Over the past three years, there have been many times that I’ve thought about me on our Diagnosis Day, the day we found out that one of the babies then growing in my belly had spina bifida. It was my 27th birthday. We were excited to find out if our twins were boys or girls. We found out they were girls, and we also found out “Baby B,” the “one in the top bunk” had something wrong with her head and spine. Continue reading “Dear me on diagnosis day:”
Many of you are probably aware of the fact that I almost died three days after I had my babies. I experienced an often-fatal complication called peripartum cardiomyopathy, something I had never heard of until it happened to me, but according to The Daily Beast is actually on the rise. The first sentence of that piece, where the woman describes feeling like her head was being held underwater, just felt so true to what I experienced as well– I often describe it to people as feeling like I was drowning inside my own body. As my heart went into failure, my lungs literally began to fill with fluid, and I could actually hear it crackling as I struggled to breathe, before I was sedated and intubated and moved to the ICU. Thank GOD I was still in the hospital 3 days postpartum, because there was a code team ready to save me. If I had not asked for one more day inpatient to work with the lactation consultant on breastfeeding, I could have very easily been at home, where I might have died. (After my near-death, I was put on some serious medicines which meant my breastfeeding days were over, but you could say that my desire to breastfeed saved my life!) Continue reading “Call Professor X, I’m a Mutant”
Today, I’m sporting red pants and red lips for heart health awareness. Most of the attention to heart health this month is on women and heart disease, which is a worthy cause. But this week is also Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week, though it’s kind of going under the radar. I mean, I have a CHD and I didn’t even know it was my awareness week until a friend told me on Twitter.
Which is really just about perfect, because I didn’t know I have a congenital heart defect until I almost died. The cliff notes version is, my twin pregnancy was very hard on my body. By the end, I developed pre-eclampsia, which is not uncommon for twin pregnancies. I had a cesarean section (due to the pre-e and other factors, like my daughter’s spina bifida, and the fact that both of my twins were breech), but my blood pressure was slow to stabilize, and my counts were low. I received blood transfusions. And on day 3 post-delivery, I crashed, ended up intubated in the ICU, and was in congestive heart failure. What happened to me is known as peri-partum cardiomyopathy, but later, a cardiac MRI revealed the root cause of all of my problems: a congenital heart defect known as left ventricle noncompaction syndrome.
This means that the muscle fibers in the left side of my heart didn’t lay down properly when I was developing in the womb, so the part of my heart that is supposed to pump blood out into my body is weak, and doesn’t pump the blood very effectively. I’ve had it all my life, but my body used a fast heart rate and higher blood pressure to compensate, and so while I’ve never been very good at things requiring stamina and cardiovascular endurance (let’s be real, I have the constitution of a fainting Victorian lady), I never had enough symptoms to know something was wrong until the stress my twin pregnancy put on my body.
This makes me something of a unicorn. My cardiologists are always telling me that no one studies this condition, and it’s super rare, and they’re just sorta trying stuff on me. It’s kind of scary. I don’t really know how the course of this goes, or what to expect, or what my long-term prognosis is. I know that it’s a good thing that the medications I’m on have gotten me back up to a “normal” level of cardiac function. I take a beta blocker and an ace inhibitor. They make me very tired, as if having a weak heart didn’t already make me tired. Last week, my doctor let me try taking less of the beta blocker, though, and I already feel like I have more energy.
So, why am I telling you this? I’m not entirely sure. I guess I don’t like being a unicorn. It’s also a strange thing to effectively have an invisible, possibly life-threatening, disability. I look fine. I shouldn’t be tired all the time. I shouldn’t get so winded on the stairs. But I do.
Looking back, I probably should have discovered this sooner. I was always easily tired and intolerant of exercise. I had slow weight gain. I required (still do) a lot of sleep. I experienced strange feelings in my chest. So, in the name of awareness, here are some signs you should watch for in infants and children that might be worth a referral to a pediatric cardiologist:
Parents should be alert to the following symptoms in infancy:
- Tires easily during feeding (i.e. falls asleep before feeding finishes
- Sweating around the head, especially during feeding
- Fast breathing when at rest or sleeping
- Pale or bluish skin color
- Poor weight gain
- Sleeps a lot – not playful or curious for any length of time
- Puffy face, hands, and/or feet
- Often irritable, difficult to console
Some children with CHDs may not have any symptoms until later in childhood. Things to look for include:
- Gets out of breath during play
- Difficulty “keeping up” with playmates
- Tires easily/sleeps a lot
- Change in color during active play or sports (looks pale or has a bluish tint around mouth and nose)
- Frequent colds and respiratory illnesses
- Slow growth and weight gain/poor appetite
- Complains of chest pain and/or heart pounding
So, this month, do think about things you can do to make your heart healthy, like eating healthy foods and exercising and not smoking. But also think about little signs that might point to underlying problems, and get yourself or your child checked out if you have concerns.
October is Spina Bifida Awareness Month, not that you’d know it, as apparently October is the most crowded of all awareness months, most famously shared with Breast Cancer Awareness, but also Down Syndrome, Autism, Domestic Violence, and Bullying Prevention. To make matters worse, the Spina Bifida Awareness symbol is apparently a yellow ribbon, which everyone else knows is the symbol for supporting the troops, spotted on many a bumper sticker. Basically, I think we need a new month and a new symbol, but they didn’t ask me.
Though “they didn’t ask me” could be the whole theme of my all-too-keen awareness of Spina Bifida in general. They didn’t ask me, and they didn’t ask Claire, if we wanted SB in our lives. They didn’t ask the other 1 in 800 babies born with myelomeningocele SB (the most severe form, what Claire has) either.
I feel like this week has been an effort on our doctors’ part to make sure we’re REALLY REALLY AWARE of this whole spina bifida thing. Last week we made 3 separate trips to the children’s hospital for various tests, and this week we made two trips to talk to the doctors about the results of those tests. And the news, while not surprising, is bumming me out a little bit. In addition to mobility limitations, bladder and bowel issues are very common for people with SB, and though we had been hoping to continue avoiding it, in order to prevent recurrent UTIs and prevent damage to Claire’s kidneys, our urologist says it’s time to start catheterizing to get her bladder fully emptied. This means cathing her every 4 hours. She’ll also now have to take a daily medicine to prevent bladder contractions. A side effect of this medicine will likely be constipation. I know (really, I do) that ultimately this is the best course of action and is what will help her maintain continence as she grows, but for some reason in my head, having to take this step, having to cath, seems like it makes her more disabled, more different, and I just don’t like it.
We also got x-rays and saw the orthopedist, and it looks like at some point, Claire is going to need a surgery on her left leg to fix the way her foot turns severely inward. For the short term, she’s getting a special brace to wear at night, but in 6 months to a year, we’re looking at another surgery. Again, I’m all for whatever we need to do to give her the most mobility and independence, but hearing that my baby needs another surgery is hard.
And yet, we have so much good news too. She got an MRI, and we saw our neurosurgeon, and her shunt is working beautifully. I really credit it with the way her mobility is exploding, and our surgeon agrees. We’ve officially been cleared by neurosurgery, and, barring any shunt malfunction or infection, won’t be seeing her for a YEAR! We’re definitely celebrating that milestone.
So, what would I like you to be aware of this month for Spina Bifida Awareness Month? Yes, I want you to know that sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes there’s more surgery and more hassle and more hard work than we’d like. Sometimes I get angry or sad. But mostly I don’t. Mostly, I focus on the fact that both of our girls are beautiful, funny, joyful, smart, silly, typical toddlers. Mostly, I think that’s what I want you to be aware of– Spina Bifida has challenges, but it’s just another way of being a human in the world.
If you’d like more info on Spina Bifida in general, I thought this post from a young woman with SB was excellent.