This is the story of your first year. Before the age of one, you lived through a pandemic and underwent open heart surgery. You were born just as the pandemic was about to make landfall in March 2020. We opted for an induction ASAP to get you out because we didn’t know if there were going to be hospital beds available or not. I thought of the Virgin Mary giving birth with no rooms at the inn.
At your three week checkup we were relieved at having survived without help at home and not having gotten the dreaded Covid in the hospital delivering you, when the pediatrician heard a heart murmur. (Incidentally, she was your Daddy’s pediatrician before she was yours!). She sent us to the Stanford pediatric cardiology clinic that same day, where a cardiologist told me that you had a ventricular septal defect. In other words, there was a moderate to large sized hole in your heart. We were to monitor it and see if maybe it would close on its own. We took you in for regular echocardiograms every couple months of your first year. Because of Covid protocols, only one parent was allowed to go in.
There was no help at home because we were worried about keeping everyone safe given Daddy’s job as a nurse, and also the fact that you were high risk for Covid due to your heart defect. It was just you, me, and Daddy. But we made it! For many months, your dad’s parents and sisters only saw you from a distance. At least they live close by, a five minute drive away. Your aunt (my sister), her husband, and your twin toddler cousins still have not met you in person. They live across the country in Virginia, and we still don’t know when they will meet you because one of them is high risk for Covid too.
You had many health issues in your first year. You had thrush, weight gain issues, and a suspicious spot on the back of your head at 5 months. A top pediatric dermatologist told us there was a 75% chance nothing was wrong, but that if you were her granddaughter, she would want you to get checked out with an MRI scan. We weighed the pros and cons of having you go under anesthesia and decided it was better to do the MRI than not. It was September 2020, a day after the sky went turned orange from forest fire smoke, and SF looked positively apocalyptic. The sun did not come out that day. Daddy took you in for your MRI, and you were a champ. The nurses said that you woke up from anesthesia smiling. Most babies wake up crying. You did much better than Mommy, who was outside in the car crying as I waited. Your MRI came back normal — no brain or skull deformities. Phew.
All your first holidays were mostly just us, our little tribe of three, with an occasional outdoor driveby waving at extended family or Zoom calls. (Or maybe a quick outdoor meal socially distanced in our backyard). Such a far cry from the usual throngs of family members and crowded family gatherings. On the strangest New Year’s Eve, we watched the ball dropgreat in a nearly empty Time’s Square over a live feed with a few friends on Zoom. First responders like EMTs and medical staff danced in celebration pod boxes.
I heard that a summer camp friend suddenly collapsed and passed away when his son was only three months old. I became obsessive about getting life insurance ASAP. And that’s also why I am writing you these letters, so if the Lord calls me home earlier than I had hoped, I will still always be with you.
We were already inclined to shelter in place because you are a baby, but when we learned about your heart defect we really buckled down. If you were to get Covid-19, the novel virus that has led to this pandemic, you could have gotten severely ill. I used to lament that you didn’t come along earlier, that we had to wait almost two years to become parents. But now I count my lucky stars that you came when you did. You’ve been young enough that caring for you is fairly mechanical and something I can do while working, and we haven’t had to send you out to daycare or bring in a nanny and worry about Covid. My mom (your A-Ma) has helped out here and there when I finally allowed her to, even though I was scared she or A-Gong might get Covid from Daddy’s occupation or our many medical visits.
It has been hard for your many relatives to stay away. Who wouldn’t want to hold a cute baby like yourself? I do feel badly that they haven’t been able to snuggle you with abandon. But our first priority and obligation as parents is to keep you safe. Maybe let them get some good snuggles later ok? If they hold onto you tight like starfish, you’ll know why.
Ironically, many medical professionals got to see you up close quite a bit, much more than your relatives. They broke professionalism to coo over how adorable you are, and your cardiologist clearly was delighted to be examining such a cute baby as you. You had a Zoom telehealth exam from a dermatologist who was clearly in her guest bedroom, haha. You were schlepped all over town for many medical appointments and yet we remained Covid free in a great testament to the power of PPE (personal protective equipment like masks) and safety precautions.
After 10 months of monitoring your heart defect with echocardiograms, you started to get a little sweatier than usual. That was one of the signs of heart failure to watch out for, so we took you in to see the cardiologist earlier than planned. Daddy went in this time while I waited outside in the car. When my phone rang with a video call I knew it wasn’t good. As you grabbed at the hem of the cardiologist’s scrubs and tugged on her photo ID badge, she told us that unfortunately the hole wasn’t closing and that you would likely need surgery. Doing it before you turned one would be ideal. If it wasn’t closed, it could lead to heart failure eventually. I couldn’t help but burst into tears, and I could see the doctor’s sad look upon seeing my response. Daddy came downstairs with you and we cried together in the drop-off lane of the hospital. It was only the third time I’d ever seen your Daddy cry. The fourth time would be in the waiting room before your surgery.
That was January 2021. We had watched the inauguration footage on TV, you and I, and I ugly cried while Kamala Harris was sworn in as the vice president and you crawled around in the playpen. How wonderful that an Asian woman was ascending to one of the highest offices in the land! The next day, I was ugly crying again for an entirely different reason as we waited for confirmation that you would need surgery. Twenty five cardiologists agreed on a committee meeting a few days later that your case required surgery.
Daddy’s sister (your auntie Jas) finally held you on Valentine’s Day 2021, after quarantining for almost two weeks and taking two Covid tests.
Your maternal grandparents (my parents) were not told about any of your medical issues until a few weeks before the surgery. A-Gong and A-Ma were very high risk for Covid complications, so they were pretty much stuck at home throughout the pandemic except for the occasional visit to our house. A-Gong had heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. They had enough to worry about with the pandemic and wildfire season cooping them up too. I thought about telling them about your surgery several times but always chickened out. You called them almost every day your first year, proving that there was nothing for them to worry about. Your smiling baby face on video calls was a ray of sunshine for many of our loved ones sheltering in place at home.
Your heart surgery was originally scheduled for March 4, 2021, but it was postponed twice at the last minute. We packed and prepped you for surgery and made you fast, and went all the way to the hospital but were sent home. It was so stressful but it happened because other sicker babies needed emergency surgeries. How could we do anything but wish those babies a smooth recovery? Even the night before your surgery we didn’t know if you would be postponed again. Getting you into surgery was in itself a small miracle. You had a fleet of cheerleaders and prayer warriors. Our friends told me their family members were praying for you too. There was a 24 hour prayer vigil not once, but twice. Prayer works. Finally your surgery took place at Stanford Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital on St. Patrick’s Day (the luckiest day of the year!).
Sweet Maddie, always remember that you are a fighter. The anesthesiologist described you as “wild.” Every time you had to get sedated, first for your MRI and then your heart surgery, it took a lot to get you down. On the morning of your surgery you were standing up and dancing and waving your arms in the prep room. (This, even after your pre-surgery fasting!). They gave you meds that were supposed to make you sleepy, but when they came back you were still standing and bouncing, shaking your little diapered butt, thrilled to explore the new environment at the hospital.
Mommy’s college friend helpfully distracted Daddy and me from a social distance while you were in surgery and bought us coffee. The friends you make early in life do make a difference. Despite being geographically far away, my middle school, high school, and college friends have been a strong bastion of support in one of the most difficult times of my life. I hope and pray that you too will be a good friend to others and enjoy sweet friendship.
On the same morning that we hailed the miracle of your surgery moving forward and taking place successfully, a mass shooting took place in Atlanta and eight lives were taken by anti-Asian hate. Your surgeon, Dr. Michael Ma, is an esteemed doctor we picked in part because he too was Taiwanese American (haha). As I reflected on your successful surgery, I thought to myself that even he with all his credentials was in the same boat. Raising his two kids in an America that hates Asians. Mommy’s working hard right now to speak up against anti-Asian hate and make things better for you.
In the same year that saw Stephen Yeun become the first Asian American Oscar nominee for Best Actor ever for his role in Minari, there was a tsunami of anti-Asian hate ignited by the pandemic. Incidentally, the little boy in Minari had the same heart condition as you. The hole in his heart closed up on its own, and I was honestly a little upset that his fictional defect had closed on its own but yours hadn’t. But thank God for modern medicine that could close it for you.
You defied expectations with what the nurses called a “picture perfect” and “phenomenal” recovery! It was very hard to see you lying uncomfortably in the cardiovascular ICU after your surgery. Every extremity was hooked up to a device monitoring vital signs and there were three IV’s inserted, a breathing tube, and a chest tube inserted. But by God’s grace your recovery went so smoothly that you were discharged from the hospital after only 2 nights. (The average stay for ventricular septal defect repair is 4 nights). Thank goodness your daddy is a nurse so we could all feel better at home. I had packed a birthday banner to hang in your hospital room just in case, but you made it back home in time for your first birthday!
A Stanford chaplain called me while you were in the hospital on your second day and recovering. It was so so helpful. I said to her, “I don’t know how people get through something like this without faith.” And she said, “I hear that all the time.” You were already our little miracle, coming to us after an IVF journey, but then your astonishingly rapid recovery reminded us all over again of God’s goodness. When I see your cute face, I remember God’s great faithfulness even in times of despair and abundant provision even in my disbelief.
I’ve wondered why you have to go through all this when most babies don’t, but when we saw the other babies at the hospital we realized how fortunate you are. We have health insurance. Brody, the baby next door in our shared hospital room, was really sick and faced a two week minimum stay at best. His family had travelled all the way from Louisiana. We were able to just drive home, fortunate to live close to top notch medical facilities.
Seeing your incision has been hard for me at first. It reminds me right now of all you had to go through. But you don’t seem to mind. You’re happy and kicking. Your face could be covered in scars and it would still be the most beautiful little face I ever saw in my life. I pray and hope that when you grow up, that scar will be something you are proud of. It is your miracle mark, a sign of your strength and God’s goodness in protecting your life.
Maybe this was God’s way of giving you an awesome Stanford college essay or making you into a doctor or a nurse. But it’s okay too if not :-)
Dear daughter, you won’t remember any of this. And this is why I had to write it down for you. It has been a tough first year, but you were worth it. Your bright smile made it all bearable. You were already precious when it took us almost two years to get pregnant with you, and you’re all the more precious now. Every day with you is a gift.
You will face many trials in life just like we all do, and I hope you always keep smiling through them as radiantly as you did this first year. You did so well and we’re so proud of you. You are a bouncing, giggling bundle of joy whose curiosity and resilience inspire and amaze us. We frequently find you laughing to yourself on your own unprompted. Daddy and I feel like we won the baby jackpot with the happiest baby ever.
As you read this, I hope you know that we did the best we could in making big decisions for your care in your first year of life. And that is all we will ever ask of you. Your best will always be good enough for us.
Thank you for being the light of our lives.
Mommy and Daddy