One year ago today, my youngest daughter Avery was born and it was one of the happiest days of my life. One year ago tomorrow, it was the scariest day of my life.
Avery was born with an intestinal malrotation, which basically means her intestines had a kink in it like a twisted garden hose. It wasn’t visible through any of the ultrasounds and so none of the doctors could have known it at the time. That kink cut off blood to the rest of her intestines and also didn’t allow for any digested milk to pass through. If it wasn't corrected quickly, she would lose part of her intestines or even die. (The surgeon later told me that Maurice Gibb from the Bee Gee’s had the same condition much later in life. He died of a heart attack while waiting for surgery for the malrotation.)
We found out about Avery’s malrotation while she was about to be discharged from the hospital. A certified pediatric nurse practitioner, Alicia, from Eugene Pediatric Associates was giving her a final examination. Right before Alicia was about to declare Avery in perfect health, Avery turned her head and threw up green vomit. I’ll never forget the color, especially as it soaked into the crib's blanket. It was like the color of grass.
Alicia noticed the vomit immediately and exited the room, saying she had to make a phone call to our pediatrician, Dr. Bradshaw. Bradshaw happened to be at the hospital in a meeting and so she came over to look at Avery, also bringing with her the pediatric surgeon’s assistant. It explained to us that Avery had thrown up bile, showing that there was some sort of blockage in her intestines and food was not being fully digested. Avery needed to immediately get an X-ray to see what was causing the blockage. Best case scenario, it was a buildup of something and they would just need to poke it to free everything up. Worst case scenario, it was a malrotation and they would need to do major surgery. We kissed Avery and then they whisked our one-day-old baby out of the room, leaving my wife and I holding each other, the green blotch of bile still on the blanket.
They brought us to a different room to introduce us to the pediatric surgeon (Dr. Zallen) and tell us the news. It was a malrotation and Avery would need surgery immediately. They were already prepping her as they talked to us. Dr. Zallen explained that they couldn’t fully know the extent of the malrotation until they opened Avery up. For the surgery they would make a large incision (especially for a newborn) along the abdomen and then pull out Avery’s intestines to find the kink, see if there was any dead tissue, and do what needed to be done. We signed some papers and Dr. Zallen left to operate on our baby. It ended up that from the moment she had thrown up bile to when she went under the knife, it had only been an hour.
The surgery would take an hour and a half long. It sounds like a cliché but it was the longest and most anxious ninety minutes of my life.
I had never prayed so hard before that moment. Never offered God so many deals so he would do something for me, so He would save my baby girl.
Nothing had prepared me for this moment. There was no warning. No training. No amount of seminary or years as a pastor had given me any sort of special knowledge on how to handle such situations. If anything, my years as a pastor—making hospital visits, attending funerals, praying over the sick—had trained my mind to think that scary things happen to other people, not me. But we live in a fallen world where bodies breakdown, even in the womb.
It was the most helpless I had ever felt as a parent (which is saying something because I often feel helpless already). I completely and utterly had no control over the fate of my child. She was in the hands of God and Dr. Zallen.
Two pastors from Ekklesia, Seth and Ian, came by to bring us lunch and keep us company. I had spread the word to as many people as possible about Avery’s surgery and hundreds were praying for her (if you were one of them, thank you so so so much).
It took longer than what they had said, but eventually Dr. Zallen entered our room, telling us that the surgery was finished and Avery was doing great. They opened her up and found the twist in her intestines quickly. Everything before the blockage was dark purple (he even showed us a picture he had snapped on his iPhone). Once they untwisted everything, her intestines immediately turned a healthy pink, showing that blood was flowing again, the crisis averted.
They wanted to keep a close eye on Avery so they transferred her to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), where typically premature babies are kept after they are born. It’s a highly secure and sanitized wing of the hospital (they make you wash your hands all the way up to your elbows for three minutes with this horrifically smelling soap that looks like it has iodine in it). They gave Avery an epidural to deal with the pain and placed her in a special crib that kept her warm and plugged her into countless monitors tracking her vitals. She looked so fragile lying there—IVs stuck into her, a large bandage over her belly, tubes running up her nose and down into her stomach to drain out any excess bile. One of the nurses had placed a stuffed giraffe next to Avery’s crib; the giraffe had a bandaid on its stomach too.
The NICU rooms have no place for the parents to sleep, instead they let the parents visit any time of the day. The wonderful nurses at the NICU would hold her and be her guardians. We had to pack up our things and drive home with an empty car seat. It’s quite an understatement to say that it was not the homecoming we had planned for.
Avery’s recovery was quicker than the doctors expected. Initially she was supposed to stay in the NICU for a week, but she was digesting food and the pain had subsided.
They said she was strong. She was released into our care after four days instead of seven.
Dr. Bradshaw would go on to say later that this was one of the most memorable moments of her career. For the crappy situation that it was, everything came together perfectly. Avery didn’t throw up bile at home where it may have gone unnoticed (or at least we might not have been alarmed over it), but she threw up in front of the nurse practitioner. At the same time, Dr. Bradshaw happened to be at the hospital where she could speed things along quickly with her connections, instead of at her clinic. We even found out later that Dr. Zallen, the pediatric surgeon, was a fairly new addition to the hospital. Without Dr. Zallen, they would have had to life-flight her to Portland (Dr. Zallen is also married to one of the doctors at Dr. Bradshaw’s clinic).
Thank you, Alicia. Thank you, Dr. Bradshaw. Thank you, Dr. Zallen. Thank you, NICU nurses (who are angels in scrubs). Thank you, God for watching over her.
Looking back at all of this, I can see God’s guiding hand. I had no control of the situation, but He was in complete control.
The surgeon warned that although he had fixed the problem the intestines could always still fold over, causing another blockage. It could happen when she’s eight or when she’s eighty, or never at all.
In the back of my mind, I still live with that worry. When she cries out in pain, when she hasn’t had a bowel movement for a while, when her stomach seems a little distended, my mind thinks, is this it? Is it back again? I’m still out of control. Every day, I have to remind myself who is actually in control.
Avery is one year old now. You can still see her scar from the surgery, but it is starting to fade. She is walking, albeit as wobbly as a baby giraffe. Sometimes she says words like “momma” or “dada” or makes doggy noises when she sees any sort of hairy animal. She has sparkling blue eyes that match her sister’s, and my dad’s. Her big sister, Madeline, adores her and is very protective of her, but Avery often shows she can take care of herself. She has a big personality, a loud mouth, and still is strong.
Happy birthday, little one.