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An Ending, but Not the End

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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.”

Elli post-surgery

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.

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  1. I’m exhausted, and I was just a reader. I’m praying for you friend, even now, that this time of writing and sharing is healing for you.
    Love, Kristin

  2. I’m so very grateful for each and every detail shared. I hold them each in my heart. I am now of course anxious to read about all the rest. The recover, the healing. About Elli, what she was like. Photos. I want to soak it all in. Thank you for sharing her story with us!

  3. I’ve been reading this series all week thinking, “I’ll wait until the end to comment. By then I’ll know what to say.” I was wrong. I’m still left without adequate words to express my sorrow for the pain and anxiety you felt, my thankfulness for the friends and family who were there beside you, my admiration for your courage in sharing this so transparently and my prayer that God continues to heal and encourage you. Grace and peace to you.

  4. As I read your story, I relived every moment of our granddaughter’s surgery, and realized yet again that as much as I lived our story, I have no idea how you and she felt as mothers. I applaud your transparency and resiliency. ((((hugs))))

  5. Ahiba Stephane says:

    I had been checking many times to see whether this final part was out and when I saw it, the first thing I did was to start with the introduction, skip to the last paragraph and then coming back to the middle. I only thank God for His godness and all the courage He gave you, and the faimly and friends He brought into your life.

  6. Oh my goodness. I’ve just read the last post and this one (I’ve been away), but it’s harrowing emotionally, especially knowing the ending. I’m sending my love.

  7. Joy, I’m so glad you’re writing this, as hard as it must be. I hope it has been healing and you’ve been taking good care of yourself. Thank you for gifting us with Elli’s story. I love you, friend.

  8. wow. wow. wow. Thank you for sharing Elli’s story with us. I have chills. You are all so brave.

  9. I am a new reader to your blog and I am overwhelmed by your story. I absolutely can’t imagine what that must have been like. You are so strong and courageous. Thanks for sharing your heart and your trust in God.

  10. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. I know that it had to have been draining and difficult, but I know that God used you in others lives and for that we are all grateful.

  11. Handsfull says:

    Thank you Joy.


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