The first thing I remember after my son Monty was born is someone yelling, “He’s not breathing.”
It’s not usually something we have to think about — breathing. But after learning when I was four months pregnant that Monty had a rare congenital heart defect, breathing became an overly conscious act through the most trying moments of my life.
I was sitting near the White House, about to go on air to talk about the presidential inauguration, when I got the phone call from my doctor. One of the tests they’d run on the baby had come back abnormal, and I needed to have an ultrasound.
About an hour later, as I navigated through checkpoints in Washington, D.C., on my way to the hospital, my mind raced. How was it possible something might be wrong after everything my husband, Ryan, and I had gone through to get to this point? Months of failed intrauterine insemination attempts while Ryan, an Army officer, was deployed overseas. Four rounds of in vitro fertilization, giving myself hormone injections in the press bathroom at the White House between live shots. Thirty-three embryos. And just one had been viable.
That was Monty.
Ryan met me outside of the hospital. COVID-19 protocols meant I had to go in alone. The ultrasound technician quickly said she didn’t see any signs of the problem my doctor thought the baby might have. I texted Ryan the good news. Then she continued with the ultrasound, silent. She was spending a lot of time looking at what appeared to be Monty’s heart, based on the little pulsing motion it was making. I started to take deep, deliberate breaths.
An hour and 15 minutes later I texted Ryan again: “It’s a heart problem.”
That wasn’t all. The placenta was covering my cervix, a condition known as placenta previa that could require bed rest.
The happiness and relief we had felt since learning I was pregnant morphed back into a familiar sadness.
Monty had transposition of the great arteries, a rare, life-threatening congenital heart defect that affects one in about 3,400 births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He would require open-heart surgery within days after he was born. And, depending on his condition at birth, he might need immediate intervention to be stabilized.
My anxiety took residence in my chest.
In the weeks after learning Monty’s diagnosis, I started losing my breath while speaking on television, an occupational hazard for a TV correspondent. I found myself unable to breathe while watching the images of Monty’s heart during hourlong echocardiograms done through my swollen belly and had to take frequent breaks.
It was a dramatic difference from my first pregnancy, which was unexpected but not physically difficult for me or my now 9-year-old son, Hudson. I was covering the 2012 presidential campaign, so I sprinted in and out of helicopters, motorcades and airplanes through the election until I was seven months pregnant.
Hudson was healthy, and for six years I balanced my demanding job as White House Correspondent, for The Wall Street Journal and then NBC News, with being a single parent.
Ryan and I got married in June 2019, and we wanted to grow our family. We learned I was pregnant a couple months before our wedding. And after returning from our honeymoon we learned during a routine ultrasound that we’d lost the baby when the doctor could no longer find a heartbeat.
We felt we were in the clear four months into my pregnancy with Monty. But his TGA diagnosis tossed our hopes and plans upside down.
After wiping away the tears — and stepping away from Google — we began to develop a new plan. Two months before my due date, I moved to Philadelphia to be closer to the hospital where I’d chosen to have Monty. Because of the placenta previa, I had to have a cesarean section.
The last thing I remember before the C-section began is saying, “This feels really f—ing weird.”
What I didn’t know was that my blood pressure had dropped so dangerously low the doctor had to immediately get Monty out.
When Ryan arrived in the room, to his shock, he walked into a crisis. I was unconscious. Monty wasn’t breathing when he was born, his body was blue and he wasn’t moving. But he had a heartbeat.
Monty wasn’t breathing when he was born, his body was blue and he wasn’t moving. But he had a heartbeat.
As the doctors updated me on his condition, I received a blood transfusion. I went in and out of consciousness and gasped for air. “He’s not doing well,” they kept saying.
I needed oxygen to catch my breath. Back in my hospital room where the morning began, I took long breaths to try to still my chattering teeth while nurses covered me with a forced-air warming system known as the Bair Hugger because my body temperature was only 93 degrees.
Nine hours later when I saw Monty for the first time, I held my breath. He was connected to a breathing tube with wires running from nearly every part of his little body. When the doctors said they needed to check for brain damage, I inhaled sharply.
The morning Monty went in for open-heart surgery, at four days old, my husband and I helped wheel him to the operating room. We waited for 10 hours. I breathed a sigh of relief when his surgeon said the operation had been a success.
Monty was covered with a white sheet from the neck down when my husband and I arrived at his bedside. My husband stood. I reached for a chair, feeling short of breath. A nurse explained what Monty would look like once she removed the sheet. But no words could match the sight of my baby boy in that moment. I felt like I would throw up. I held my breath instead, and tears rolled down my face.
The days after remain both searingly vivid and frustratingly blurry. Our days centered on whether one of the tubes inserted in Monty’s body would be removed. Monty hadn’t eaten by mouth since he was born. The first time he drank a quarter of an ounce, Ryan and I celebrated as if he’d taken his first step.
The first time he drank a quarter of an ounce, Ryan and I celebrated as if he’d taken his first step.
When we brought Monty home from the hospital, nine days after his surgery, he was still significantly under his birth weight and had a feeding tube.
The following months were filled with joy — for watching Monty grow, and Hudson bond with his baby brother. But it also was a time rife with frustration and setbacks. Monty cried almost nonstop. He was back in the emergency room five days after he was discharged. It was just reflux, but the notion that it could be his heart is something that will always hang over routine baby issues. Back in Washington, his incision became infected, prompting another hospital visit.
When my husband returned to work, a deep sadness came over me. Monty cried for most of the day, and I was alone. The oppressive summer heat meant I couldn’t take him outside. And the pandemic meant I couldn’t take him to walk around a museum or to a coffee shop to break up our day. Friends would visit and hold him for me so I could shower or nap. And Ryan would take Monty when he got home.
Then the Afghanistan withdrawal happened and Ryan was barely home, working 18 hours or more a day. My friends, all journalists, were too busy to come by. Meanwhile, my own physical recovery was at times so daunting I wondered if I’d ever recognize myself again. I had gained 60 pounds during my pregnancy. The blood transfusion left my legs so swollen it sometimes hurt to bend my knees. When my sadness very clearly became depression, I reached out to my doctor for help. After a couple more months, I hired someone to come over a few days a week to watch Monty while I went to the grocery store or worked out.
If I had to do it over again I would’ve set aside my feeling, however true, that many women have it a lot worse, so I should just deal with it. I would’ve sought help much sooner. My family would’ve been better for it.
Monty is thriving now — crawling, smiling and asserting his strong will. And I’m beginning to feel like myself — mostly. I still have a deep-purple scar and a numb lower abdomen that may or may not resume feeling, and that extra layer of anxiety about Monty persists. Yet I’ve found new strength in my family’s experience and want other women to know what I now know: It’s OK to talk about the ugly stuff. You don’t have to smile through it. Just breathe. And ask for help.