The following is an essay I entered in a writing contest. The theme was health care and how it impacts identity. My entry is almost 2000 words so I am dividing it up into a few posts.
Total Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Return – the five ominous words explaining the dusky blue-gray color of my skin at birth.
But the doctors would not learn that until later.
It is 1975 and my parents live in rural Wisconsin. The small hospital in the town of less than 8500 doesn’t have the resources to determine the cause of my pallor so they send me to Marshfield Clinic.
There, Dr. Geer* discovers a hole in my heart. “It will either repair itself or require surgery later on,” he tells my parents.
The hole (foramen ovale) keeps me alive for the next nine months.
I am a difficult baby. I cannot breath well, especially when I lie down. I get winded and my skin becomes ashen when I suck on a bottle. My mother introduces baby food a few months later. It helps but I still experience failure to thrive.
The hole closes.
It happens in the grocery store. We are waiting in line to check out when I turn blue and stop breathing. She pulls me out of the cart and races out the door, shopping cart forgotten. She drives frantically to the hospital, only a few blocks away.
Nine months after my birth, the hospital is still unequipped to determine the root of things. They again send me to Marshfield, in an ambulance.
Dr. Geer examines me further. “There is another problem but my tests are inconclusive.” He refers me to Milwaukee Children’s Hospital for further evaluation. They have more advanced medical equipment.
At Children’s Hospital I undergo a heart catheterization. It reveals Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Drainage. The hole in my heart was starting to close and blood was backing up into the wrong heart chamber.
Dr. Little* performs seven hours of open heart surgery. He tells my parents that I am the youngest baby to undergo this surgery. I only have a 20% chance of survival.
I beat the odds.
My mother boasts that my case was written up in a medical journal and made Dr. Little famous in the field of cardiac medicine. Does that make me more than another nameless, faceless body on the operating table to him?
A month later the surgery is considered a success. As a precaution, the doctors implant a cardiac pacemaker because our rural hospital is not equipped to do it.
My pacemaker is about the size of a pack of cigarettes. My parents have to pad it with gauze every time I play outside.
My fourth birthday is celebrated with another trip to Marshfield. Dr. Greer says my heart is beating fine on its own and I don’t need the pacemaker for the time being. “The scar tissue from her surgery will eventually build between the chambers in her heart,” Dr. Geer warns my parents. “She’ll need a pacemaker again in the future.”
I am free of this metal companion for over five years…
* Names have been changed as I don’t have permission to use them.