The time his heart stopped. Three times. {Vanessa Hart – Childhood Cancer}

When Jeannett introduced this series she said:
“I didn’t just want a timeline of their cancer story.
I wanted to hear their cancer STORY.
I want to have a teeny tiny peek into their hearts.”

And I started to think maybe she’d chosen the wrong girl. I’m not good at STORY. In my pre-children life I was a high school Calculus teacher and that should tell you everything you need to know about my love of facts, information, timeline, and details. Story and feelings and wordy words are not my thing. Even on my own blog…it reads more like a timeline than insight into my heart.

In my first attempt at story, I mentioned the time Brock went into cardiopulmonary arrest – he stopped breathing and his heart stopped. But even then, I didn’t think I’d REALLY tell you about it. I just thought I might tell you the abbreviated, easy-to-swallow version.

But Jeannett asked me to get real so I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone. Because there is nothing abbreviated or easy-to-swallow about living with childhood cancer.

In April 2011 Brock was 2.5 years old. He’d been in treatment for leukemia for a year and a half, and had already made it through all the hard rounds of chemotherapy. He was in the last round of chemo, the longest, but also the easiest. And since we had finally made it to the “easy chemo” we had decided to have another baby. I was 8 weeks pregnant.

On Tuesday night, April 5, Brock went to gymnastics class with his big sister Jaycie. He felt fine.


On Wednesday morning, he acted like he didn’t feel well. When I went to drop him off at Mother’s Day Out, he didn’t want to stay. By that afternoon he was breathing a little faster than normal so we visited the pediatric oncology clinic for blood work and an exam. The doctor checked him out, said his labs looked ok, and sent us home.

When he woke up Thursday morning, April 7, he was breathing really fast…about 80 breaths per minute – more than twice as fast as what is normal. At that time he was still non-verbal but we could tell that he was disoriented and when I tried to sit him up on the bed he just fell over. I put him in the car and left for the ER while my husband, Jay, took our daughter to work with him. I wish we had called 911.

We live about 20 minutes from the local children’s hospital. About 5 minutes away from the hospital I knew he was getting really, really bad. He was just breathing so fast. I kept saying “Hold on baby, we’re almost there. Just hold on.” When I got to the intersection where the hospital is, he stopped breathing. Just…stopped. I’ve stared at that last sentence for 5 minutes and I can’t come up with any way to convey to you the panic I felt, so I’ll just keep going. I sped around to the ER entrance, got out of the car, opened his door, unbuckled him and picked him up. And he flopped backward, completely lifeless, and I screamed. He was blue. I cradled him and ran down the breezeway, through the double doors, down the hallway, around the corner, and in to the ER screaming “He’s not breathing, he stopped breathing in the car!” My flip flops fell off as I ran. I left the keys in my car and the doors wide open. The faces of the people in the ER waiting room staring me. These are the details that stick out in my memory. It’s strange to me that unimportant things from that day (like my flip flops falling off) are so vivid and other, more important details are so cloudy. I supposed it’s a sort of coping mechanism.

A resident that I knew, that had taken care of Brock before, took him from my arms, laid him on the bed, and started performing CPR. I heard them say he had no heartbeat. Legs shaking, I fell in to a chair and prayed “God please let him live.” over and over and over and over and over. A chaplain came and stood next to me and I wanted her to go away so badly that I really thought I might hit her. Because chaplains only come around and hover next to you when someone is dying…or dead.

It was about 2 minutes from the time his heart quit beating in the car until the time I got him inside to the ER. It was about 2 more minutes before the doctors were able to get a heartbeat back. Four minutes. Four minutes is a long time.

I remember calling Jay at work, while they were still doing CPR and telling him to come…but not saying why. I knew if he knew the truth he’d never be able to drive across town. My dad showed up – I had called him before we left the house. I texted one of our close friends, a PICU nurse in the same hospital, and said “He’s coding.”

Jay and the rest of our family made it to the hospital. And then Brock’s heart stopped again.

One of the comforting things about having a chronically ill child is that you get to know everyone at the hospital. I knew the respiratory therapist that was bagging him. I knew the resident and the ER attending that were doing CPR. On top of that, two of our favorite PICU doctors had heard that Brock was in the ER so they came down to help. Remember the doctor who told me about the fungal infection and that she thought it was possible that Brock would live, but not probable? She was one of them. I can distinctly remember her having her fingers on the femoral artery in Brock’s leg and saying over and over, quietly “I don’t have a pulse.”

Until she did. Find a pulse, I mean. And Jay and I breathed again.


And then his heart stopped again. The third time that morning.

As they were doing CPR for the third time, the ER doctor told me I could hold his hand. But I couldn’t because it was just so cold. I stood by his head and stroked his hair and prayed “God, please breathe your life into him. Please hold his heart in your hand and make it beat.” Jay kept looking at me and asking if I was ok and I couldn’t say anything. I was just frozen and numb and pleading with God. Finally, I looked up and saw one of Brock’s favorite oncologists. He had tears in his eyes and that’s when I lost it and realized just how grave the situation was.

That oncologist had been in a different part of the hospital and had also heard that Brock was in the ER, not breathing, so he came down to see if he could help. Doctors don’t do this, friends. They stick to their own area – oncology, intensive care unit – they don’t come down to the ER while a patient is coding and try to take over. But these doctors did. For us. And for Brock. I’m so thankful that God used them to provide some small measure of comfort to us that morning.


So finally, FINALLY, after hours in the ER and his heart stopping 3 different times and lots and lots of medicine to get it started and keep it going and a breathing tube and someone manually squeezing a bag and pumping air in to his lungs and a bed-side procedure to put in an arterial line…finally he was stable enough to move to the pediatric intensive care unit.

And I have a picture of him then, but I just can’t show it to you. He looks too sick and too vulnerable.

That night, I tried to sleep in one of the Ronald McDonald rooms in the hospital while my husband stayed by Brock’s side. But every time I closed my eyes my mind would replay the horrifying images of the day. Finally, in desperation, I asked Facebook for help and one of my friends told me to read Psalm 91. I read it over and over and over in the middle of the night until I would finally drift off to sleep for a few minutes. I took this verse in particular and turned it in to a prayer for my self, for my son, for my husband and daughter, and for our unborn baby.


The rest of that week was spent trying to figure out what caused his heart to stop. After many ultrasounds and ct scans and lab work the doctors still, to this day, do not know. No one can tell me why my son’s heart stopped beating 3 different times on April 7, 2011.


But I don’t have to know. God knows. And He was able to use that time to teach me about His sovereignty…His grace…His power to heal…and ultimately His love for us.

There have been seven children in my area who have died from cancer or complications from cancer in the last 2 weeks. Seven. In two weeks. There was a funeral last Saturday. There is another one this Tuesday. I don’t understand. But I know those things – God’s grace, power, and love – remain the same. Even when life sucks. Even when kids die.

* * * *

My mama heart is broken this morning.  Split right into two.  This post…wrecks me.

Psalm 56:3 was the same verse I repeated over and over and over again myself at our last ER visit with Jilly.

I have no words.  No answers.  But God knows.

And while we are not called to save the world, we are called to love.  To support.  To share.

Childhood cancer is possibly the worst thing in the Universe.

It may feel like a teeny tiny drop in the bucket, but I implore you to give this morning.

Donate a few dollars to St. Baldrick’s.  Buy a printable.  Sport a new necklace with meaning.

Just because the event is over and they’ve reached their goal doesn’t mean your drop won’t help.

Give today friends.

Because cancer mamas shouldn’t go it alone in this fight.  We’ve gotta be alongside them.  On our knees.  Our money given with intention.

Love you all.  You’re good people.  My favorite kind of people.

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I'm a mom to four. A wife to one. I believe in story. I love telling you about mine and would love to hear yours. There's really no sense in wasting our suffering and not sharing in each other's joy. We're all in this together...even if it doesn't always feel like it.

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  1. 1

    That’s some intense love. Thanks for sharing this story with us. Thanks for supporting St. Baldricks. Thanks for making a difference for these kids.
    Emily´s last blog post ..FMQ heals us. Peter Joseph’s quilt.

  2. 2

    Thank you for sharing and opening up your heart Vanessa. As a pediatric cancer survivor and now a parent of a 2 & 5 year old, this had me in tears and praises of thankfulness to God for saving your sweet boy.
    courtney´s last blog post ..Flag and banners for a beach wedding in Mexico

  3. 3

    Ah, Psalm 56:3. Pslam 91. The weeping has begun. Man that was intense and intensely wonderful to know that we are getting to see a growing older Brock! I remember when his name popped up in my facebook as someone to pray for. I believe it was after this episode. I’m excited that I get to give to St. Baldrick’s today.

    Sedona’s Kindergarten teacher taught them Psalm 56:3, and I love how she pointed out to these little kids that David didn’t say “IF I am afraid;” he said WHEN. God knows we all get scared and need to know He is right there. God bless Brock and his family, you, Jeannett, and all of those going through cancer with their precious babies.

  4. 4

    Oh wow. Thanks for digging deep and sharing your story.
    Anne @ anne b. good´s last blog post ..Things I Need To Remember to Tell My Girls About Weddings and Marriage

  5. 5

    Your’e my favorite kind of people, Jeannett.

    This story. Ugly cry. That momma. My hero. Wow.

    Jessie´s last blog post ..The White Flag

  6. 6
    Courtney says:

    i am at work desparately trying not to cry multiple times during this post. so beautiful. so sad. and i get so angry that children die of illness in this day and age. its. not. fair. my heart goes out to all who have been touched by this subject. thank you for the honesty and the grounding when i’m worrying about nonsense.

  7. 7

    Vanessa, that was the most powerful thing I have read in a while. I could feel your panic and your love for your little guy. Thank God he is still here and growing. Happy for you all that he is.