It's been almost exactly 9 months since Jared's December 2nd of 2020 open heart surgery to repair a large aortic aneurysm. As I write this, I am sitting in the recliner in our family room that we bought just after we found out Jared would need heart surgery, his "recovery chair", drinking a glass of ice water, watching our baby sleep on the video monitor. Listening to the same Lauren Daigle album I played on repeat as I wrote my last 2020 blog post. The one I wrote while staying at the rental home in Ann Arbor, during Jared's U of M hospital stay.
As the days pass, you sometimes forget what you went through and where you came from--the challenges you faced, together...the hard days, the good days, the struggle, and the blessings. And all the moments in between.
My last post left off while Jared was halfway through his U of M hospital stay. In that moment, all I had to bring me comfort while being separated from Jared during the most challenging week of our marriage (no visitors due to hospital COVID restrictions) was a screenshot I took of him on my phone while we FaceTimed--during one of the few moments he felt up to it that week.
My week was spent in crippling anxiety. Being pregnant, I couldn't take or do anything that might help me relax. No glass of wine, no using the hot tub on the back deck. No anxiety medications.
As someone who spent years in the past on medication and seeing a therapist for anxiety, not being able to take anything during one of my most anxiety filled weeks was...brutal. To say the least. I honestly have PTSD if I even think of sitting in that rental house. Waiting. Worrying. Praying. Crying. That beautiful home built with exquisite carpentry. With a wintry, frost covered backdrop in view through the many high end windows. It should have been beautiful. But I hated it. I hated being anywhere but with Jared.
Well, that week, with the days dragging, staring at my cell phone waiting for calls from the hospital...staring at the time and counting down each second until I might see Jared again, finally came to an end.
I FaceTimed with Jared and his telemetry unit nurse to go over his long list of medications, limitations, home care and wound care. I listened, took notes, and asked Jared what he thought he might need help with at home. When we finished up, I packed the car and left. Finally.
I was so nervous that 12 minute drive to the hospital, I was practically shaking. The last time I saw him was when we said goodbye in the waiting room at the cardiovascular center as he walked back to pre-op. Just before his surgery. What would it be like to finally see Jared after this week? What would he look like? Would he be happy to see me? Would I be happy to see him? Would I cry? Did my baby bump get any bigger this last week? I was officially in the second trimester now.
As I pulled into the pick-up lane at the U of M main hospital, I saw Jared waiting for me near the entrance in a wheelchair. I pulled the car up beside him. Anxious, scared and excited, I got out. There was my beautiful, warrior of a husband. In just 6 days he was more tired, thinner and paler than I had left him. Bruised and scarred. He and his body fought like hell this last week. It took everything in me to shove my emotions as deep down as they could go so I could be strong for him. That day. And the coming days and weeks. It was a gift to be able to be there for him. In sickness and in health.
After taking a quick second to soak everything in, I hugged him quickly before packing the car. I made sure he was comfortable, with pillows and a blanket, and off we went.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't spend half the drive checking on him to make sure he was okay. That his breaths were steady as he slept in the passenger seat beside me. My beautiful, sweet husband. Thankfully, he was okay during our hour long commute home. And, after stopping to the pharmacy to pick up all of his prescriptions, we did make it home. At last.
I helped Jared out of the car, and once we got in, I got him situated in his recliner. Cranked up the heat. More pillows and blankets. Then unpacked the car and heated up some dinner. Gosh, I was so tired.
Fighting sleep, we watched some television to help keep Jared awake a little longer. It is common for patients who were under anesthesia so long to get their days and nights confused.
The first night home was long. I don't think either of us slept much because of the amount of pain Jared was in. I guess that's something all the binders, research, and conversations about open heart surgery can't really prepare you for. The pain. The physical pain. Sternum and rib pain from being cut open. Back and shoulder pain from lying on a operating table for so long. A disadvantage that night was that Jared had just started on a new pain medication that very evening, so we were still trying to figure out the right dosage and timing that worked for him and his changing pain level.
In moments of intense pain, while waiting for medication to take effect, I didn't know what else to do but rub his arms and hands. I guess I ended up doing that most of the night to hopefully try and bring some level of comfort to him. Even him just knowing I was close and cared for him had to be sufficient for me when nothing seemed to be helping as quickly as we needed it to.
I think I had slept a few hours when early morning came. Jared woke me up to tell me that something was wrong.
We used our home EKG monitor, which told us Jared was in atrial fibrillation. His heart rate was jumping between 160 and 180 beats per minute. We had him take his morning medications, drink some juice and take deep breaths before I decided it was best we take him back to the hospital. This time, he would at least be close to home, at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, where his cardiologist was through. And again, no visitors due to COVID restrictions.
I pulled up to the emergency center doors. He got out, with his U of M heart pillow in hand (the purpose of a keeping a pillow close after heart surgery is to support the sternum when coughing), and for the second time in a week, I had to watch him walk away from me, not knowing when I would see him again. But, at least he would be a short 12 minute drive up the road from our house.
I spent this week in better communication with Jared, as he was starting to feel more alert and had more energy to have conversations. I also spent that week cleaning the house when I had the energy.
At this point, at week 14 of pregnancy, I had lost about 10 pounds in 2 weeks. Small to begin with, even my leggings became baggy on me. Morning sickness and fatigue, combined with a long recovery from COVID (it took about 3 months for me to be able to take a deep breath again), combined with the stress of everything, and then needing to pick up the slack around the house...was a lot on my body. But I did it. I was doing it. And I would have done it over and over again if I needed to. It really tested what my body was capable of. Growing a human, while recovering from illness myself and then taking care of my sick husband.
Eventually another week apart passed, and on Jared's 6th day at St. Joe's, a Sunday, I was able to pick him up and bring him home. Again.
This time, I hoped and prayed he would be home for good.
The first few mornings home felt like a victory when Jared woke up in sinus rhythm. Any little thing, especially having an irregular heartbeat, feels scary after the type of surgery Jared had. Who would have thought a regular heartbeat would be something we no longer took for granted in our house?
Once Jared was settled at home, a nurse started coming out to the house twice a week to check Jared's vitals and make sure his incision and the small incisions where his chest tubes were inserted were healing correctly. She reminded us that all of Jared's pain was normal...We anticipated him having pain at the site of the incision, but what we didn't anticipate were the fractured ribs that crackled when he would breathe, the popping collar bones, and intense shoulder pain.
Recovery from open heart surgery definitely isn't for the faint of heart. The recovery, though brutal, is a necessary part of the process.
The long nights, the pain of getting in and out of bed, the pain of turning from side to side, the middle of the night pain meds and water refills, the pain while taking deep breaths and coughing, coughing up blood, daily stretches to loosen the chest muscles, using the lung exercising tube to decrease risk of pneumonia, the timed daily walks around the house, was all worth it in order for Jared to continue to live a long and healthy life.
One night, as I was massaging Jared’s back to help alleviate some pain, he said to me, “I don’t see how someone could get through something like this without a spouse.” Another affirmation that, although the days were challenging, we were supposed to be together during this very time.
One thing about this whole experience that is still mind blowing to me is that Jared has a new heartbeat.
I'll never forget the first time we cuddled on the couch to watch a movie in the fall/winter of 2016. Naturally, I laid my head on Jared's chest…and immediately noticed that his heartbeat sounded louder and faster than anyone's heart I had heard before. But because comparing his heartbeat to less than a handful of other guys I had dated wasn't a big pool to draw from, and Jared being so young, healthy, active, and strong...it didn't alarm me. In hindsight, it should have rung a bell or signaled to me a red flag, but it just didn't.
I was startled to learn, 4 years later, that what I was actually hearing the entire time we were together thus far was a murmur caused by a large aortic aneurysm. This is something I will probably always carry with me...think and wonder about. What if I had taken his "different heartbeat" more seriously? What if I had encouraged him to see a doctor sooner? I was literally the one person in the world hearing the impact an aneurysm was having on his heart each and every day, and yet, I didn't know anything was actually wrong. I felt relief when finally, on October 2nd, an urgent care doctor told us Jared had a loud murmur. One so loud he even called his assistant in to take a listen. I should have seen that relief as a sign that I should have made Jared get his heart checked out sooner. Much sooner.
But thankfully, Jared's aneurysm was repaired before it even showed signs of dissecting... Thankfully, our story isn't one of loss, but one of hope.
Our story could have been different. In fact, it should have been different based on the amount of heavy lifting Jared has done through the years, working on our house. He was even lifting hundreds of pounds of leaf bags weeks before his aortic aneurysm diagnosis. We've read stories, and we know not all aortic aneurysm stories end like this. In fact, most don't. At times, when I think of all the suffering in the world. I feel undeserving of the blessings in my life. I don't take it lightly how fortunate we are.
Now, after an aortic aneurysm repair, Jared has a new heartbeat. His heartbeat is smooth. It's quiet. It's healthy. He's here. And we are forever changed. I'm forever changed.
On December 30th, 4 weeks to the day of Jared's open heart surgery, we celebrated his 36th birthday. Although quiet, this birthday meant more to us than any others. He was finally feeling some relief from the pain. Getting in and out of bed became less of a chore, and coughing wasn't so dreaded. We had made it through the hardest days of his recovery and were looking forward to the year ahead.
The remaining winter months and spring were met with more healing and more appointments, for both Jared and myself, while also getting back in the swing of both working full time. Jared saw his cardiologist, Dr. Degregorio, a few more times, as well as had his follow up scans and meeting with his surgical team at U of M in March. As my pregnancy progressed further, my own appointments became closer and closer together; including a fetal echocardiogram done by a cardiologist through Children's Hospital as precautionary.
Jared, being the driven, strong man that he is, even started work on the baby's nursery.
In April, we received a call that Jared's surgical team wanted to explore a pelvic aneurysm that showed up on his November and March CT scans. This aneurysm was likely not related to the one in his ascending aorta, but was rather a birth defect--an arterial venous malformation (AVM).
We were soon set up with a radiologist from U of M. Because of Jared's history and recent heart surgery, his radiologist wanted to see if this pelvic aneurysm was putting any strain on Jared's heart. So on May 24th, Jared was back at U of M for a heart catheterization.
Thankfully, this was a short procedure. And thankfully, everything looked good from this new surgeon's standpoint. We would just continue to monitor at the same time Jared goes in for check up CT scans on his heart.
We grabbed lunch in Ann Arbor, and celebrated that we were finally, hopefully, in the clear regarding Jared's health.
The following week, I celebrated my 31st birthday on June 1st, as Jared put the finishing touches on the nursery.
2 days later, my water broke.
On June 4th, at 5:20am, together, we brought our son, Noah William Grabill, into the world. A 6 pound, 12 ounce miracle. The baby who was with me when we lost our grandparents. The baby who was with me when Jared called me after leaving his first cardiologist appointment to say he had an aortic aneurysm 2 cm larger than the threshold for surgery and would need immediate open heart surgery. The baby who was there with me during Jared's surgery and when I met with his surgeon after. And who was with me throughout Jared's recovery. I don't think Noah will ever know how special he is to us and our families.
Noah means rest and comfort. Our peace, our calm, after the storm of this last year. He is also a reminder of God’s faithfulness in and provision over our lives. William, not only is my late father Kevin’s middle name, but it also means warrior. We hope Noah grows up to be a warrior, just like his daddy.
Childbirth is a very humbling experience. The intense pain. The beauty. The rawness and vulnerability of bringing a human life into the world. And what a blessing it was to have Jared by my side the entire time. My husband, whose life was spared, was there to welcome new life into the world. Our son.
The first few days, after Noah's birth, in the moments of quiet, I cried. I felt completely overwhelmed. How could I suddenly shift my focus from Jared to this baby? My whole world, the past 6 months leading up to delivering our son, was Jared. How could I share my time? My heart? All I now knew was how to take care of Jared. I struggled to make the mental, and physical shift. To find that balance those early days.
So watching Jared care for both me and our son when I felt like I should still be taking care of Jared...it was overwhelming. It was beautiful, but overwhelming.
After a couple days in the hospital, the three of us came home. But as the days and weeks passed, I felt myself slip further and further into an anxiety induced depression. I naturally thought I was struggling with some postpartum depression due to the drastic change in hormones. It took months to realize what I was feeling, wasn't actually depression--it was grief.
I spent many nights during night feeds, holding Noah close and crying. Staring at this helpless baby who needed me. And yet, I grieved. I grieved Jared's health before his surgery. I grieved that we thought he was healthy in every way, but yet, he wasn't. I grieved I deep down knew something was wrong with his heart from the moment I first listened to it and yet, didn't think to push further. I grieved that our world this last year was consumed with doctor's appointments, and worrying about Jared's heart and his arrhythmia. I grieved what I thought our life would be like, without any health complications. At least not this young, anyway. I grieved Jared needing to be on daily medication for the rest of his life… I even still grieved Jared waking up from open heart surgery alone, spending those first days post op alone, and not being allowed one single visitor the entire 2 weeks he was in the hospital. I realized up until this point, I never really grieved anything. There just wasn’t time to even stop and catch my breath until now. And in the quiet of the night, rocking our sweet baby in his newly finished nursery, all these emotions that I shoved down the moment I picked Jared up from U of M hospital trickled in and finally surfaced.
The nights, again, were long. And the pain--the grief--I allowed myself to feel was necessary, to be able to begin making peace with everything...make peace with our new normal. And be okay with it. Jared was okay. Noah was okay. We were okay. Maybe we had made it to the other side after all. Or maybe I had?
What I am realizing now is that grief isn’t a straight path--it’s cyclical. It’s messy. It’s an ever revolving door of denial, anger...sadness...all heading towards a space of acceptance. The biggest thing I am learning, along with being a new mother, is that I need to be gentle with myself in the process.
This year...this year for us was monumental. Contracting COVID, multiple deaths in the family, emergency open heart surgery, pregnancy, delivering a baby...becoming parents.
As much as I want to sit in my grief some days, Noah (and Jared's constant sense of humor), keep me pushing forward. Some moments are still hard for me--some days are still hard for me...but then the next day? Is sometimes so much better, and I can feel the sun and see the light again.
Holding my sweet Noah. Loving my sweet husband. My miracles.
Life doesn't stop moving and all we have is today. Hopefully with many more, bright, tomorrows.