Ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, two ears, a nose and a mouth. Nothing was missing; I was a perfectly healthy baby girl. My parents could not have been more proud. After those twelve stressful hours in active labor, relief exuded from every one of their tightened muscles. I was the type of girl who enjoyed making an entrance even then by doing a somersault before coming into the world head first. The doctors ran through the routine newborn screening and informed my parents that their rosy bundle was an average birth size and weight. Everything was functioning normally. I had a slight heart murmur but that was not a surprise. All the women on my mother’s side of the family have the same condition. However, there was a difference undiscovered by anyone at the time. The hereditary congenital heart defect, which most people would consider bad luck or just bad genes, was a medical blessing that saved my life.
I wanted to do it all: softball, volleyball, dance, track. My father, who doubled as the family doctor, told me I would need an echocardiogram, a sonogram for my heart. He remembered I had a murmur and wanted to make sure the strenuous activity would not make my heart stop completely. He did not know what was causing my heart to make the murmur sound. It could be a valve that did not close properly, a physical hole in my heart, or maybe God just using my circulatory system to make a rap beat. “Boom chiii…boom chiii.” I watched the cardiologist make a black and white film of my heart beating with the echocardiogram until he felt satisfied with his diagnosis. He told me I had a transposition of the great vessel. My confused expression cued my father to translate for me, “You were born with a backwards heart.” My “right ventricle” is on the left side and my “left ventricle” is on the right side of my body. The doctor did the whole good news, bad news bit: “The good news is you can play any non-contact sport you like until symptoms develop. The bad news is your heart is much weaker performing the opposite job it was created to perform. Therefore, when middle age comes around you will need a heart transplant.” The questions running through my head were endless, but I refused to let any of them escape. I hesitantly nodded my head that I understood and walked out of the office.
With the doctor’s permission, I played sports through junior high and high school. I was the fastest girl at Carterville High School and was destined to qualify for state competition if I worked hard enough. There was one practice in my training that was especially difficult. My steps pounded along the all-weather track while needles shot through every muscle of my body. The pain was incredible and my eyes glazed over. I could no longer see the finish line, but its presence was unmistakable. The sweat rolling off my brow irritated my skin and I awkwardly wiped the perspiration away. My breathing was heavy and ragged when all of the sudden something in my chest seemed to expand. A deep ache erupted. I was frightened, for I have never experienced a pain like this. It seemed impossible to continue at this point. However, my fear of the embarrassment in losing a race was overpowering. I told myself that it was nothing serious; just an excuse to stop running. Almost to the end, I ceased thinking, only making observations of the world around me. I forced myself to complete the race and collapsed on the turf. I gasped desperately for air while imagining my death right there on the football field in the middle of track practice. Nevertheless, I did recover and walked a lap around the track to stretch out my muscles. My chest was sore but the pain was fading. It was obvious what had happened; I had deprived my heart of the necessary oxygen putting unnecessary strain on my weak heart. I could no longer deny that I had a heart condition. My vulnerability had proven itself.
My knowledge of my heart condition was limited. Therefore, I began researching online to discover what I was too afraid to ask my doctor all those years ago. Transposition of the great vessel occurs during development in the womb. Babies are born with an aorta pumping blue, oxygen-deprived blood from the right ventricle to the rest of the body, bypassing the lungs. The pulmonary artery pumps red, oxygen-rich blood to the lungs and back. The great arteries are completing parallel cycles in reversed positions of the normal heart. Babies born with this disease are blue and must undergo a high risk surgery immediately. I should have died at birth without the surgery; instead, I became a medical miracle. The right amount of coincidence was present to give me life. The murmur the doctors discovered at birth was due to the blood rushing between the two ventricles of my heart. The blood was allowed to mix and then circulate a sufficient oxygen supply to the rest of my body. Immediately after this revelation, I bowed to my Heavenly Father to thank him.
My perspective on life had changed. I became a person who played it safe, avoiding risky habits. I am ever so aware of how easily my life could slip away. I want to postpone the inevitable open heart surgery as long as possible. The heart transplant will be expensive in so many ways: financially, emotionally, and physically. Every day I wonder if it will be the day. Regardless of what happens, I will never give up hope. I know the advancement of technology continues to increase my odds of survival daily. I have matured and grown spiritually by accepting the anatomy of my body as it is. I love my life no matter how backwards it may be.
Photo by Photo by Michelle Brea
About Nicole Wachter:
Nicole is a college student attending school in Illinois majoring in Biological Sciences with a Biomedical Emphasis.
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