Creative Nonfiction Prize
The Boy with the Galloping Heart by Jenny Manzer
This week we're publishing the five stories on the shortlist for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. Jenny Manzer tells the story of a too-rapid heartbeat, an emergency helicopter ride, and a look inside the chambers of her son's heart.
It was my first helicopter ride. For the occasion, I wore a grey-blue hospital gown and a ratty green-knit hoodie. The blades of the helicopter whirled, chopping exclamation points into the night. My husband stood in his black pea coat by the launch pad at Victoria General Hospital and saw me get swallowed into the dark, hurtled away to Vancouver, a city of strangers.
I was 35, and very pregnant with my first child. The pregnancy had gone well until about 36 weeks when the baby appeared to be small. “You don’t look very big,” my doctor fretted, as she wrapped a tape measure around my belly. I went to Victoria General for a “nonstress test.” In the waiting room, I saw other pregnant women; their bellies looked pumped full of helium. It was true; I was small.
For the test, I lay on a bed while a nurse strapped belts with sensors around my stomach. After a few minutes, a current of urgency whipped across the room. The monitors showed the baby’s heart rate was galloping away, beating faster and faster. Then it dropped, as if disappearing off a ledge. “Turn on your side!” the nurse shouted.
An obstetrician rushed in. He probably thought the baby was strangling on the umbilical cord, but it wasn’t that simple. That day in March 2006, I was admitted on the spot and whisked to a darkened, aquatic room. A nurse handed me a gown with “Capital Health Region” stamped in black.
A perinatologist, looking like a sorcerer in the half-light, performed an ultrasound. I had fallen into a strange black lake of unknown depth, what medicine calls a rare anomaly. My husband appeared, summoned from work. He grabbed my hand. I tried to snatch it back. I needed to be at the ready. Anything could happen now. I was prepared to make promises with the fates, to bargain.
“The baby looks happy in there,” the perinatologist said. “Let’s leave it in.”
So the waiting began. My belly was greased, wiped, and re-greased for Doppler tests to measure the baby’s heart rate. I held my breath when the wand passed over, crushed every time the wonky heartbeat started. The sound was a fast runner galloping, galloping, and then falling face down. It was like reading a version of Goodnight Moon that ends with the moon disappearing forever.
I had more ultrasounds. I lay in the dark, staring at the black-and-white chambers of the baby’s heart, as mysterious as an underwater cave. The heart appeared structurally sound, the doctors said. They could see no defect. Since there was no immediate medical explanation, I conjured others. I blamed myself, my own habits. My mother had died of cancer, just two days before my wedding. This was more proof that I was cursed. Modern medicine doesn’t always deliver the cause and effect we crave. So we fall back on the spirit world.
My own beginning had been traumatic. My mother had suffered from placenta previa, a complication in which the placenta is low in the womb. She had hemorrhaged so badly the doctors couldn’t hear a fetal heartbeat. “But I knew you were alive,” she later recalled. We both nearly died. I arrived two-and-a-half months early and spent my first weeks in an incubator at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Whenever I stopped breathing, a nurse tickled my feet. The nurses pressured my shell-shocked parents to name me, as if that would tether me to the world. My parents gave me part of my mother’s name. Years later, she told me the story—how I had lived, despite expectations.
I wish I could say I was a noble expectant mother. On the surface, I appeared brave. As a former medical reporter, I was comfortable with doctors and asked careful, rational questions. But deep down, I wanted to send the baby back, start again. I wanted a name for the problem, a solution, and an answer to that unanswerable question: Why me?
I approached each new ultrasound anxiously, awaiting a revelation. When you want to conquer a people, you take their language. Without a name, there is no understanding. We didn’t know the gender, and so the baby’s name was uncertain. Alone in my hospital room, I whispered: “C’mon baby. Slow your heart down, please.” I feared a syndrome, a life on medication, a child who could not run.
A few nights passed; another turn of events. Some of the experts were going on vacation. If my baby needed to be delivered, there might be no sub-specialists available in Victoria. But I could go to a top centre in Vancouver. A helicopter was leaving immediately to transport a more urgent case—a woman who likely had placenta previa.
“How soon can you be ready?” a nurse asked.
“Right now,” I said.
And so my husband watched me fly away into the night. I looked down and saw the Gulf Islands curled like sleeping animals. In Vancouver, the high-risk pregnancy ward felt like a sequestered tower. Most of the other women, many about to have multiple babies, were on strict bed rest. “What are you in for?” the nurses asked when they saw me walking.
“Fetal tachycardia,” I said. They let me roam. These were the other terms I heard: Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, atrial flutter, supraventricular tachycardia. I didn’t fully understand any of them, yet it seemed crucial that we narrow it down to one.
On a Doppler monitor, a baby’s heart rate sounds like a skipping rope being whipped in a tunnel. The galloping continued. I was presented with a thorny choice, the kind depicted in fables. We could continue losing hope, or I could take a beta-blocker to try and calm the baby’s arrhythmia. The downside? The drug could permanently damage my heart. I started the drug.
My husband travelled from Victoria via ferry. I lay on the bed waiting to hear his heavy footfalls bruising the hallway. He and I were sitting in the ward lounge when a new mother wandered in from another wing. She walked wide-legged and wore new silk pajamas, a green tint, like peppermint tea. I knew she had just given birth, and it had been normal and fine. I felt a surge of hatred, as if she were flaunting good fortune.
Dosing me with the beta-blocker didn’t help. It was time to get the baby out. I was induced into labour in a dark room with a space station of devices and a brigade of specialists. “It was like Wembley Stadium in there,” my husband later remarked.
My son came out blue eyed, bald, and bearing an alert, cranky expression that suggested we’d all have to win him over. After a cuddle, he was shuttled to the special-care nursery.
“He’s so tiny,” remarked my father, who had arrived from Toronto.
“He’s big for here,” I said. A young dad standing by an incubator glared, and I felt a spike of shame. My son had a heart problem but looked robust compared to the premature babies, as delicate as beached sea stars.
We named our baby Alexander John, bolstering him with strong, family names. Eventually he was flown back to Victoria by helicopter as machines monitored his vital signs. In Victoria, his problem was given a new name: “Ventricular tachycardia,” the pediatric cardiologist told us. It was very rare. There was no firm prognosis.
My husband and I learned emergency first aid and how to administer a beta-blocker. We had to buy our own stethoscope and monitor our son’s heart rate. If it surged out of control, we were to grab a bag of frozen peas and mash it onto his face.
After weeks of monitoring, syringes, and round-the-clock feedings, we took Alexander to the hospital for a Holter monitor, which records the electrical activity of the heart. For 24 hours, he had electrodes taped to his chest, the skin as tender as the underside of an eggshell.
A funny thing happened. The monitor showed his heart rate had slowed to a regular canter. There was no tangible explanation, except that time had healed him. He would not need surgery or more drugs it seemed.
My baby is now six. He’s a soccer player, a grower of green beans, an inventor, and storyteller. I look at his face and see my mother’s eyes. I always thought that one day I would tell him the story. How I was left alone in an ultrasound room. How I stared, for what seemed like hours, at the grainy topography of a brand new heart.
“I know the inside of your heart,” I will tell him, one day.