Please make him lucky

Would our frantic Russian roulette gamble pay off with our son's life?

Published by: Jean Jollands
Published on: 3 November 2011

All right, I was no doctor but, as the sound of my unborn baby's heartbeat echoed from the monitor, I could tell it didn't sound right. Sort of skippy and weak. My husband Rupert, 40, held my hand and smiled, but it looked forced.
We were ushered into a room, and joined by two consultants.
‘I'm sorry,' one began.
‘Your baby has a severe heart condition... I'm afraid it doesn't have much chance of survival.'
Rupert held me, and we wept together. ‘We waited so long for this,' I sobbed. ‘Two years trying to conceive, three lots of artificial insemination, before our dreams came true.' I was 32 weeks pregnant. We needed another in-depth scan to discover the exact nature of my baby's condition. We prayed for a miracle, but it confirmed our fears.
‘Your baby has critical aortic stenosis,' the doctor explained. The aortic valve in the heart, which helps pump oxygenated blood around the body, was blocked.
‘Because the valve is as narrow as a pinhole, blood is building up in your baby's heart, causing it to swell. This is as bad as it gets...'
I felt sick. ‘There is a chance your baby can survive...' he continued. ‘Once it's born, we can perform open heart surgery.'
‘What?' I gasped, my arms wrapped protectively around my bump. Open heart surgery? On a baby?
The longer the baby stayed inside me, the stronger he or she would be. But if the heart valve grew too narrow, the strain could prove fatal. It was like a game of Russian roulette.
Back home, Rupert and I stared at the babygrows we'd bought... the mobile hanging in the nursery.
‘Why is this happening?' I cried.
I couldn't lose this baby, I'd already bonded so much. Convinced I was having a girl, I'd alreadydecided her name - Ruby.
Days later, another scan revealed we were actually expecting a boy. So we changed a single letter of the name I loved. ‘Rudy,' I smiled.
‘Come on little man,' Rupert soothed, stroking my belly gently. ‘Fight this.'
Five slow weeks passed. Finally, at 37 weeks pregnant, doctors felt Rudy had put on enough weight and was ready to enter the world.
My cheeks were wet with tears as the doctors fussed around me.
I glanced at Rupert, clutching his hand.
Giving birth should have been the most exciting time. Instead, I was terrified.
‘Don't forget, he may not cry, or be breathing,' the doctor said, as my contractions started.
When Rudy arrived, I balked at his mottled blue body. Then... he let out a bellowing cry!
‘He's 6lb 1oz,' a nurse smiled, handing him to me. I gazed into his beautiful blue eyes.
‘You gave us quite a fright,' I whispered. He was ours for just a few precious seconds before a doctor took him.
Because he'd survived the birth so well, we were full of hope. But the following day, doctors called us in.
‘Rudy's heart valve is so narrow, it's critical we perform open heart surgery soon.'
Using microscopic cameras, they'd unblock the valve. There was a chance my darling son might not even wake up from the surgery - but it was his only chance. ‘Do it,' I sobbed.
He was 36 hours old - he'd be one of the youngest patients in the world to have open heart surgery.
Rudy was transferred by ambulance to Birmingham Children's Hospital.
There I tucked beside him the Lucky the Lion toy my mum Maureen had bought. ‘Keep him safe, Lucky,' I begged.
I had no idea how long the surgery lasted but, finally, we were ushered in to see Rudy.
‘We can't close his chest up properly yet, in case we need to go in again,' a nurse said.
His tiny body was swamped with tubes. Lucky was nestled beside him, protecting him...
Rudy was then put on an extracorporeal life support machine to take over the work of his heart and lungs.
We sat by him every day. ‘Lucky's looking after you,' I'd whisper. ‘Keeping you strong until Mummy can.'
And two days later, Rudy's heart was finally strong enough for him to come off the machine!
It was touch and go, though. He was still on a ventilator, and a team of 20 medics in intensive care fought tirelessly to stabilise him over the next two weeks.
But, slowly, he got stronger. Three weeks after the op, doctors closed up his chest. When he was five-weeks-old, we were woken up by the phone ringing. It was 2am. Calls at this time normally only meant one thing... bad news.
‘Your little boy has pulled out his ventilator tube all by himself,' a nurse said. ‘I think he's telling us he's ready to breathe on his own.'
I sank back into the pillows, half-crying, half-laughing.
Rudy was soon off the ventilator for good, and we brought him home at 10-weeks-old. ‘Where he belongs,' Rupert said, as we put him in his cot, with Lucky beside him.
Our boy is three-months-old now. He has to take medication to maintain his iron levels and reduce fluid retention, and has regular check-ups. If his valve narrows further, he'll need another op.
But as I look at him playing with Lucky and chuckling, I know I'm the luckiest mum in the world.

• The Children's Heart Appeal is raising money for a new theatre for keyhole and open heart surgery at Birmingham Children's Hospital. To donate, visit

Jeanette Shiel, 35, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands