The human heart is a complicated organ. Its formation begins weeks after conception. Atoms split to form arteries, chambers and muscles to pump blood and oxygen all over the body. Five years ago, I had thought very little about the human heart and all of its complexities. Five years ago, the heart meant love, joy, sadness, compassion. On that front, not much has changed.
You see, my youngest son was born with a congenital heart defect. I have seen his heart via echocardiogram (a specific ultrasound to view the heart) a hundred times, and I still don’t understand it. Those grainy black and white images hold as much mystery for me as do the complicated emotions tied to it.
There are people who look at ultrasound images and see four chambers and two arteries. They see blood flowing through the proper channels. They see slight imperfections and major complications. Our pediatric cardiologist is one of those people. He specializes in imaging. He looked at pictures of my son’s tiny heart via an in utero ultrasound and saw that he was missing a wall between the upper chambers of his heart (VSD or Ventricular Septal Defect) and his aorta and pulmonary artery were coming off of the same side of his heart (DORV or Double Outlet Right Ventricle). He saw an organ the size of a pencil eraser, through layers of skin, using sound waves and he knew exactly what was wrong. This will never cease to amaze me.
He went to school to study the human heart. Not just K-12, not just college, but medical school where he became a pediatrician. He spent three years as a pediatric resident with a focus on cardiology. Then he spent three more years as a pediatric cardiology fellow which is like a resident but in a pediatric cardiology clinic. Now, he helps children like my son. He identifies their problems, monitors their health and works closely with parents, other doctors, nurses, and surgeons to determine the correct treatment. It is amazing.
My son has had two open heart surgeries. The first at four months old. The second at two years old. Our cardiologist, the surgeon and the staff at The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) used their combined knowledge and experience to determine the best method of treatment for my son. Each time they broke his sternum, hooked his body up to the heart and lung machine, and opened up his tiny heart. The surgeon sewed a wall between the chambers of his heart which had the dual purpose of separating the chambers and his aorta and pulmonary artery. The second time, he changed the wall and removed scar tissue.
Each time, my husband and I waited in the Pediatric Cardiology Waiting Room at MUSC. We held onto each other and our small family as if they were our last moments because you never truly know if they might be. Our parents and aunts and uncles waited with us. They brought us muffins and coffee and even gifts for his big brother who was waiting at home. We worried and fasted and prayed.
When I saw him in the Pediatric Cardiac ICU, teeny tiny, with tons of wires and tubes attached to his body and a huge bandage across his chest, I cried. I remembered that they had to break his chest bone to get to his heart and I cried some more. Some were tears of joy. He was alive. He was doing well. Eventually he was eating and then smiling and then running around with his brother. Within weeks, you would never know what we had been through if it wasn’t for the scar on my little boy’s chest.
Years and years and years ago, this same baby would have died. Science and medicine wouldn’t have detected his defect as anything more than a loud murmur. There would have been no ultrasound, especially in utero. There would have been no pediatric cardiologist to monitor the heart health of a newborn. There would have been no surgeon trained to operate on tiny hearts. My son would have been “sickly” and he would have eventually died.
Since then, I have met people with many different heart defects. So many that it has made me wonder how any of us are walking around with functioning hearts. I met a little girl who lived with an machine functioning as her heart for months while waiting on a transplant. I met a pregnant mother whose baby was missing chambers of his heart. I’ve met children who’ve undergone heart surgeries when they were just days old.
I’m in awe.
Knowledge, passion, compassion and just good old fashioned LOVE saved my son and many other children. The more we know, the more lives we save. The more research, the more studies, the more people who care and give and learn, the more lives we save.
There are emotions tied to the heart that aren’t complicated at all; they are clear and simple and definite, like the gratitude I have for modern medicine and the love I have for my son.
Please join the Charleston Moms Blog team on September 24th for the American Heart Association Heart Walk.