Yael Eckstein details her family's experience with clubfoot, from an in-utero diagnosis to post-birth treatment, and how the journey has helped her to stop worrying about the 'what ifs' in life, embrace every moment as a blessing, and see every experience as an opportunity for growth.
On a sweltering summer day in July, my husband and I packed our three kids into the car to go to our first ultrasound appointment for baby No. four. With camp out, and no friends around, the children were thrilled about being forced to join us.
"Do you think it will be a boy or girl? Will we see its hands? Can we see it kicking inside your stomach?" The kids fired one question after the other, without waiting for an answer, while I silently prayed that the appointment would pass uneventfully.
With the kids jumping around the tiny doctor's office in excitement, and my husband and I looking at each other with smiles at the insanity around us, the doctor placed the ultrasound video on my stomach. Within a second she saw it. And God bless her, she played it cool.
"The baby has clubfoot," she said calmly, focusing intently on the blurry screen in front of her.
My heart stopped. "What's that?" I asked, my smile fading and my heart pounding furiously.
"Not a big deal, as long as we don't find any other problems," she answered.
Immediately the kids sat down quietly and stared at the black-and-white screen that was the center of our attention.
For the next hour and a half, the doctor went through every body part. She watched the fetus open and close his hands, studied every vertebra in his spine, and measured each section of his brain.
She must have felt my body shaking as she put her hand on my leg, looked deep into my eyes, and told me that other than a problem with his foot, as far as she could see, the baby was fine. But some problems develop later in pregnancy and it was too soon to know for sure.
"Come back for an amniocentesis in four weeks," she gently said, fully realizing that the next month would be agonizing.
I left that appointment broken. The only child I had ever known with clubfoot had a genetic mutation that left him handicapped for life.
I went home, got into bed, and cried myself to sleep.
Pregnancy After Diagnosis
Within a few hours, my entire family was doing online research on clubfoot. Surprisingly, little is known about this common birth defect in which the foot develops twisted or out of its correct position. Clubfoot affects about 1 in 1,000 babies, but the cause is unknown. Many of them have correctable, non-threatening conditions while others have more severe medical problems such as spina bifida or genetic mutations. No matter how much research we did looking for a magic answer, every article and specialist said the same thing: Until the baby was born, we wouldn't know if there were other problems.
"You're only 14 weeks pregnant. Now is decision time," a few well-meaning people told me. I knew exactly what they were referring to. But in my mind, as long as we only saw a problem with the foot, this wasn't an option.
"There are treatable problems and untreatable problems," was my mantra during the pregnancy. "Clubfoot is a treatable problem, which means it's bearable," I continuously told myself.
I spent much of my pregnancy in my own mind. I told a few friends about the clubfoot diagnosis, but not many. It was too difficult to think about, let alone express in words. Each week I went to different specialists trying to find out more information. The amniocentesis came back perfect, as did the fetal echo. The genetic counselor assured me that the fetus was genetically fine.
"We just need to wait until he's born to see the full picture, but I have a good feeling about this," my optimistic ultrasound specialist told me, even after finding a problem in the baby's umbilical cord.
For months I did the only thing in my control: I tried to stay positive. I did yoga, I prepared the post-birth treatment, and I prayed with all of my heart.
Baby Shimmy was born at 41 weeks, weighing a little over nine pounds. The second I saw his big black eyes, adorable nose, and angelic lips, I knew that I could endure whatever challenges lay ahead. My boy was perfect. Yes, his foot curved completely inward at the ankle, but even that, in my eyes, was perfect.
At 10 days old, we began our weekly trips to the hospital to get Shimmy's leg casted. Each week the pediatric orthopedist would maneuver Shimmy's foot a little more toward the correct position. The cast, from the tip of his toes to his diaper, held his ankle, knee, and thigh in place.
- RELATED: Caring for Your Baby's Feet
Truth be told, the first cast was torturous. I held my baby down, both of us crying, as the doctor placed a full leg cast—and I could still smell the amniotic fluid. The next day, my previously calm newborn screamed incessantly, seemingly begging us to remove the heavy weight on his leg. I rocked him. I cried with him. And I told both of us over and over again that this will all be over soon.
Miraculously, after one difficult day, Shimmy calmed down and returned to his gentle self. He learned to lift his leg and eventually life with a cast was the only life he remembered.
Each one of Shimmy's eight casts was easier than the last. By the end, he cried when the cast was removed and calmed down only when the new one was put back on.
The casting doctors became like our extended family for those first few months. They joyfully watched Shimmy grow, comforted me through my tears, and assured us every step of the way that everything was going to be just fine.
Life Lessons and Moving Forward
Going out with a newborn in a cast gets a lot of attention. "Did you drop him?" a little girl in a store asked me, expressing what many people probably thought. "No," my 9-year-old daughter immediately answered with a smile. "He was born with his foot sideways and the cast fixes it."
It was divine power that enabled me to stay strong throughout it all. I had the unshakable support of my husband, who didn't miss even one doctor's appointment; my extended family who showered me with love; and my best friend who would deliver a hot cake each time I returned from the hospital with a new cast.
Going in for the tendon clip on Shimmy's heel at 12 weeks, I finally broke down and cried for five hours straight. But Shimmy passed the procedure with just a few tears and not even one difficult night.
The lessons that our other three children learned from Shimmy's clubfoot have been priceless. They received the blessing of being able to see 'beyond the handicap' in both Shimmy and others, and learned the lesson to never judge people by their outside appearance. On the contrary, they speak to people in wheelchairs, crutches, and other aids with ease, explaining to them how their brother used to be in a cast and had special shoes too. (They think everyone in a cast must have clubfoot.)
Today, Shimmy is nine months old and the joy of our lives. He crawls up and down the stairs, is learning to walk, says a few words, and gives kisses to anyone who asks him for one. His foot is in the correct position, and although he needs to sleep in orthopedic shoes until he turns 3, it doesn't bother him at all. Watching him cruise, dance, and laugh, you would never know the journey he has been through.
Until Shimmy turns 7, there is still the possibility that his foot will relapse and we will need to do surgery to fix it. But I'm not scared. I'm done being scared of the 'what ifs' in life. What each one of my children has taught me is that every moment is a blessing, every experience an opportunity for growth. Life is a voyage. Right now my family's on the clubfoot journey. I'm choosing to enjoy it every step of the way.
Yael Eckstein is the Senior Vice President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. She resides in Jerusalem with her husband and four children.