By Elin Neugebauer
Maija Jean was born on July 2, 2009, after an induction at 40 weeks and 3 days. She weighed 8 pounds, 4 ounces and scored an eight and nine on the Apgar test. It felt like a textbook pregnancy, labor, and delivery with a little Pitocin thrown in. After Maija’s birth I was filled with immense joy and love. Maija made me a mom. From that point forward, I would be a protector, a teacher and a friend.
A nurse took her measurements, weighed her and stamped her feet. I hear a murmur. Usually it is nothing. Don’t worry.
Our first night went smoothly. Bright and early the next morning, her pediatrician checked on her. I hear a murmur. Usually it is nothing, don’t worry. I’m going to schedule a heart ECHO just to make sure.
When the pediatric cardiologist came knocking on the door, I became concerned. This was no longer a textbook birth. I hear a murmur. Usually it is nothing, don’t worry. I am going to have your daughter admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) just to be sure. We’ll run another ECHO in the morning.
After the cardiologist left, I was discharged and my daughter was taken to the NICU. My saving grace was the graciousness the staff blessed upon me by letting me stay one more night as an “invisible patient.” The next morning after the ECHO we were sent home, together. Her discharge included strict instructions to come into the cardiologist’s office first thing in the morning for another ECHO. But I didn’t worry at the time. These things were usually nothing.
I could never have imagined experiencing the kind of emotional pain I felt just four days after giving birth. Numb from the waist down, bursting with love from the waist up. I had just given birth to my daughter. It was the most beautiful and intense moment of my life. I held her close and whispered my love and admiration for her. What I did not know upon the doctor placing her in my arms was that I also became a heart mom.
The murmur was pulmonary valve stenosis. Her lungs weren’t getting enough blood, and she needed surgery. That is when my whole world shifted.
I had skipped the chapters in pregnancy and baby books that covered any type of special need. After her diagnosis, my life changed. I became a stay-at-home mom armed with anti-bacterial lotion, wipes and sprays. Maija sat in a plush cart cover at the store. The job as protector took on a much greater meaning than I was expecting. I quickly became one of those helicopter moms.
Now, three-and-a-half years later, I am a proud heart mom. And the leash is a little bit looser. Maija is in preschool while I work outside the home, and she enjoys ballet classes throughout the week. We no longer use a cart cover.
Though her surgery at 5 days old to fix the restricted valve was a success, she now has significant pulmonary valve regurgitation. The flow of blood through her valve leaks back into her heart. A similar flow takes place in the hole between her atria. The right ventricular hypertrophy is still a concern. She will need surgery again someday, and even though I will hopefully know in advance, I’m still scared. The idea of your baby, no matter their age, going under anesthesia and having heart surgery is terrifying.
Congenital heart defects affect tens of thousands of babies every year. They are the most common birth defect. As a heart mom, I have a responsibility to share my story – my daughter’s story – with others. She participates in fundraising and awareness events with me, and I am endlessly reading and sharing news with my family and friends. As we enter Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week, I encourage others to share their stories as well. We can all help our heart babies, young and old, together.
On July 7, 2009, I handed over my baby to the surgeons. It was the single most terrifying moment I have experienced. Her life, and my heart, were in their hands. We now celebrate our Heart Day every year on July 7. We celebrate her life and her heart. A beautiful beating heart with a special extra whoosh to it.
Elin Neugebauer is a heart mom to 3-year-old Maija Jean. Elin works at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota as a Health Unit Coordinator and is actively engaged with the community on Twitter. Follow her here.