My daughter Owen is everything to me. She is bright, driven and kind. She works hard and plays hard, taking risks here and there, but nothing of concern to me. No parent could ask for a better daughter.
At 31, Owen is a second-year medical resident in radiation oncology. She is an avid skier and hockey player, and has completed both a half-marathon and a sprint triathlon. On April 17, she participated in a 10-kilometre run in Vancouver. It was a sunny and beautiful day and crowds of people were out to celebrate the big event.
It was Owen’s fifth time running the race. But for the first time in our lives, Owen was found to be less than perfect. She collapsed at the finish line. She had no heartbeat and no pulse; she was dead, literally.
A fireman at the finish line started CPR and paramedics arrived almost immediately. Her heart was shocked back to action and she was quickly transported to hospital.
I was frozen with fear when the news reached me. When I stepped into the hospital’s emergency room within an hour of receiving the call, my weeping heart turned to relief and joy. There were no tubes hanging out of her, just a lovely but subdued smile waiting for me.
“Ventricular fibrillation” is what caused her to collapse. It is a condition where the ventricular cardiac muscle fails to contract properly and is therefore unable to pump blood out of the heart to feed the brain and the body. Doctors were trying to figure out what triggered this condition in an active young woman with no history of heart problems.
My mind has not stopped reeling since. I read up on ventricular fibrillation online. I learned that she could have died if she wasn’t resuscitated within a few minutes. If she had collapsed somewhere along the route where the rescue team was not within quick access, she would have been gone for good.
I have dug deep inside myself since then to figure out how to take things as they come, how to accept a tragedy and let go had she not been saved. It is unfathomable and I was paralyzed thinking about it.
I could think of many things I could do to be a better person. I could repent with all my heart the things I have done that I am not proud of, the times I was plain wrong either by design or sheer stupidity. I could work hard on my anger management. I could be compassionate, caring, giving and forgiving. I could do more and criticize less. I could agree to disagree and bear no grudges. There is so much I can do and I will do in trying to live more consciously.
Owen went through a battery of tests and remained in the hospital for six days. A defective mechanism was discovered. The doctors called it long QT syndrome. It could be genetic, or a genetic anomaly if neither parent was found guilty of giving her the bad gene. Our family had to endure a series of tests to find out if our hearts were good, bad or questionable. The tests turned out normal.
My heart has never been well behaved – it longs for things I cannot have. Passion and anger are always at each other’s throats. That may be the reason my heart beats irregularly, murmurs and skips beats. If it is not too cold and hard, it is too warm and soft, never quite right or sensible.
But nothing of consequence was detected and I was pronounced healthy. My cardiologist assured me my heart was in enviable shape and told me to go home and enjoy my health and be happy. My chronic heart murmur paled in comparison to my daughter’s condition.
Owen’s heart now has a fancy name and tells a different story. She has become a bionic woman with a gadget called a defibrillator implanted in her left chest. Her heart needs help in case it throws another fit and refuses to work properly. It may happen any time or never; for safety and prevention purposes, she needed the implant. The doctor has to cut her up every five years to replace the battery. I can’t help but wonder what next? The more innovative devices we invent to save lives, the more we invade our bodies.Owen is now back to work after a few weeks of recuperation. Limits on activities have been clearly laid out for her: swimming and running are out, permanently. She can drive again soon and can’t wait to get back behind the wheel. Other than the heart defect and the new gadget, she is the same excellent daughter whom I love dearly, even more so now. I don’t wish the crisis didn’t happen, but I’m glad it happened at the right time and in the right place. We are grateful to everyone involved in saving Owen.
A lot remains unclear but we are learning to cope, to tread, to be optimistic and to look at our hearts more tenderly and others more kindly. There are defects hidden in all of us that may never surface. And when it did in my beloved daughter, we were shaken but not destroyed. I began to realize that there may be psychological defects deeply seated in human hearts that prompt human beings to do things unimaginable and unexplainable. “A heart that knows not what it is doing” is our excuse. Matters of the heart are complex and take a long time and a large dose of love, patience and discipline to resolve.
Hwee Lim lives in Vancouver.