Melanie Baldwin – I Had Open-Heart Surgery While Pregnant
I am a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and a walking, talking research and development project 52 years in the making. The leading cause of death in children with birth defects is from congenital heart defects. This makes me a success story…… and the result of good fortune and amazing technology.
I was born with a stenotic aortic valve, a PDA, and a PFO, as well as a stenotic pulmonic valve, for which I have had five open-heart surgeries and am currently on my fourth pacemaker. After surgery at age 3 and again at age 7 at the National Institutes of Health, I was 19 when they were able to replace my aortic valve with a mechanical valve. The surgery was performed in 1984 and the new valve was meant to last me about 15 years, but in exchange I would have to take Coumadin every day. This arrangement worked well until I married and decided my life was not complete without a child.
27 years ago, I was almost 5 months pregnant, injecting Heparin four times a day and on the road to having the baby I had hoped and planned for. I went to see my doctor for a regular check-up and that visit turned into a month long hospital stay.
They told me I had developed a clot just outside my heart, and the baby and I were at risk of dying if it moved. I knew the risks I was undertaking by having a baby, but did not anticipate being told to terminate my pregnancy so open heart surgery could be performed.
Things were fuzzy - to be honest they were always fuzzy without my glasses - but this was an additional level of fuzzy for me. I woke up in ICU and saw my husband looking at something to my left. I asked him what he was looking at and he said the baby. My heart sank and I was immediately panicked that all my plans and all my contingencies had gone terribly wrong. How could this have happened? How is she doing? Is she healthy? My mind was trying to process and reason what must have transpired and how it all came to this. I must have sounded panicked because he immediately explained that he was watching the baby monitor and the baby was right where I left her – in my belly. Goodness, what a relief. For anyone who has undergone open heart surgery they will understand that waking up is wonderful but the recovery is brutal. Your arms are basically useless as you can’t use them for leverage of any kind and being pregnant on top of that means your core can’t really help you either. I felt like Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars and to be honest I probably looked like him too.
It was wonderful to have my family come in a visit me and I can only imagine how hard it was for them to sit in the waiting room while I was in surgery, particularly this surgery. They had more to worry about than just me. My new goal was to be discharged and to get home and prepare for the next phase of this adventure. It would take my sternum about six weeks to heal properly and therefore there would be no Lamaze classes for me…just sitting and eating. I did both really well.
I went back to my weekly visits to the OB/GYN and to my cardiologist who were both at the same hospital. It confused other cardiology patients when I walked into the cardiologist’s office to sign in, they very politely told me where OB/GYN was located as they thought I was lost. There came a point where they needed to address the issue of the baby being breach and how to change her position. They had decided that a C-section was not advisable as I had just endured one surgery and adding to that was not advisable. They also did not want to stress out my heart any more by going through labor, so that was another issue. Either way they needed to flip the baby so that at least she was facing the correct way. I found out very quickly how this is done and I had no idea it was even possible until I saw them do it. The laid me down and gave me something to relax me and then two nurses, one on either side of me, pushed gently on my abdomen to turn the baby from feet down to head down instead. I must say the worst part of this was when she was in the middle of this flip and her head was at one hip and her feet at the other. They did get her into the correct head first position but there was no guarantee she would stay that way. I was there a while longer so that she could get used to her new view of the world and then they let me leave. I must say I had no idea why pregnant women walked the way they did until I stood up and tried walking. I suddenly understood the wide stance that I had seen on other pregnant women; feet down was so much more comfortable.
Not only did I survive, so did my daughter. I gave birth on July 28, 1990 and I have never regretted any of my decisions through my pregnancy.