Moments after our daughter was born, the doctor held her up and pronounced, “She’s beautiful and perfect!” With her healthy cries ringing in my ears, I reached out and the nurse placed her in my arms. “Hello Summer,” I whispered, “Welcome to the world.” At my voice, her sobs quieted and she nuzzled against my hospital gown so I loosened it and moved her mouth to my breast where she immediately began to nurse. “Look at that,” I said to my husband, Fred and my best friend, Marcie, “she’s a natural!”
A heartbeat later, she turned blue.
The nurse’s happy expression turned to one of concern. “Doctor,” she said quietly. He looked over at the baby, frowned and in two strides was at my bedside. He observed her with concern for only a second or two before reaching out and gently lifting her from my arms then turning to hand her to the nurse, who whisked her away to the bathing area across the room. Summer, upset at having her first meal so unceremoniously interrupted, began to wail again.
“Don’t worry,” the doctor told us, we’ll just suction her mouth and throat and clean her up a little. I’m sure she’s fine.” A few minutes later, the nurse called out, “Okay, all better now, pink and perky!” and having wrapped her in a soft blanket, brought her back to me to nurse. Once again, she stopped crying to latch on greedily. Once again, within seconds, she turned blue.
“What’s happening?” I cried.
The doctor looked up from the chart he was writing in; his expression went from concerned to grave. In seconds he was at my bedside, taking her from me once more. “I think we’ll just go run some tests,” he said.
“What’s wrong with her?” my husband, asked him.
“Probably nothing serious, but we’ll know more in a few minutes. Try not to worry, okay?” he told us. “See, she’s already looking better.” Summer was crying again and thankfully, turning pink as we all watched.
As he and the nurse left the room, Fred and Marcie and I all looked at one another with worried eyes. Reaching for my husband’s hand, I said, “She’s going to be okay, right?” He nodded. “Sure. Of course.” Marcie took my other hand silently and squeezed it. The three of us spent the next hour staring at the door the doctor and our baby had disappeared through.
When the nurse came back into the room, her troubled expression spoke volumes. Marcie cried, “Is she okay?” The question my husband and I were afraid to ask.
“The doctor will be in any minute now,” she evaded. As predicted, the doctor came through the door and before we could ask, he said, “Well, I’m sorry to tell you this but your baby has a very rare birth defect; it’s called a Coanal Atresia.”
“Oh my God,” I breathed.
“What does it mean?” My husband shakily asked.
“Choanal atresia is a congenital disorder where the back of the nasal passage (the choana) is blocked, usually by abnormal bony or soft tissue formed during fetal development,” he told us. “In other words, your daughter can’t breathe through her nose at all. She needs to have surgery as soon as possible because a baby doesn’t breathe through its mouth when its nasal passages are blocked. They don’t know how.” He moved to my bedside and explained further, “That’s why, when she was crying, she stayed pink—she was getting enough oxygen. But when she began to nurse—well, there was no air getting through her nostrils. She was suffocating.”
“Surgery?” I whispered. My mind was in a turmoil trying to grasp the enormity of this nightmare.
He nodded. “Fortunately though, there is a surgeon up on the hill at Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital that has actually had several of these cases before. I’ve talked to him already and he’ll be waiting to see her when she gets there.” He laid a comforting hand on my shoulder. “He’s very good. Try not to worry, okay?”
I blinked away tears and shook my head. How could I not worry?
“They’re sending an ambulance team from OHSU to pick her up. They should be here within the hour.”
“An hour? But she can’t breathe!” My husband said. “How are you keeping her alive?”
“We have a tracheal tube in place; she’s breathing fine for now. We’ll bring her in to you so you can hold her before they take off, okay?”
We nodded our heads in unison, too overcome to speak, questions racing though our minds. How could something like this happen? Will she survive the surgery? I closed my eyes and wondered, how am I going to make it through this night? And I prayed.
When they brought Summer in barely an hour later, she had a tube down her throat, keeping her airway open. Surgical tape was criss-crossed across her cheeks, holding the tube in place. Her eyes were huge as she stared at me in pitiful bewilderment. They laid her in my arms; I held her and cried while Fred and Marcie stroked her little hands and downy hair and fought back their own tears. Finally, after all too short a time, one of the paramedics stepped forward and said, “I’m sorry, but we have to go now. The surgeon is waiting to examine her.” As I handed my daughter to him, I had to turn my face away; I couldn’t watch him take her out the door, knowing I might never see her again.
It was one of the longest nights of my life.
* * *
Three days later, Summer had surgery. The surgeon drilled through the wall of bone at the floor of her nasal cavity, creating twin passageways for her to breathe through. When that was completed, he stitched clear plastic tubes, called stents into the passages to keep them open. “These will stay in place for three months,” he told us.
We left the hospital with our daughter two days later. Before we were allowed to take her home, however, we were given CPR training, outfitted with a suction machine to keep the tubes cleared of mucus, and a heart monitor.
The coming days were nerve-racking, especially after the three months became six months; but we made it! When the tubes were ultimately removed, Summer could finally breathe easy; and so could we.
Today, our daughter is a beautiful, healthy, twenty-eight year old woman. I look at her and thank God for the precious gift she is. I think about how easily we could have lost her and I reflect on how going through all the worry surrounding her birth deepened my appreciation of being a parent. Mostly though, I simply think about how blessed we have been and are, and I’m grateful beyond measure.