Making Plans for Nigel
In the past I didn’t want to be defined by my illness, to only be the girl with half a heart, but as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that there is not much I can do about it. It’s what makes me, me. We come together you see, my battered, broken heart and me. There is no escaping it, it’s there in everything I do, and in everything I am. My unique organ - malformed, rehashed and rewired. It’s still beating, against the odds, 37 years after my first breath.
There have been hurdles, many of them, but thankfully, I have been able to jump them all. I made it through 3 surgeries, the last being a Fontan Procedure in 1992 when I was 13. Numerous investigations: MRI scans, x-rays, cardiac catheters, and more than half my life on Warfarin. Despite this, I managed to accomplish what everyone else had done too: school, college, university, career, buying a house and then, the biggest shock of all… marriage!
Life was brilliant. I worked as a Paediatric Nurse in a local District General Hospital on the Children’s Ward. I had my first house and along with my amazing family managed to renovate it into something spectacular. A couple of years after that, I met Nate and we got married in 2008. It was my happy ending - or so I thought.
I was in my second year of university when my consultant told me that I couldn’t have children. It was not advisable for somebody with my complex condition to even consider having a baby. For a start, the pressure on the heart increases by 50% in pregnancy for a healthy woman, my heart’s capacity was already 50% down. My cyanosis could make it difficult to conceive (my ‘normal’ oxygen saturations hover around 82-85%) and even if I did conceive, there was a 5% chance that my baby could have a heart defect. Oh, and probably the most important factor, it was highly likely that either one or both of us would die in childbirth.
That’s quite a lot to hear when you are 22 years old, just beginning your adult life of independence with your future ahead. Weirdly though, it didn’t really bother me then. I was too focussed on getting through my course and qualifying as a Nurse, the only thing I’d really wanted to do since childhood. I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time. The prospect of finding one and settling down seemed impossible anyway, so the thought of babies was even further from my thoughts.
At 31, things began to bother me. It evolved into a mix of grief (although I didn’t realise that at first) and depression. Everyone around me had done everything I had done but then they were able to take a step further – pregnancy and motherhood. Suddenly a whole host of subjects cropped up in conversation that I could no longer understand or be a part of, labour, breastfeeding, weaning, the naughty step, sleepless nights, teething and so on. I so desperately wanted to be happy and joyful for my friend, relative, colleague, but each time it was mentioned, I was reminded that it would never be me that would be announcing my pregnancy. It would never be me proudly presenting my little baby, created with the man I love. It would never be me watching my baby grow into a toddler, a child and guiding them into adulthood.
Gradually, I got deeper into my depression. I got emotional for no reason. Little things seemed impossible tasks. I became anxious, I worried more, I couldn’t sleep and I was horrible to Nate, who was amazingly patient with me throughout.
In 2011, Nate convinced me to go to counselling. I was reluctant at first but I could access 6 free sessions through work, so I decided it would be worth a try. Anything was better than feeling how I did.
After my 6 sessions, I found a private counsellor and continued going for about a year. It was a slow process but after a while things seemed to make more sense. I was grieving for the baby I could never have. The heart defect that made me who I am had stopped me from becoming a mother. It had never stopped me before, despite the challenges and the hurdles; I’d always got around it, somehow. I could not adapt, there was no choice, no other way. Obviously, we had talked about adoption and even got some information about it. The paperwork stated that adoptive parents had to guarantee that they would see their adopted children into adulthood. I couldn’t do that, I didn’t know what my future held. I would also need a medical. I had already been told once that I couldn’t have children by a doctor, I did not want to risk that I would be told that again. I also knew deep down, that I would not be able to physically manage looking after a child, I was tired enough just looking after myself. I knew from the beginning of our relationship that Nate did not want children and at the time, I felt completely blessed by this fact as I had been terrified that I would meet someone who was desperate for a family. Nate and I were a perfect match, but I had no idea of the depression that was to come. So the fact that he didn’t want children was eventually no comfort to me. Instead, I was angry that he didn’t feel how I felt.
Things did get better. The counselling helped me to reflect on many aspects of my life that still had a hold on me. I found ways out of my dark places and did not wallow in them for so long. Hobbies such as art, craft, sewing and reading became my salvation, allowing my mind to be occupied with fun stuff, rather than the constant whirlwind of worry and sadness. I started to feel like me again.
But, there was still a gap. There was still something missing. And every time a new scan photo got posted on Facebook, the hurt returned, as it did when the continuous happy family photos got posted. All of the first birthdays, the second birthdays, and the first days at school. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the lives of my friends and their children. I wished health and happiness for all of them but I couldn’t control the pang of sadness whenever I saw such things. I tried to remind myself that I was very lucky. I had lots of things to be grateful for and should not be concentrating on the one thing I didn’t have. That was easier said than done and the fluctuation of my emotional state continued. By the middle of 2014, I had had enough. At the dinner table one evening I gave Nate an ultimatum – we either needed to get a puppy or I would go to the GP for anti-depressants.
He agreed to the puppy idea! We had talked about it in the past and had even gone to Crufts to help us to decide on the breed, but we had decided against it due to work commitments. This time life was different. I was now a Health Visitor and working 3 days a week, meaning that the dog would not be left alone frequently. For the past few years, my consultant had also been encouraging me to do more exercise, something I ignored at the time. A dog however, would make me get out and would be a loyal and loving companion. One who was totally dependent on me and who would ultimately fill the maternal shaped hole in my heart.
Nigel, our Miniature Schnauzer will be 2 years old on the 7th December. He is brilliant. He is friendly, loving, obedient (mostly), handsome and totally the best thing we ever did. He has brought with him so much joy and laughter and has fixed me emotionally and improved my physical ability. I walk most days (although I find the winter walking harder and Nate often does more than his fair share of walking in the winter months). In my last check-up, my consultant said that I was doing everything I could to make myself as healthy as possible. Of course, I will always have restrictions, half of my heart doesn’t work, but I keep going. Nigel has given me a new perspective. He doesn’t have time to worry; he is so fascinated by life. At the end of a busy day, he stretches out in front of the fire or snuggles up on my lap and is just content. Nigel has reminded me to live life and to enjoy all that it has to give.
By Sarah Fox
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