I don't feel like writing about the NICU, thus the long delay in a follow-up post. But I'm going to do it anyway. I know that our NICU experience was a trip across the slip and slide compared to some other NICU experiences, and for that we feel deeply fortunate. But our time there shaped my initial experience of parenthood, big time, so it's worth writing about.
Let me start by saying that, of all the things we wanted for our baby's birth, what we wanted the most was for her to be with us right after she was born. We had gotten so much reassurance from our numerous OBs that baby would be fine that I was pretty flippant about this particular aspect of the birth. Every other goddamned thing had gone wrong, this would be the one thing that would go right. How ever she came out, at least she'd be here. With us.
The OBs assured us repeatedly that she may be a little grunty when she was born, a little lethargic, but that would just be "The Mag," and not a sign of any critical illness, as it can be for more premature babies. We extracted multiple promises that our baby would not be taken away due to magnesium induced sluggishness, and we reminded our poor L&D nurses over and over to bring her to E after she came out. These poor people must have thought we were insane.
Turns out all our fussing meant diddly. It was the pediatric nurse that made all the decisions about our baby, while the L&D people were busy with E. We were so wrapped up in the process of getting her out, that I forgot that in the alternate reality of Hospital-land, you must Talk to the Right People, otherwise fresh hell will descend upon you at every turn.
So, without further ado, I present you with PART II.
They carried Evan out of surgery and across the hall to the transitional nursery. The hour or so that followed is sort of lost, but I do remember sitting on the window ledge in our L&D room and wondering what the fuck just happened.
Once E was out of recovery we rolled our way over to the transitional nursery. Evan was the only baby there, stretched out in an open bassinet like a tiny bird. Her eyes were squeezed shut and smeared with ointment, an IV was taped to her hand, 3 monitors were strapped to her chest, and the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device was pushed up her little nose. The sheet in her bassinet, as well as her tiny foot, were streaked with fresh blood from a blown IV. Two nurses sat at a desk at the opposite end of the room, surfing the internet. As we approached our baby, one of the nurses barked: "don't touch it!"
The L&D nurse who wheeled us in had to explain that we were the moms, and E hadn't gotten to hold her baby yet. The pediatric nurse looked up from her solitaire game and said: "you can't hold that baby. That is a very sick baby. She's going to the NICU."
I shit. You not.
So E cried, and we put our fingers in Evan's palms to feel her tiny squeeze reflex. She looked so small, and so much paler and more fragile than she did right after she was born. They paged the doctor, because these particular minions of satan were unable to explain what was wrong with her and why she had to go to the NICU, aside from repeating the words "she's very sick."
Sick. Such a helpful word. The doctor came and told us she had underdeveloped lungs, and why hadn't we gotten a steroid shot? Oh, only because the OB, in response to my query about the appropriateness of a steroid shot before induction, described it as, and I quote, "completely unnecessary."
She was moved to the NICU later that night, and her first nurse was the most wonderful person, so calm and gentle. I sat in a rocker for a while, and in my delusional state, I quite clearly imagined the gods reaching a giant finger down from the heavens and anointing her with every golden attribute that a NICU nurse should have. "She's fine," lovely nurse said, her halo shimmering in the dim lights. "She'll be home in no time. These doctors are just covering their asses." In that moment I felt love for this woman.
The NICU couldn't accommodate beds, only wheelchairs, so E couldn't visit the baby until she was off the magnesium sulfate, which wouldn't be for another 24 hours (E, btw, finagled this down to 18 with strong language and threats. She was, I imagine, what they call a "difficult" patient). I spent these 18 hours visiting our baby in the NICU and reporting back to the increasingly frantic E, who, by the time her mag drip was out, was in a sort of primal hysteria. Girl needed to see her baby. She was actually escorted to the antepartum unit by the attending physician, who surely did this kindly deed just to get E off her unit.
E's first visit with Evan in the NICU was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. I wheeled her close to Evan's isolette, so she could reach a hand through the porthole. She was silent for a few moments, touching Evan's tiny chest. But then she pulled her hand out and closed the porthole, dropped her head and stared at her lap. A minute later she started to sob. Great, big, slow sobs, a kind I'd never heard from her before. I felt a piece of my heart crack open then, seeing our baby like that, and seeing E so broken over it.
The first time I got to hold Evan, my heart was beating out of my chest. In fact, every time I held her for the first week or so, my heart would just hammer away, so hard that you could see it beating through my shirt. It was such a strange feeling, but it seemed to work for Evan, because when her little body was pressed up against my chest, her breathing rate would slow, and her heartrate would drop to the "sleeping range." It was strange and sweet, holding her like that with all her monitor lines draping out the bottom of her swaddle.
The ups and downs of the 10 days that followed will not be so dramatic, since you all know the ending, so I won't bore you with the details. But know this: the NICU is no place for the faint of heart. The lows are quite low in the NICU. The highs do not reach the same levels, because, hey, your kid's still in the NICU. But I swear to god if I were a writer I would have some amazing material from the days spent there, what with the beeping monitors, crazy family visits, drill sergeant nurses and condescending doctors, and just the blinding bewilderment of it all.
I learned many useful things during our time in the hospital, however.
I learned how to speak calmly to a security guard reluctant to grant me a my own official, laminated "Parent Pass," because, quote, there can only be one mom. Unquote.
I learned how to change a diaper. Through a porthole.
I learned that new babies don't really have a smell.*
I learned to dump out many a cc of bottled breastmilk behind nurses' backs to prevent the introduction of a nasal-gastric tube.
I learned how to reattach a monitor to prevent a desaturation alarm from causing my baby to choke on her bottle.
I learned how to silence a desaturation alarm (although I still have panicked moments of hearing a de-sat alarm as I stand on the corner with my morning coffee, looking wildly around to discover it is merely a car alarm).
Anyway, the day she was finally released from the hospital was totally momentous. We harassed the doctors to release her until they finally buckled, releasing her "WITH RESERVATIONS." Also, we were thoroughly underprepared, had no idea how to work the car seat, and were nearly demented from lack of sleep (I worked days and went to the NICU all night, E stayed all day only to wake at 3 AM and take a cab back to the NICU), so walking out of the hospital with her felt a lot like kidnapping a sweet child from some other, more normal parents.
I remember very clearly that as we finally walked out, this time with Evan, we were making fun of a capella music, laughing maniacally as we drove through the rain.
*this proved untrue, because once evan arrived home she almost immediately smelled of sugar cookies.