It’s just a heart cath. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase come from the mouth of a heart parent. I can’t tell you how many times my wife and I said it in the months and weeks leading up to my son, Tucker’s (Hypoplastic left heart syndrome, HLHS), heart cath on May 22nd.
A heart cath, or cardiac catheterization, is a procedure in which doctors insert a catheter and guide wire into a major blood vessel and move them until they reach the heart. Most heart caths originate in the groin and enter the heart through the femoral artery. Once the catheter is in place, the doctor uses a dye and fluoroscopy (real time x-ray showing movement) to get a very accurate picture of the heart and surrounding blood vessels. In kids with congenital heart defects (CHDs), heart caths are typically used as a diagnostic tool prior to surgery or to make smaller repairs. In Tucker’s case, the heart cath was used to make sure everything looked good in his heart prior to having open-heart surgery on June 18th.
A few days before Tucker’s procedure, I found myself thinking about the phrase, “It’s just a heart cath.” To most parents, it wouldn’t be “just” a heart cath, it would be something big! To most parents of kids with CHDs, it is a fairly minor part of their treatment.
When you compare a heart cath, which usually is a one day affair, with an open-heart surgery, it’s not that big of a deal. But it really all comes down to a matter of perspective. Many CHD parents experience numerous surgical procedures during the course of their child’s treatment. Heart caths usually occur before these surgeries. Most don’t require an overnight stay in the hospital. There are, relatively, few risks involved. Heart caths are just part of the process, like echocardiograms and cardiologist visits.
To a parent of a child with a more “minor” CHD, a heart cath may be the only procedure that they ever have. Some heart holes can be repaired during a cardiac catheterization. To a parent of a heart healthy child, a heart cath would probably be a very big deal. Prior to having Tucker, if you had told me that my child would be put to sleep, taken to a surgical room, have a wire fed through the largest artery in his leg into his heart, and then have to remain completely still for several hours after waking up, I would have freaked out. Now it’s “just a heart cath!”
Perspective is an important thing. Things that are a big deal to one parent might be minor to another. We don’t always know another person’s story or experiences. Tucker’s HLHS is a more severe form of CHD than a simple hole in the heart, but that doesn’t mean that a child with that defect is any less important or significant than Tucker. His or her parents aren’t any less of a CHD parent than Dena and I. Many CHD parents get wrapped up in our world and we sometimes try to compare our lives to the lives of parents dealing with other childhood disorders. We get frustrated because childhood cancer gets more attention and funding than CHD research and prevention. But it’s not a competition. They are both tragic. The kids and the parents from both sides go to hell and back. Lives are lost to both. It’s all about perspective.
Tucker’s heart cath went very well. The doctor said that his heart looked as good as possible for a child with HLHS. The pressures in his heart and blood vessels were in the correct range and he was cleared for surgery. He was a little feisty when waking up from the anesthesia, but he recovered quickly. It wasn’t too hard to keep him still for a couple of hours, all we had to do was put on his favorite movie and give him snacks and drinks.
As we gear up for Tucker’s big surgery, it’s hard not to wish it was just a heart cath! He has survived and thrived after his first two surgeries and there is no reason to think differently about this next one, but it is still tough to prepare ourselves for it. When I start to feel a little overwhelmed about everything, I think about the families wishing for a surgery to fix their child’s problem or the families who are making funeral arrangements. I wonder if they would think, “It’s just a heart surgery!”?