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Priya Balachandran and her daughter Kali. Photo courtesy of Priya Balachandran.
This story is as told to Beth Greenfield by Priya Balachandran, a producer at Yahoo.
My daughter Kali is 10 years old now. But starting when she was not even 10 months, people would ask, “Are you going to have another?” I would tell them no but they would say, “She’s going to be lonely. Go, on, you can do it — have another!” And I’d start feeling guilty, and then I’d start feeling angry, as well, because I’d think: I just nearly died having this one.
When I gave birth to Kali is when doctors discovered I had something called pulmonary hypertension. That’s basically when your lung walls are too thick for the oxygen to get through, so your heart has to fight and push harder, and it’s like there’s a battle going on inside your body. After I gave birth to my daughter I was moved to the ICU. No one knew what was wrong with me, just that I couldn’t breathe. My husband was weeping, and I kept saying, “It’s going to be fine.” But what I didn’t know was this: The doctors had told him that I had only about two hours to live.
Photo courtesy of Priya Balachandran.
I was 32 when I got pregnant. It was very exciting — my first baby! I had been married for two years, and I was working in the crazy TV industry, wondering how I would handle it all. But I’m the healthiest person in my family: I never was sick, never was in the hospital. There were no suspicions that anything was going to go awry. But by the fourth month I started feeling a lot more tired than I should’ve been. I was tired and out of breath, and worse, I couldn’t keep any food in.
Around the fifth month I’d probably gained seven pounds. I could only keep down protein shakes. And I wasn’t able to work anymore because I was too tired. When I went to bed it felt like I had a lot of weight on my lungs — it was intense — so sleep was nearly non-existent.
One morning at around seven months I woke up and realized: Something’s not right. I was bleeding. We got in the car and went to the hospital, and my husband called his sister, a doctor, and she said she thought I was having the baby. I didn’t even have a medical bag ready. And we hadn’t had a baby shower! I was panicking about stupid things. When we got to the hospital they said, “You’re four centimeters dilated and you’re going to have the baby.” Then, I don’t remember much, because it all became crazy.
I was trying to keep my head straight because I wasn’t prepared. And as I was supposed to be holding my breath and counting to 10 I realized I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t hold my breath. I thought, what if I take little breaths, cheating? So I did that while pushing, thinking no one would notice. But I was going blue and losing oxygen while I was trying to give birth. I didn’t know this at the time — my husband had to fill me in later — but for him it wasn’t a joyous moment, because all he could focus on was that I was going blue.
I was feeling like I was drowning, like when you get pulled under the water for that moment, and you get that sudden panic. I was feeling like that through the whole thing. I got an oxygen mask and suddenly there was a lot going on around my head, and I realized there were two different conversations going on in the room, one about me and one about my daughter. Then they sort of whisked her away to the NICU and took me to ICU, and my husband was a complete wreck sitting next to me. I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that I wasn’t in the nice private room we had booked — and where the hell was the baby I just gave birth to?
My husband called his sister again, saying they wanted to intubate me, and she said, “Tell them not to. I think I know what she has, but it’s really rare, and I have a friend who’s an expert and he’s at [another hospital]. Tell them not to do it because it might kill her.” They told me I was being moved. I said, “Okay, good, but can I see Kali?” So they brought her down and she was all dressed up in this little cute outfit with a hat on. She had a feeding tube, and was really small — three pounds, nine ounces. They gave her to me and then they took a picture. I was a little confused about the picture, but I heard the nurse say, “You should take this. Just in case something happens, you’ve got a picture of her mom.” And it was just the weirdest moment. I was like, “She’s coming with me, right?”
But no, they didn’t move her. I got to the other hospital and they had to then do tests. They had to put a hole in my neck and feed a tube into my heart to check how it was working. I don’t know how I kept it together, to be honest. I just kept thinking: I’m going to see Kali. Soon they discovered primary pulmonary hypertension, meaning there was no genetic pathway and no reasoning behind why I got it. I spent three weeks in the hospital on drip-fed medication. Kali was in NICU in the other hospital for three weeks. The only thing I had was a photo of her and video footage, because my husband would go and take footage to show me.
Finally I got out and went to visit her, and then, after the fifth day of going to see her, I went home and I had a stroke.
I had a very little insignificant hole in my heart, and because I’d had a baby, I had a lot of blood clots, so this little blood clot went through my heart and into my brain and I had what they call a TIA, a mini-stroke. So I got home and couldn’t speak, I was just talking gibberish, and my husband thought I was dying. They took me back to the hospital and said they were going to keep me in for another 10 days. But my baby was about to come home! I had already abandoned her in another hospital, I hadn’t breastfed, I hadn’t been able to bond with her properly, and now she was going home and I wouldn’t be there. Luckily the hospital agreed to keep her in the hospital until I got released so that we could come home together. So 10 days later we did.
She was a mellow baby, so it was okay. But I had to have help because I was obviously scared I would fall sick and be alone with her. Once Kali was able to walk, I couldn’t pick her up anymore, because she was too heavy. So she got used to being very independent and walking. I couldn’t run around with her. It used to feel devastating every time I wanted to do something, and I used to feel like a bad mom — I still sometimes feel like a bad mom — but now I feel like what I can do is I can teach her stuff that doesn’t involve running around.
Photo courtesy of Priya Balachandran.
I have to take her to get her heart checked annually, and that’s possibly the most stressful day of the year for me because I don’t ever want her to have this. We see kids with it, and it’s different with children, because their bodies aren’t strong enough to cope with it. So I feel like I’m lucky, because it’s me and not my kid.
I still really want another kid. I sometimes look at friends who are having kids and think, I could still have another one, I’m only 42. But I was told I could not have another child while I was still in the hospital. They said women with pulmonary hypertension are advised not to have a child because it can kill them. So I felt glad I didn’t discover it beforehand, because I wanted to have a child. But also I was really, really sad, because I wanted to have more than one child. It seems selfish — I came out with my life and I have a kid who’s super healthy — but I still wanted to be the mom of two or three kids.
I’m also on a drug that keeps me alive but warps my eggs, so if I wanted to have a baby through a surrogate I can’t even do that. I’ve thought about adoption. The problem is that I have finite time. I don’t actually have a guarantee — no one does — but I’m worried that it takes a long time to adopt, so what if something happens during that process, and my husband is left as a single dad of two kids? My prognosis basically went from two hours that day in the hospital to two years, once I had my medication. After my second-year anniversary it was like, okay, we just have to see every year. People say if you’ve survived 10 years with PH it’s kind of amazing, and I’ve survived 10 years. I made a little promise that if I could just survive till I was 50, that would be great. So I’ve got eight years. I probably have more — my husband jokes that I’m going to outlive everyone.
So basically, if a mom is walking around with only one child, there’s a reason, whether it’s a deadly illness or a personal choice. You just have to respect it.