Reflecting as I rest in bed early this morning or I should say sitting up because our second son kicked me awake in the wee hours of the day. In a few moments James will wake, turn off the baby monitor, and plod half asleep down the hall to get Henry for our morning family snuggle before the day starts.
We never had a detailed birth plan. I work in medicine and I know things change in a New York minute. The plan was simple: get Henry in this world the safest way possible. All the staff who asked for our plan expressed relief at the simplicity of it. One sentence and easy to remember. We just wanted everyone on the same page. Keep our son safe. I still held the dream of having a gentle birth, skin-to-skin contact within seconds, and to initiate our breastfeeding bonding experience within an hour. A pipe dream maybe, but that’s what I really wanted.
Henry is two years old today. This day two years ago we were up at 4am to go meet our son. We were scheduled for a C- section after I was 37 weeks pregnant because Henry was breech, unable to turn, and our high risk team became concerned about large amounts of fluid around Henry’s lungs. We were really just excited to meet him and focused on that.
I’ve never had such relief and joy as when I heard him cry… it took what seemed like forever. He was weighed, measured, swaddled, and whisked away after he was briefly presented to me to kiss with a nonchalant explanation that his oxygen needed to be monitored. It was so fast and efficient and without fanfare, but I knew what it all could mean.
Being a nurse is hard sometimes- I know too much about what could be. James stood for a moment paralyzed, looking at me with fear and uncertainty in his eyes- a wild, primal look. My husband is the chillest human on the planet and keeps a level head in ALL situations so I knew I had to keep it together. I told him to follow Henry. With my organs sitting out on my belly, I firmly and quickly told him that I was being sewed up and would be fine so follow our son. Stay with our son. Don’t leave our son. I reassured him again I was fine. I actually smiled as I said it. It was genuine.
Immediately after they left the operating room I began asking questions to fill the void. I realize now it was my way to try to keep myself from slipping into total panic. What suture are you using? Can we do a running monocryl or dermabond for my skin? How big was he again? What was his APGAR? How long will they evaluate him? Where is the NICU? When can I go see him? I don’t really remember anyone answering me. I began to fight tears.
Someone from my anesthesia team said “I’m gonna give you something for the pain.” I know what that means. That really means one of two things: 1) Something big and traumatic is happening behind that blue drape or 2) I’m starting to freak out and no one wants to or has time to calm a hormonal new mother that has had her newborn taken from her sight. Either way I know I’m about to see black. I tried to say IV Tylenol but it was too late. I began slipping into the black. Fentanyl was already coursing through my veins.
I vaguely remember two nurses through the thick medicated fog. Two sets of hands working, checking, and organizing. They hoisted me up in bed. One held me up while I drooled down the front of my gown, unable to speak. I heard drunken slurs and moans coming from somewhere and realized it was me. I felt nothing- I was numb from my face to my toes. I remember they were kind. While the one held my shoulders back, the other held a breast pump to me for I guess a whole session…I blacked out again. I was in and out of consciousness and mostly incoherent for 10 hours. And I assume these two nurses did this same routine every 3 hours.
I remember coming to and seeing my mother. She helped me out of my hospital gown and put my clothes on for me. Family and friends filtered in and out of my room over the next few hours. I knew they came but physically could not keep my eyes open to interact. I remember my husband standing over me. I asked the question. How is Henry? He told me about the NICU: he was progressing, the ultrasound showed no fluid in his lungs, his cardiac defects are small, and we won’t have to have surgery right now. Good things. We thanked God. James showed strength through the whole explanation. The next question came out before I could stop it. Is he special? My husband began to weep. It’s a hard thing for a man to see his wife on the operating room table and his newborn son taken away and tested to the hilt all in one day on top of every emotion experienced in becoming a father. I could only hug him. It will all be okay. I felt some peace knowing he was here and doing well in the NICU. I asked the time. I couldn’t believe it was after 5pm! My son has been without skin-to-skin contact for over 10 hours and no one has held him except for personnel in scrubs.
I began to assume warrior mode- still medicated and fighting the black fog that threatened to take me away again. I was told until I could walk I couldn’t see him and so I walked- just to the bathroom from my bed but it was enough to pass the test. The NICU was in a different building in the hospital. James put me in a wheelchair and I slipped into the black again. We arrived. Henry was beautiful: Wearing a Santa hat under a warmer in an incubator crib with IV in his hand and not in his head, no hood vent oxygen, no ET tube, and no NG tube. All good signs. I want him in my arms. Finally I am given my son.
My whole body relaxes, my soul is at peace, and I start slipping. They take him from me. I can’t sleep and hold him. My heart is heavy and breaking, but I understand. I know why I can’t, but it doesn’t keep it from breaking me. I don’t cry. Crying can lead to more medication and black and I have assumed my warrior mode. I will be completely present and I will force myself to be alert. Comply. Push through. I plead with the nurse. Maybe someone can just stand there and watch us….
“No. He needs to be in the warmer. He can’t regulate his temperature. His bilirubin is high. It is shift change and the unit will be closed to visiting anyway. Go sleep. You can see him tomorrow. First thing in the morning you can come.”
I am numb and defeated. James shows me all the pictures and videos he took of Henry all day in the NICU. It helped. We wonder at his features. James read that I should look at pictures while pumping to keep supply up and strengthen our bond. He knows I’m torn apart not having Henry in my arms. My husband is great like that. Intuitive. Ready to research everything. Solutions. Always seeking. And so every three hours through the night James held the phone while I pumped and looked at our son’s face.
The following many hours and days we spent going back and forth from the building with the OB floor to the building the NICU was located. I was in marathon warrior mode. I never really cried or let myself process everything until a lactation nurse came in our room early on the 3rd morning while James was out getting something to eat. She cheerily asked how Henry was latching with her bouncy ponytail beneath her crown proclaiming “Happy New Year! ”. I was in the middle of preparing to go to the NICU for the day and froze while packing our backpack with all the milk I pumped through the night. I turned to face her. She was standing beside the very obviously empty crib. The crib holding only Henry’s untouched and still folded newborn outfit stared starkly at me. My eyes began to burn. I braced and then exploded in tears so violently in front of this woman that I was unable to breath. The reaction racked my whole body and I was lost in it. I almost screamed at her. Maybe I did scream. My heart was pounding in my ears so loud I could hear nothing else. Word vomit came up in between sobs.
“I have barely held him! He’s in NICU not here with me. He doesn’t latch. I took the breastfeeding class in November. I don’t know why he won’t latch. I didn’t even get to touch him until he was over 10 hours old! I’m afraid he isn’t bonding. The time we do have together, he struggles and fatigues until has to go back to the warmer. I’m so sorry for crying.”
She quietly and slowly backed out of my room without a word with her pen still poised over her clipboard and never came back. She had the same look in her eye that I imagine a zookeeper gets when they go to check an animal and the animal starts raging, suddenly becoming aware of the unnatural confines that enclose it. My mother was there; she held me and told me it was okay to cry. Permission to feel emotion was granted. I cried with my mom holding me for a while.
A different lactation consultant visited us in NICU the next day and was much more helpful. She took time to read our chart and came with a plan for breastfeeding diet, pumping schedule, and latching attempts with a shield before each feeding. We were discharged and sent home without our son. We left a piece of my soul at the hospital when we did leave. Our parents brought meals to us in the hospital and we barely left Henry’s side despite living 20 minutes away. We spent our time in the NICU: just over a week. We had some great nurses and some really awful ones. Daily we went through getting our hopes up about oxygen saturations, bilirubin levels, and charting temperatures. Every day hoping maybe today will be the day. In the grand scheme of things, it was a blink of an eye. We could have been there much longer. We saw parents coming and going: the pros. Theses were the parents who had been there for months. Their routines seemed regimented and flawless, but I could see the fatigue in their eyes.
I felt guilty that we escaped with our baby without spending many weeks and months like some of the others. It did truly feel like we escaped. Even as we looked around the open neonatal intensive care unit I knew we should be so very grateful for Henry’s status and we were. I realize now that the length of our NICU admission does not diminish our stay there nor does it downplay how we felt. It is still part of our journey.
Getting him in the car was a thrilling and terrifying experience. I held his NICU chart in my hand with instructions to deliver it to our pediatrician; it was already thick bursting with consults and appointments made in advance. Henry was buckled into his seat and ready for James to bring the car. Two nursing degrees in my back pocket and I was petrified.
We had to take a NICU parent class in order to take Henry home. It entailed someone basically listing then detailing every scenario that could kill our baby. Oh, and infant CPR was included. Bonus! And if you feel like you need that knowledge (I think everyone should) here is an affiliate link to the American Heart Association’s Infant CPR Anytime educational kit you can take at home and includes a practice dummy. We couldn’t believe they let anyone just walk out of the hospital with a tiny fragile life after that class.
For the first month of Henry’s life, one of us was always on “awake duty” whether he slept or not. If he was alseep, one of us would watch him to make sure he kept breathing. We were so scared, but we made it. We just discovered the Owlet Smart Sock 2 Baby Monitor – Track Your Infant’s Heart Rate & Oxygen Levels and it is worth every cent. I wish we had this monitor in the beginning. We’ve used it with Henry when he’s been sick to keep watch on his oxygen and we plan to use it on the new baby too (it’s great because it has 3 different sock sizes so you can use it til around age 2).
The pediatrician chuckled at us at our one month visit and told us to stop waking the baby for feeding every 3 hours because he was healthy and gaining weight like a champ. He also told us to sleep and that we were doing an excellent job. I needed to hear that. Our pediatrician has kind eyes and moves with grace. He’s older and seasoned. We so needed that in Henry’s primary doctor; someone who had seen it all to tell us when to worry and when to calm down.
Henry is snuggled in between us now: safe and happy. I can’t stop kissing the top of his head every few minutes remembering two years ago how we met.
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