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Saturday, March 14, 2015

a piece of my heart by Christine Coutu

I am so happy to feature my dear friend, Christine Coutu, on the blog again, exactly a year later after her daughter was born, two years or so after she started the journey of becoming pregnant with a heart condition, unanswered questions, prayers to make sure all would be well with her own health and that of her baby. 

I'll never forget the day she told me she was pregnant. We burst into tears together, hugged, stared at each other in disbelief, and then more tears. So surreal, a beautiful miracle. 

Congrats, Christine, on getting through your challenging ordeal getting to the point of seeing a heartbeat on the ultrasound and knowing you would be OK through pregnancy. It's an amazing thing to be pregnant, to bring life into this world, but it's even more beautiful to realize you can be pregnant when you were told you could not be. 

Thanks, Christine, for sharing your journey with us! 

Images from Christine Coutu 

A Piece of My Heart

“I don’t think having children is going to be an option for you”.  Hearing those words at the age of 19 may or may not pierce the heart of some young women.  For me, they cut deeply. Being a mom was something I wanted since I was a child.  

I am the oldest of 17 grandchildren and grew up around my mom and her sisters being pregnant.  I loved watching their bellies swell as their babies grew, feeling my little cousins move and kick while they were growing before making their appearance in the world and then helping to change their diapers, feed and play with them.  Motherhood was in my blood.  I never imagined my life without a pregnancy and a baby (or two, or three).  Now, all of a sudden the rug was yanked out from under me and in a blink of an eye my dream vanished.  I didn’t hear anything else that my doctor said the rest of the appointment and while sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car on our way home, watched as my tears blurred the trees together into a sea of green.  

I was born with a congenital heart condition called transposition of the great arteries (they call it transposition of the great vessels today).  Essentially, the smaller side of my heart (that is supposed to supply blood to my lungs) supplies blood to my entire body and vice versa.  As a result, I had really poor circulation and my lips and fingertips had a bluish tint to them.  Kids like me were called “blue babies”.  When I was 4 months old, my parents and I drove to Boston Children’s Hospital and I had what is called a senning operation to help with the blood flow in my heart.  Before the surgery, they had to do a cardiac catheterization and I ended up having a stroke during the procedure.  With the brain damage from that, I had many grand mal seizures over the course of several days. They had to wait until I was stable before operating on my heart.

Before we were sent home, the doctors sat down with my parents and discussed some possible complications as a result of the stroke.  They warned them that I could have learning disabilities, speech issues, even trouble with walking and other motor skills.  My parents were very vigilant and made sure to be on the lookout for any one of these issues, and found nothing, much to the doctors’ surprise.

I was pretty healthy compared to many kids with my condition growing up.  However, I did have several episodes where I would get very dizzy or pass out, I also had to stop all competitive sports in middle school because they were too strenuous.  Finally, in the span of 2 months during my freshman year of college (after I was told I couldn’t have children), my grand mal seizures came back.  Within the same month, I was required to get a pacemaker as we were able to record one of my dizzy episodes on a holter monitor. It was documented that my heart had stopped for over 4 seconds - and most likely had been doing so every other time I had been dizzy or passed out throughout my childhood.  

Okay.  When I read that all back, I realize it sounds kinda crazy.  Honestly - it was.  Especially my freshman year of college; clearly the “freshman 15” was the furthest thing from my mind at the time.  I could share more details about my health growing up and when I put all the “highlights” down in black and white, it sounds pretty scary lol.  However, my goal here is to share my journey to motherhood and while my medical history is a part of that journey, it’s not the focus for me.

SO, fast forward to 2008 (I was 24) and I had married my high school sweetheart.  Over the past several years, my cardiologist had gone back and forth with the idea of whether or not I could carry a baby.  It was such an emotional rollercoaster for all of us.  Unfortunately, there is not much research out there about people with my condition and pregnancy.  Thus, she was really going off of what she was experiencing with her other patients as well as what she heard and read in the cardiac community. Things were changing all the time and for cardiologists in her position, supporting a young woman’s decision to do something that puts such a huge strain on her already vulnerable heart is not something to take lightly.  

Ryan and I were in emotional and spiritual agony.  The thought of laying down my desire to be pregnant was beyond painful.  However, it was equally so for Ryan to think about losing his wife, his unborn child, both, or having to make the decision to choose one of us over the other.  

Finally, partly because we wanted to put the “baby thing” (as the topic became known as in our house) behind us and because we just knew we were going to be parents - we decided to adopt.  We began the process by researching a few different agencies and were hit with the realization of what it actually entailed and how much it could cost.  It was another emotional rollercoaster I’m not sure either of us were ready for.  We were at a loss for what to do and tabled the whole conversation again. We focused on our careers, ourselves and our marriage as best we could.  However, I would be lying if I said that this situation didn’t put a strain on our relationship at times.

Not being able to have my own child made me feel so inadequate as a woman, like I was “less than” because I couldn’t do something that I was biologically made to do and thought my husband didn’t deserve me.  Lucky for me (she said sarcastically!), I was surrounded by girls who got pregnant by simply looking at their husbands it seemed.  Which meant I quickly grew to despise pregnancy announcements. Simply shuttered at the thought of them.  Why? Because it meant that the box of emotions I tried so hard to pack away every day would come flying open and throw me a crazy, emotional “party” I didn’t want anything to do with.  

All at once I would be incredibly jealous of my girlfriend or relative, happy for the expectant couple, cry because I so longed for what they had, filled with dread with the idea of watching that baby bump grow, hoped that I wouldn’t have to see them anytime soon because I just didn’t think I could muster another  “congratulations! I’m so excited for you!” and a smile. Then, I would be mad - mad because it wasn’t me (and I wasn’t sure if it ever would be), mad because I couldn’t just “let it go” and be happy for the couple.  I’d feel ashamed with myself for being jealous and what I viewed as “selfish” feelings.  What I didn’t realize then was that I wasn’t throwing a “pity party”, I was grieving.  Grieving the loss of something that I so desperately wanted.  Grieving the loss of my baby.  

In 2009, Ryan and I started going to church and began to build our relationships with God.  One night about a year later, he came home from a bible study and told me he was finally okay with the thought of us having our own child.  I was shocked and honestly, so was he.  However, that night he really sensed the Lord settling all his anxiety in his heart about it and felt an instant peace with the idea.  He knew he just needed to trust.  The Lord was also working in me, making me realize that the deep longing and burning I had for a baby was put there by Him.  Psalms 37:4 “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” held a ton of meaning for me.  Once Ryan came home and shared what he did, it was like a switch turned on and everything started to fall into place.  I KNEW we were going to get pregnant, I KNEW we were going to have a baby girl.  I just didn’t know when.  The waiting was excruciating but I kept reminding myself that the Lord’s timing is perfect.

Well, the timing started to become more clear as things in my medical life began to fall into place too.  We saw a specialist in Boston who told us what we wanted to hear, that pregnancy was indeed an option.  We discussed things with my cardiologist in Portland who agreed with the specialist and thought now was the time given how well my heart was doing.  Now it was a matter of preparing my body.  I was on a medication that was dangerous for a baby.  It was one that I struggled with when I had started taking it, I had a lot of side effects.  Getting off of it however, was a breeze.  I had to get a new pacemaker as the battery life of my original one from college was running low.  That surgery went great and took place in 2012.  We knew we were on our way - once I was healed from my pacer surgery we started trying.

After almost a year, we knew something was wrong.  I couldn’t get pregnant.  Why did this have to be so difficult?! I was beyond frustrated.  We went to the doctor and she put me on medication.  The first round did nothing, no baby.  Toward the end of our second round, we knew we had some decisions to make.  Because of my high risk pregnancy status, my doctors did not want to keep me on this medication long, they wanted me pregnant as quickly as possible and suggested a move right to IUI and then in vetro.  For us, these were ethical decisions that we needed to pray about - we weren’t sure that we wanted to go down that road.  Thankfully, at the end of that second round, I found out I was pregnant!

I will never forget the trip to the maternal fetal medicine office for our first ultrasound.  I was honestly 100% fine all the way there and in the waiting room.  It wasn’t until they called my name that I began to lose it.  All kinds of thoughts were going through my head, “you’re making this up, there’s no baby”, “they’re not going to find a heartbeat”, “you’re going to die”...on and on.  It was torture.  

The ultrasound tech offered for me to go to the bathroom before the exam.  I went.  Not because I had to pee, but because I needed a minute alone to collect myself and pray.  I remember vividly staring at myself in the mirror and praying.  Just praying that things would be okay, that Ryan and I made the right decision, and that I would be able to make it through this thing one day at a time.  As I dried my eyes and left the bathroom, I remember focusing my gaze on the smiling face of the tech as she stood by the open door of the exam room.  I prayed all the way down that hallway and pushed all of the thoughts that kept flying at me out of the way.  It might sound silly, but I kinda  felt like a ninja warrior!  I was NOT going to sucuum to negativity and instead karate chopped every negative thought and feeling that tried to invade my mind.  If I didn’t, I was sure I’d collapse into a sobbing heap on the floor.  I got into the room, looked directly at my husband, took his hand and whispered “I need you to pray for me, right now”.  He looked me in the eyes and  said “okay”.  

Within a few minutes, we saw that tiny 7 week old life with a beating heart flash up on the monitor and my fear and anxiety melted away.  There was our baby.  This was really, truly, finally happening.  My prayers for help quickly turned to those of thanksgiving.

My pregnancy was absolutely amazing. I felt great! I worked full time for much longer than anyone expected, only going down to part time work about 2 months before our baby was due.  I worked as a school counselor at a middle school and to say that my job required me to wear rollerskates every day is an understatement.  It was difficult for me to keep up and my cardiologist did not want me to push myself.  I had cravings for skittles, starburst, American cheese and scrambled eggs, drank juice every morning because I needed it or else! lol We had three beautiful baby showers and honestly, grew closer as a couple.  I loved being pregnant, loved feeling my baby move inside of me and was simply in awe at the idea that a little tiny human was growing and developing in there!

I had many doctors appointments both with the maternal fetal medicine doctors and my cardiologist.  The main concern with my heart was how it was taking the pregnancy.  In all women, because your blood volume increases so much when you are pregnant, your heart grows bigger (it’s a muscle, thus when it works hard, it gets big!).  Remember that with my condition, the smaller side of my heart (the one that normally sends blood to the lungs) was doing the work of the larger side and supplying blood to not only my body but my baby too.  There was concern that it would start to get really tired and slow down, not doing the job as well.  If that were the case, we would have needed to deliver early.  Our baby was closely monitored as well - to make sure that she was getting everything she needed and that she was good and healthy.  While my particular heart condition is not hereditary, because I have one, the chances that our baby could have one too increased.  Thus, we had a fetal echo where a cardiologist took a look specifically at her heart to make sure that she didn’t have any major malformations or anything with her heart, which she didn’t!  That was a huge hurdle for us to get passed.  

We had our daughter Olivia on Thursday March 13th at 11:12 am.  She was born via c-section not because my heart couldn’t stand a vaginal birth, but because she was breech - and had been since about 21 weeks.  Everything went beautifully, and our daughter was perfect.  Absolutely perfect.  I wrote a piece for this blog about her birth shortly after she was born, if you want to read more about it.

A few months after Olivia was born, I went to visit my cardiologist so she could check my heart and make sure it was still okay.  

“This is one of the most exciting things in my 25 years of medicine,” she told me, “your heart looks exactly the same as it did before you got pregnant”.  

Olivia will turn 1 in a few short weeks.  When I reflect on my pregnancy and our journey to how she became a tangible part of our family, I can’t help but smile and be filled with gratitude.  I am so blessed to be her mom, and can’t wait to watch her grow up into a beautiful woman.  She is without a shadow of a doubt a miracle and Ryan and I thank God every day that she’s ours.  

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