Morgan Rhea was 22 weeks pregnant when she received the news that her child had a congenital heart defect. It was the day that doctors told her her unborn daughter Veda was missing half her heart. Morgan’s entire life and motherhood changed instantly as she was plunged into the foreign world of CHD, not knowing if her child would live. The prayer requests were urgently sent out and within two weeks, Veda’s heart had grown. But this was just the first of many miracles in Veda’s life.
Veda’s condition, known as complex CHD, produced medical complications such as contraction of the aorta and severe pulmonary hypertension. While 15 percent of CHD cases are caused by genetics, the other 85 percent have no known cause. Morgan was told that Veda wouldn’t be able to talk, walk, or even sit due to a chromosomal disorder. In fact, if it wasn’t for the miracle that was her third artery, Veda would not have even survived the pregnancy.
Veda Garner was born at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., Jan. 14, 2013. She was only 7 days old when she had her first open heart surgery—the first of four she would have that year.
With the exception of about six weeks total, Veda spent her first year entirely at Vanderbilt. The never-ending series of tests and treatments had Morgan practically living at the hospital. “Vanderbilt became our home and the doctors and nurses became our family,” she said. There were moments when Veda would flatline several times in one night or be rushed to the emergency room because she couldn’t breathe. “It’s like we could never get her well enough,” Morgan said.
But Veda’s health wasn’t the only battle Morgan was fighting. She and Veda’s biological father divorced while Morgan was in the hospital, and her resources were the lowest they’d ever been. “It’s a humbling experience, having people take care of you,” she said. “It’s a time where you are ripped of everything that makes you comfortable.”
Morgan refers to this time as her “wilderness.” “At first I was scared. I had so many questions, and there were times where I felt alone—like God had abandoned me,” she said. “My perspective started to change when I stopped to truly think about my role as Veda’s mother. I felt that Veda was not really mine (or at least not mine alone). She was Christ’s child first, and He had graciously given her to me to nurture and love and protect. I decided that if I could do that, He would take care of the rest.”
The decision to do the fourth heart surgery was the most difficult. “It was the end of the line,” said Morgan. “We were told, ‘do it and she may not survive or don’t and she won’t.’” That last surgery was a success, but no one knew how much time it would give her. “It was so hard to hear that there was nothing else left to do, that we had exhausted all the options,” she said.
Shortly after Veda’s first birthday in January 2014, they took the “greatest leap of faith” and moved down to Mississippi to stay with Morgan’s parents. Though doctors supported the idea, they only gave Veda two weeks to live, predicting that she might not even survive the 6-hour car ride there.
But Veda made it to Mississippi, and Morgan decided to take advantage of what time she had with her daughter. “I had been told that Veda was not going to have a very high quality of life, but I said, ‘Oh no. She will.’” Whether it was taking her to visit family or celebrating her birthday, she wasn’t going to waste a moment, even when each day was uncertain. “I wanted her life to be something more than just being in a hospital,” she said. “I wanted there to be memories that weren’t just confined to a room.”
One of the memories that Morgan treasures the most was taking Veda to the beach. “The beach trip was a victory for us,” she said. “It was something that I always wanted her to experience.”
The two weeks that the doctors predicted would be the last came and went, and Veda was still alive. Morgan said, “It was me and Veda against the world. We kept doing things that we were told were impossible, against all odds.”
It was only two months after moving to Mississippi that Morgan met Brad Rhea, who, with God’s prompting, became the man to love both Morgan and Veda through their difficult time. They were married in November 2014, and Brad was able to be the father that Veda needed. Morgan said, “One of my biggest fears when I moved back was that if someday I re-married, it would be to a man who never knew my first love—my baby Veda. Brad may not have been with me when she came into this world, but he was there supporting me all along the way. I was thankful that I met him when I did and that I never had to convince him of how wonderful Veda was because he was able to experience it for himself and that we were able to share a love for her together.”
They learned to be joyful despite the daily challenges, to be grateful for every moment. The little things that parents normally take for granted—bath time, laughter, even the simple wiping of an eye—were triumphs for them. But it was mostly Veda’s spirit that supplied hope. “Veda was joy, and that joy came from the Lord,” Morgan said. “She inspired me, just as she inspired everyone else with her infectious smile and determined spirit. All Veda knew was love. It was the only language she spoke. How could I not feel joy as her mother?”
Between the large amount of daily medications and the constant care Veda required each day, Morgan said she could have easily chosen the “woe is me” attitude, but there were many blessings in the midst of this challenge. In fact, it was the Lord’s provision that became the only constant in their life. With too many moments of divine intervention to name, it was a period that would teach Morgan how to trust the Lord. “God’s plan was going to trump ours every time,” she said. “His plan is always greater.”
Veda was several months from her 3rd birthday when she passed last November. “It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to endure or will endure,” said Morgan. “But my hope and joy come from knowing where Veda is and that God has rewarded her for all that she’s been through and all that she did to further His kingdom. That’s what brings me peace.”
Morgan and Brad are now in a time of adjusting, of trying to “find this new normal.” “Going from a family of three to a family of two is hard, but we are trying to find joy along the way,” Morgan said. “I want to move forward, but I don’t want to move on.” She said she will always remember the truths God has taught her and is looking forward to what He has for them. “It didn’t take me losing Veda to see that God was moving in my life,” she added. “We didn’t have to look back. We could see it as it was happening.” The thought of going through that time without her faith is literally “terrifying” to her.
“It’s so easy to feel robbed of things,” Morgan added. “But peace and joy all trump that.”
She said that Veda taught her to appreciate every moment, to love selflessly, to put God first and depend on him for every need. It was her daughter that made her realize the importance of not getting caught up in the things she couldn’t change or feeling sorry for herself. Instead, Veda showed her how to be brave and find beauty in the trials. “I often times say God sent Veda to this world to save me from myself,” she said. “To save me from a world I was all too eager to please.”
Veda may not have been able to talk, but she spoke to the lives of many. Family members were reunited. People from all over the country followed Veda’s journey and lifted her up in prayer. Morgan received emails and Facebook messages from strangers who told her how much they were impacted by Veda. “I have peace in knowing that Veda’s life mattered. It still matters and will continue to matter and reach people from all over and all walks of life,” said Morgan.
Morgan has made it her mission to share Veda’s story and spread awareness of CHD. “God allowed me to not only be her mother, but to be her voice,” she said. In fact, plans are in the works to start a foundation in Veda’s name through Blair E. Batson that will aid families with CHD.
This February, Morgan traveled to Nashville for CHD week, where families affected by CHD met and a memorial service was held for those children who had lost their lives this past year. She also passed out gift cards, along with Veda’s story, to parents at Vanderbilt UMC to offer hope to the families that are in the same place she was not long ago. “When you are in that type of environment—the highest levels of stress—you turn to those like you for love, encouragement, and support,” Morgan said. “It can be a very lonely place and some of my best friends are moms that I met during our time there. Those are the real true relationships—the ones formed in the trenches.”
Through it all, Morgan remains faithful that God is in control. “If God has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t rely on my own plans. When the circumstances of life become overwhelming, God absolutely gives you more than you can handle. So rely on Him. For every need. He is always there. He will never leave your side. God is faithful to meet us in the middle of our mess and our pain.”