On Thursday, September 23, 2010, I woke up at 6 AM to a startling conversation over the phone with my husband Jon. (My husband was spending the night with our almost completely healed newborn in a local hospital room. I was spending the night at our house with our three older children.)
At 3 AM, my husband woke up to a frightening situation. An 18 inch piece of plastic tubing, called a PICC line, broke off of a special type of IV in our daughter's foot. In a normal situation, a broken PICC line would easily slide out of the body. In my newborn daughter's case the broken PICC line got immediately sucked up through her leg vein and through all four chambers of her heart.
A newborn's heart is the size of a walnut. In Tessy's x-ray that morning, the PICC line looked like a giant tangle of yarn looped through every crevice of her heart.
This type of complication is beyond rare. The doctors at our community hospital had never seen it before. My brave husband stood by my daughter's bedside for four hours hearing more and more frightened doctors tell him "I don't know what to tell you. I've never heard of this happening before."
That's not reassuring information to hear when a foreign object is now lodged inside your newborn daughter's heart.
My daughter got transferred back to Children's Hospital.
When I called Tess' NICU resident at Children's Hospital, she seemed uncharistically vague and unsure. "We know the PICC line is in her heart. We're going to wait until we take another x-ray and then assess the options for treatment."
"What are the options?" I asked.
"I don't know yet. I've never heard of this happening before, it's very rare. We'll wait and see how the surgeons recommend removing the PICC line from her heart."
At 6:30 AM on a Thursday morning, I became convinced that my newborn baby would need emergency open heart surgery.
I made the long trek down to Children's Hospital alone on the Metro. I held a rosary in one hand (my link to my Blessed Mother) and my cellphone in the other (my link to my husband.)
When I got to the NICU, I met my husband who had come down hours earlier in the same ambulance as our baby. Our baby looked fine. Her heart rhythms were completely normal. She was squalling for food. Since no one knew what was going to happen to Tess that day, she was denied food in case she needed emergency surgery. (The poor dear ended up going 15 HOURS without food- my baby's first Fast).
My husband was trying to shush the baby in her crib while holding one of her leg's still.
"Can't we pick her up?" I asked.
"I hadn't thought to ask," my husband said. "She's so hungry. She's been crying for hours."
"I'm picking my baby up!" I announced loudly to her nurse. I had the baby up and in my arms. I rocked her slowly. Tess was disappointed the Mom wasn't providing any food either, but quickly fell asleep. I place the baby back into her crib. I suggested that my husband and I go take a walk to regroup.
The NICU in Children's Hospital is totally gorgeous. Its brand-new, completely expensive looking with dynamic views of downtown Washington D.C. through large plate-glass windows.
I stood in the "quiet room" which overlooks the Washington Monument and asked my husband dozens of questions about our baby.
Then young Doctor Emily came into the room. "I can't believe you guys are back here!" she said.
"There's a PICC line in Baby Tess' heart" I said.
Doctor Emily's wide open eyes met mine and seemed to say said "YEAH and it's 18 inches LONG!" But Dr. Emily's measured professional voice said "They say they can fix it."
"What?" I said.
"We don't know what to do in the NICU, but one of the Heart Cath Lab guys said this happens all the time and he can fix it easily," Doctor Emily answered.
For the first time all morning, Jon and I felt some relief.
Over and over again, throughout the day--more and more doctors came to examine our little Tess. Each one said "I don't know what to do, but the Heart Cath guy says he can fix it 'no problem.'"
We eventually met Mr. Fix-It Guy, Dr. Kanter.
Dr. Kanter tells us that he can have the foreign object out of our bunny's heart, quickly, "without a problem."
As we left the hospital the night before my Bunny's surgery, I told my husband that I wanted to spend the night at Dr. Kanter's house. "I believe he can fix our girl," I told Jon. "I just want to sleep over at his house tonight so that every time I get scared in the middle of the night I can hear him reassure me that 'he can fix it, no problem."
I spent the night in my own bed, of course, and woke up scared at 4 AM. I got out of bed and started to pray.
It was so strange to have a heart operation that was so clearly, hands up or hands down. Either Dr. Kanter could easily fish out a PICC line from my bunny's heart, or not.
It hit me in the middle of bunny's operation that her PICC line in the heart episode was the perfect example in real life of the grace of the Confessional. We have hearts that are made to love God. Yet through sin all kinds of "foreign objects" get sucked into our hearts and stop them from working properly. Sin can lead to all sorts of disaster. But there is one guy, Jesus, who says "He can fix it." I don't know how the mystery of the sacrament of Confession works, I only know that it works.
Bunny's PICC line got fixed easily in an operation that lasted under an hour. Dr. Kanter took a tiny lasso and went up through a vein in her leg. She left the lab with an incision so small it was covered up with a band aid. "It was a good thing it was so big," Dr. Kanter told us. "A big piece is much easier to remove from the heart."
When Dr. Kanter showed me the giant PICC line piece, I almost fainted! (We've got it curled up now in memory box at home.)
Dr. Kanter was right. He said he could fix it, and he did.
It makes me hope that I can worry less about the effects of sin on the world and instead point more people calmly to the Confessional Box. Just like Dr. Emily told us about Dr. Kanter, "He says he can fix it," that calm belief applies to Jesus the great physician as well.
When we leave the Confessional, and our penance seems so small. A few Hail Marys. A few Our Fathers. It's hard to believe that such tiny acts of penance can really heal a sin-stained heart. That remaining acts of penance after a standard Confession is as small as the single band aid that was left on my baby's leg.
Make no mistake, however, the miracle of "spiritual" heart surgery happens in a the Confessional in your local parish church is even more dramatic than the life-saving heart procedure my baby experienced at Children's Hospital.