On July 25th, I leave to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
It’s the highest peak in Africa. A nine-day journey.
Everyone keeps asking me why I’m doing this. All I can say is: it’s been calling me. For years.
When I finished medical school, I looked for a way to escape the predictable grueling pathway of surgical residency. I wanted to travel and fulfill my wanderlust. But medicine is a jealous mistress, and I found myself entrenched in another four years of training.
I still wanted to experience the world after I completed my residency. But I wanted to qualify for the Board Exam in Obstetrics and Gynecology, which meant I needed to work for at least two years in the United States before I could think of doing anything non-traditional.
The world, and my wanderlust, went on the back burner.
Now, it’s thirteen years later. I’m in private practice in Austin. I am still honoring my oath and taking care of people. But so much happened along the way.
In 2006, I became pregnant with my second child, Daniel. At a routine 18-week ultrasound, the technician spent a concerning amount of time examining the fetus’ heart. She excused herself to consult with the physician; she wanted to confirm what she thought she was seeing.
Dr. Sheppard confirmed it: Daniel had a heart defect.
It was Transposition of the Great Vessels. It’s a defect that doesn’t allow the blood to oxygenate.
Without surgical correction, it is fatal.
So we went to Houston to meet with some of the best congenital heart surgeons in the country; together, they would help plan the repair of Daniel’s heart. Early detection allowed me to seek out the best care and to allow for the best outcome.
Daniel was born on May 9th in Houston. After his delivery, the doctors performed an assessment. I was asked to wait until he went into complete heart failure so that his heart would be dilated, and so the heart surgeon, Dr. Charles Fraser, would have more tissue to work with during the procedure.
The most challenging 2 months of my life ensued.
I rented a home in Houston, and Daniel and I moved in. I neurotically documented every drop of milk he drank. I weighed every wet diaper. I checked his oxygen levels daily. I stayed up all night staring at him, making sure he was still breathing, and all while nursing my own post-cesarean-section self back to health.
On June 8th, Daniel finally turned a dusky shade of blue and stopped drinking milk. It was a sign he was barely oxygenating. He was admitted to the hospital and underwent a complicated 15 hour procedure. I finally went back to Austin on June 26th, just in time for my daughter Laila’s 2nd birthday.
Daniel is doing great now, thanks to the ultrasound technician and doctor that diagnosed him and the phenomenal pediatric heart surgeon, Dr. Fraser, that repaired him. And of course, thanks to the grace of God.
The air is thin at the top of Kilimanjaro. I imagine it will feel a lot like what Daniel experienced in those final days as a baby, before his heart was fixed. His oxygen levels were in the 80’s. His heart was going into failure. He had difficulty breathing, difficulty eating. He was struggling and fighting to exist.
I am climbing Kilimanjaro to honor Daniel and over 40,000 babies who are born each year with congenital heart disease.
I am climbing to bring awareness and access to the same level of care that I had; the kind that allowed Daniel to be the thriving beautiful boy he is today.
I am asking for your prayers and support. I am also asking that you help us raise funds to train ultrasonographers to detect heart defects early in pregnancy during routine ultrasounds.
Ultrasonographers are the front line against congenital heart disease. With their early detection, we can help these babies and families prepare and access the best care available.
Please support our endeavor to provide early detection of congenital heart disease by donating at http://tinyheartsproject.org/
I will be sending thanks and prayers back to you at the top of Kilimanjaro.