wasn’t dilating, and the doctors had concerns with me pushing.
It was 22 hours of this waiting period until the night doctor ordered that I get an emergency c-section. I just remember them rushing me down the hall, and my husband staying calm to make sure I was calm. All that mattered to me was that my firstborn was healthy!
During a c-section, they give you fluids because you lose so much. But for someone who has a heart defect, an overflow of fluids is an issue. With my heart history, the staff had to make sure I wasn’t being overloaded with too many fluids. Being scared and feeling alone, I needed to focus on my strong husband and soon-to-be strong baby boy.
South is Not Where We Wanted to Be
He was born July 21, 2008, at 12:59 a.m. He was a perfect mixture of my husband and me. I remember the staff showing me this little thing that I couldn’t believe was ours! This was the perfect family. Then everything went south when the staff kept the IV going. I ended up having an overflow of fluids which caused my heart to enlarge, my mitral valve regurgitation became severe, and I had pulmonary edema (water in the lungs).
The radiologist wanted me to lie down to get chest x-rays, but it felt like I was drowning. In my mind again was how I just wanted to see my new baby. I wanted to be the mom who would naturally breastfeed, but this wasn’t going to happen. Everyone was telling me it would be alright; he would be just fine.
I ended up having Acute Congestive Heart Failure because they had not balanced the fluid going in with the fluid going out. I was in the ICU and was not able to see my son for the first week! You have been carrying your baby for nine months and now you aren’t able to hold him, touch him, and feed him for six days. This was torture.
It felt like I was in this glass bubble room and all I could think about was my baby. I knew I had to be strong for my new family. Living was the one and only option for this new mom! With the support of my New York City family, my Detroit family, and the medical support I had, I did get better. Not 100%, but enough to where we both got to go home.
After the Birth Story–Towards a Healthy Future
Home is wherever family is, and Detroit is where they are. At six weeks old, my healthy baby boy, my older sister, and I were on a flight back to our hometown. My husband packed our tiny NYC apartment in a truck and drove it out west. Our families were so happy to welcome our new little family of three!
Thirteen years later, I see a cardiologist for a healthy, happy heart and lifestyle. I now have two beautiful, healthy boys. My husband became a nurse because of this experience, and my family is still my strongest support system.
February is American Heart Month. Let’s challenge ourselves this month and every month to keep our hearts healthy and happy. We are strong Detroit moms who can raise strong healthy children. What will you do to keep your heart and your little one’s hearts healthy?