As I was being wheeled into the labor and delivery unit to give birth to our son, it was already frighteningly obvious that pretty much nothing was going to go as I’d hoped.
Because there I suddenly was, only 36 weeks pregnant, about to be induced after my water broke at the end of a trick-or-treating marathon on Halloween. So much for my calm, all-natural birth plan.
Life in the NICU: a case study in hope I wasn’t in labour but, one way or another, I was going to deliver our second child that very day. I looked away as the nurse ran the steroid drip into my vein, to stimulate contractions, and strapped monitors on my lower and upper belly, left arm, and finger tip, while monstrous fears of the NICU swam in my mind. I had suffered two miscarriages before this pregnancy and nothing scared me more than the thought of our infant being born with medical complications. To me the NICU was like a haunted house I couldn’t bear to enter. What shadowy situations would we encounter?
Also, I knew very little about premature babies. How tiny would he be? Could he even breathe? Would his heart be strong enough for him to survive outside the womb? The nurse jabbed a painful shot into my thigh, another steroid to help the baby’s lungs function better since he was premature, and told us to try to rest until contractions began. (Yeah, right.)
The induction medicine kicked in slowly at first, then, as the doctor kept upping my dose, the contractions became extremely strong and close together. Less than an hour later, our baby boy was born, crying a healthy cry, and placed on my chest. He scored high on his Apgar tests, and immediately started to nurse. My husband and I cried with relief.
But not two hours passed before the on-call pediatrician informed us that our son was not all well. His blood sugar level, already below normal range at birth, had plummeted to almost nothing in the short time since he had been born, and he was diagnosed as severely hypoglycemic—at risk for seizures and brain injury—requiring immediate medical intervention. He was whisked away to the NICU.
Leaving the delivery room with empty arms was gut-wrenching, after everything we had been through. And once we were finally able to visit him, the sight of our minuscule newborn hooked up to IVs and covered in monitor wires first nauseated me with fear.
But as my husband and I sat there through that long, painful first postpartum night, taking turns holding our son under our hospital gowns to feel his skin against ours and help stabilize his blood sugar level, my perspective blurred, then shifted. With each hour that ticked slowly by, the beeping machines, flashing numbers, and squiggles on the screen above his incubator began to look far less frightening, and instead brought reassurance that everything was okay—and that more than anything the NICU was not a haunted place but the only place our son should have been.
In the NICU, the beeping never stops, but I actually found comfort in all those loud monitors. As I sat hunched with my son in my arms, struggling to nurse, worrying about his health and future, a quick glance at the monitor showed me what was going on inside of him so at least those things were quantifiable: his steady heart rate, blood oxygen level, and body temperature calmed me.
Another comfort of the NICU I quickly came to deeply appreciate was that any concerns or questions we had—and we had so many, as worried parents of a preemie—the NICU staff addressed thoroughly, expertly, and immediately. His stay in the NICU, I soon discovered, was not just about caring for him. It was about helping us, his parents, as well, through those uncertain first days and nights, as we learned to care for our tiny new addition properly.
For instance, because our preemie could not suck as effectively as a full-term baby, getting adequate nutrition was a major concern, and a real challenge for me trying to breastfeed. But the NICU nurses, doctors, and lactation consultant helped ensure that our baby was eating properly, and showed us simple ways to tell if his food intake was adequate each day, in order for him to grow and be healthy.
When the baby spit up, the NICU nurses cleaned him. When he felt cold, they dressed him and brought warm blankets. They changed his diapers, something that was hard for me to do from a wheelchair, hooked up to an IV. They monitored his vital signs meticulously and adjusted the temperature, medications, and fluid dosages as needed, so that I found myself worrying less and less, and flooded instead with gratitude, and a real sense of security as the days went by.
And, when I needed time to deal with my own needs—and my family’s—I didn’t have to worry about our newborn. It wasn’t easy to leave him there, but at home I was able to take a shower, eat a hot meal, look after my older daughter when she spiked a sudden high fever, and even clock some quality sleep, while the NICU staff looked after our son—no need to hire, train, or schedule outside help—which was an enormous help during a really stressful time.
When our baby was finally ready to leave, the NICU staff gave us all the tips and tools we needed to help him thrive outside the hospital. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and anxious about taking our early-bird baby home, we felt ready to care for him on our own. The nurses even made themselves available to us for the rest of that day and night via phone, so that we could call with any questions or concerns until we visited his new pediatrician the following morning.
I know very well how lucky we were. There are babies born much more prematurely with more severe health problems, and the NICU may very well be hell on earth for those parents. But for me, the NICU wasn’t the scary place with dark portents I had feared. Without the excellent care he received there, our son might not be with us today. And I wouldn’t know the emotional healing power of this extraordinary place.