This is the final installment of my mini-series “Welcome to Motherhood.” Miss the beginning? Start here.
Every 1-2 hours, Betsy visited our group to give us an update. Each time I spotted her smile beaming out from under her surgical garb, I drew a little courage. Her first words were usually, “Elli is doing well,” then a specific report such as successfully starting her on the heart-lung bypass machine, repairing the aorta, and inserting a patch to repair the hole in her heart. Late in the evening, she emerged to say that they were chilling Elli’s body and preparing to stop her heart. This was the most risky part of the very-risky surgery.
“Once we stop her heart, the surgeon has 90 minutes to do the repair and get her warmed back up before the risks of brain damage become too great,” she explained.
We drew into a tight circle, gripped hands, and prayed. I returned to my fetal position in the corner of a chair, hugging my knees to my chest and barely breathing as I watched the clock. The waiting room was quiet, mostly empty except for our group, when she returned.
Her voice was quiet and her face serious. “If you haven’t been praying before, now is the time to start. They are warming her back up and we need her heart to start beating again.”
My own heart pounded as if I could somehow partner with Elli’s to make it go. Others voiced prayers that I could not. The only words I could think were, “God, help.” I tried not to think about what would happen if her heart didn’t restart, if we didn’t get a happy ending.
Half an hour ticked by, then an hour. Finally the door opened, and Betsy emerged.
She was smiling.
“Her heart is beating,” she announced, and I heard everyone exhale.
“Her heart muscle was very stiff and took a long time to start contracting, longer to beat in regular rhythm, but it is now. We have a few more things to do, and then the surgeon will come out and talk to you.”
Blood thundered a roar of relief in my ears, and I sank into my chair, exhausted. Who knew waiting and wondered took so much out of you?
Soon after, Dr. Pearl emerged. He looked like he’d done a full of day of surgery. I could still see the imprint of magnifying eyewear on his forehead. He scanned the circle and said, “Betsy told me you had a large group. She wasn’t kidding! I think I have stage fright.”
He walked over to Scott and I, and everyone crowded around to hear.
“We repaired everything but her valve. We decided that we’d pushed her far enough and needed to wait to do the valve another time. Her heart took some time to start beating again after we warmed her back up, and we had to give her a lot of medicine to encourage that muscle to squeeze. She lost a lot of blood, despite all the blood we transfused in surgery, so she’ll need more once we move her back to the CICU. It will be at least another hour before we move her, and at least another hour after that before you can see her. Prepare yourselves. We got through a big hurdle today, but this next 24 hours is just as big.”
We said thank you, but it didn’t seem like enough. How do you thank the man who just spent ten hours trying to fix your daughter’s heart? I understood why so many families seemed to worship their children’s surgeons.
Our entire group hugged and cried. Scott and I told them what we had kept to ourselves before – that the surgeon had given Elli a 20% chance of making it through that surgery. We prayed one last time, thanking God that we got through the day and asking for strength for the team caring for Elli through the night. Our friends and family gathered up their things to head for home, while Scott and I moved back upstairs to the CICU waiting area to get our sleep room and await word that we could go see her.
It was after midnight when a man in scrubs asked for us. We had seen him around, but not met him yet. He shook our hands and introduced himself as the head of the CICU.
“I’m going to be watching your daughter all night,” he said. “She’s having a rough go of it, but we think she’s stable enough for you to come see her for a minute. Her body has to adjust to a whole new blood flow and it’s going to take some time to find its new normal.”
We followed him back to her room, the same corner she’d left just 11 hours earlier. She was surrounded by i.v. poles loaded with three times as many pumps as she’d needed before. Thick tubes bloomed from her chest, filled with blood and draining to a bubbling unit taped to the floor. Her chest was wrapped loosely in what looked like ACE bandage. Her skin was grayish-pale and most shocking of all, the soft spot on the top of her head was deeply sunken. I asked a nurse why. She explained that it was a symptom of loss of fluid and blood. While we were there, someone hung a bag of blood and began a transfusion.
We left quickly, unsettled and aware that we were in the way. She had survived cardiac arrest and grueling open-heart surgery. But this was nowhere near a happy ending. If she recovered from the surgery, she still faced another one down the road. And we still didn’t know how badly her brain had been injured. This was just the first chapter. We were locked into what appeared to be a long, terrifying medical thriller.