- Vocabulary for a Nervous Heart
Premature Atrial Beats
On a late winter afternoon, maple tree branches cast shadows across the floor, the coffee table, the cat tucked under my arm on the couch. My right hand strokes her head while the left moves in a wide circle above an inland sea, an otter lolling this way and that. I rub and he nudges back, stretching into my diaphragm, interrupting my breath.
At last week's seven-month checkup, the obstetrician moved a Doppler wand across my abdomen, releasing into the room a series of blips like stones being tossed into a pond. One, two, three at a time, a handful, a pause, and back to one again.
"Does that sound choppy to you?" Dr. N. asked, and in that moment I loved her. What a marvelous woman, I thought, to offer me a choice.
The pediatric cardiologist comes into the waiting room herself instead of sending a nurse to get me. She wears khakis and a sweater and keeps losing her pen. As she presses the wand just below my belly button, she says, "That doesn't sound too bad." She stares at a screen on her computer while I stare at a screen hanging from the ceiling. Under the hospital's electric hum, we watch the gray splotch expand and contract.
Before long the cardiologist widens her eyes. "What the heck?" She moves [End Page 43] the wand, adjusts the focus, begs the baby to stay still. After a long, silent moment she shakes her head, rejecting a bad memory. "This heart rate's giving me the heebie-jeebies," she says. "You'll have to stay overnight for monitoring."
I almost laugh. The heebie-jeebies? How bad can that be?
The day nurse is sweet as a prairie breeze. She moved from Iowa to Chicago after college, and she loves this, her first job, although she's thinking of transferring to nights because they pay better. She grunts as her arms wrap around my waist, attaching the monitor belt. "It's good that he moves a lot," she says, then sits beside me on the bed. As we listen to the tinny echo—blip-BLIP, blip-blip-BLIP—she rubs my arm. "Don't worry. That heartbeat will sort itself out."
The night nurse is tough as a cop, with a teenage daughter and a nephew eating her out of house and home. When she first comes on, the heartbeat is regular, but by midnight it's acting up again. "Whoa, that's crazy!" she says before she, too, rubs my arm. "We get fetal arrhythmias all the time, and I'm telling you—not once in 12 years have I seen this turn into a problem."
Every hour or two the night nurse comes for vitals, sitting beside me, hip to hip, and talking about her sister's drug habit, her nephew's depression. I don't mind. I listen to her and the monitor both, thinking that there are worse things than irregular heartbeats. Drug addiction is worse. Depression is worse. I make a game of identifying the rhythms on the monitor—there goes a waltz, here comes a two-step, now we've got a few measures of bossa nova. The kid's going to be a composer, I tell myself. Years from now we'll say, proudly, "He's been this way since before he was born."
A hole in the heart. Which every baby has.
At the follow-up visit, the cardiologist is "super pleased" that the arrhythmia hasn't worsened. She sits on a tall stool, her right hand pressing the wand into my belly, left hand pressing a button on the keyboard to take pictures. "Come [End Page 44] on, buddy, hold still," she says. I watch the screen, trying to see what she sees in the Rorschach image of what looks to me like a four-winged butterfly.
"Huh," she says. "The left ventricle's smaller than the right. And the foramen ovale is big for eight months." She explains that all babies...