The NICU. My second home for 46 days. It has taken me a while to write about this topic. I will try not to be redundant of previous posts. I want to start with the positive.
We were, by far, incredibly blessed that Nathan weighed as much as he did (go mama for eating for 3 when there was only 2), that he didn’t have any serious problems and that he grew and got better each day.
Some of my absolute favorite comments from the nurses that made me chuckle, helped comfort me, and helped me get through the day:
- “Nathan, there are ladies present,” when Nathan let out a loud fart.
- “It’s okay to touch him. He’s yours” when I was so afraid of doing anything, even touching him early on.
- “We’re gonna call you ‘chubs'” when he hit 4 lbs.
- “He’s getting a reputation,” on his explosive poops that most of the nurses had to clean up.
- “Everyone wants him. We’re fighting over him.”
- “He has so much hair!!!”
- “He’s been pretty crabby today,” when he was wearing his little crab outfit.
- “I will take care of him like he was my own,” when I was hesitant to leave him early on.
- “He will be okay. I will check on him again right now,” when stopping at the exit door, hesitating to leave and crying.
- “God bless ya. You are a fantastic mother. I would have given up a long time ago,” on my struggle with producing enough breast milk.
- “What is wrong? Are you sleeping? Are you eating?” when I didn’t look so hot and a nurse was checking in on me, making sure I was taking care of myself, in that scolding but well-meaning European manner.
- “I am happy, I am good,” in a sing-song voice from Nathan’s point of view upon my arrival
- “He yanked out his feeding tube. I guess he wants out,” on walking in one morning to see his feeding tube on the counter (and not in him).
I know there are so many I’m forgetting, but these stood out. I’m sure it’s not easy trying to do your job while also keeping parents at ease and these ladies definitely try their best.
I think the roughest part is the first couple weeks. You’re still reeling from the shock of everything that just happened labor-wise and coming to terms with not bringing your baby home. You’re still recovering from delivery. You know everyone means well, but you don’t have the energy to constantly send updates. The last thing you want right now is visitors. You’re exhausted, your breasts are hurting and raw, you’re obsessed with germs, you’re so depressed and anxious from what life has just thrown you. The NICU is DRAINING. Mentally, emotionally, physically draining. You have no choice but to trust the people caring for your son. You feel helpless. While still in the hospital yourself, you have to get “delivered” to the NICU every time you want to visit. This involves paging a nurse and then waiting to be wheeled down and around. It’s a long walk for someone who just had a baby. The second thought constantly on my mind was about money. How the hell are we going to pay for this? What will insurance cover? Will we have bills for the next 5 years?
You want all the information. Asking what all these machines and tubes do. You want to know what each alarm, chime and beep means. You’re coming up with a schedule of sorts to coordinate visits with your baby so he is left alone the minimum amount of time. You have to adjust to them doing a ton of tests on a regular basis to check everything. You look at the very long checklist of things your baby needs to achieve before you can take him home and wonder if that day will ever come. You have to LEAVE your baby. Every single day.
I had more than one meltdown having to leave. Those first few days my husband and I just hugged and cried and reassured each other that he was in good hands and that we’d be back in the morning. It also helped so much that we could call to check-in 24/7. Sometimes you just needed that nightly report before you went to sleep.
I will say it is difficult when you get a new nurse. You get used to the first set that are the primary nurses and they all have a system in place. You know the routine. You know how they are with your son and it comforts you. It makes it so much easier to be away. When a new nurse comes in you begin questioning if they are attentive, if they care, if they will get his care right. There was one time when I was not comfortable leaving because I felt my son wasn’t being attended to. I cried at the exit, and then hysterically sobbed in the car for 15 minutes deciding if I should go back in. I think that was my first big release of pent-up worry.
Day in and day out, I would race to the hospital filled with anxiety, like I couldn’t get there fast enough. You enter Fort Knox by identifying yourself to the camera and waiting for the doors to be unlocked. Never a worry about security there which was awesome. The lovely gal at the front desk would always greet me with a warm smile. I walked down the same hall, smelled the same smells, heard the same chimes and beeps. Said hello to all the familiar faces. Knew 80% of the nursing staff’s names.
Once I got the morning report telling me everything was still okay and saw my little angel, I immediately calmed. Your days are filled with staring at your baby from the couch or chair, pacing, touching your baby and holding his head, lots and lots of pumping of breast milk, labeling breast milk, cleaning pump supplies, endless breastfeeding crap. Making lists of things that need to be done, watching and learning from your nurses, coloring, 200 bathroom breaks, texting updates to family and friends. You also scarf down some food somewhere in there too. You quickly realize you will need all kinds of lotion to combat your cracking, red, dry hands from so much washing and anti-bac. You become willing to pay anyone your life savings if they can just stop your nipples from hurting. You know you’ll need to bring in a box of Kleenex because it’s either tissue paper kleenex with 5 sheets in a box or sandpaper paper towels to choose from. You want to pop-in to other rooms and say hi just to have someone to chat with but you’re not sure if it’s allowed or welcomed. You feel so bad for other babies that have it so much worse. You try napping on the couch or in the chair but your nerves are too fried to sleep, plus it’s cold and there are so many interruptions. You sleep with your phone on high volume and your heart stops every time it rings.
Once I got encouragement from the nurses to touch and handle my baby more, all I could hope was that he was comforted by my touch. I talked to him all the time. He’d often struggle with eating via tube, spitting up or squirming with gas. I’d always say “mama’s here, it’s okay” and I swear he’d calm down even long after we brought him home when I said this. I did worry quite a bit about if he would have any attachment to me with me not being there all the time, and all these other people caring for him.
I must point out the large majority of staff were phenomenal. The amount of time spent and detail given when nurses switched shifts is mind boggling. It shows you just how on top of it all they are. These little lives are literally in their hands and it takes a special person to hold that job. All the doctors gather each morning at each room to review the progress and any problems and the plan for the day for every patient. Someone was always there if you needed anything at all.
There was nothing like getting to hold him for the first time which we had to wait I think 5 and 6 days after he was born. You look at all the tubes taped to him and you’re thinking “how on earth am I supposed to hold him?” They just bundle them all up! I was instructed to wear a tank top and as I pulled it out at the chest area they placed him right in there and covered him with warm blankets and a knitted hat. We were obsessed with that cute little handmade hat. He was snug as a bug. It’s crazy how his whole tiny little body fit perfectly in there. He would always be so calm when we held him. Like he was so at ease. You study his every feature. His ears that keep folding and staying folded over. The little hairs on his face, his perfect and peeling lips. How his nipples are SO tiny. How his fingers are perfect. It was always the highlight of our day. We would want to hold him for hours but at some point, nature calls, your arms are numb, you are dizzy from not eating, you have to pump, and so on.
We, and anyone visiting would always be so amazed by how much this little boy moved and stretched. He was constantly shifting. They’d put him in the middle of his incubator and he’d end up in a corner. Every time they checked on him or adjusted something he’d stretch on and off for a good 5 minutes. He held his head up on day 2 while lying on his stomach. Day 2! And his faces. This boy was dubbed “the man with 100 faces”. Every few minutes he’d be making a new face. It was SO entertaining.
When you have a baby in the NICU every single thing is a milestone. An accomplishment. One more thing getting us closer to home. Every time he opens his eyes you gaze into them and whisper how strong and handsome he is, into his incubator. Removal of the throat tube thingy. Then removal of the nostril oxygen. Every tube that gets taken out deserves a cheer. His IV line taken out was huge. Going off caffeine. Increases in feedings. Licking breast milk off a Q-tip. Taking formula for the first time. Poop! Poop is a big deal. Poop is a celebration. Holding our finger. Hiccups. A gassy smile. Self-regulating his temperature in the incubator. Being able to wear clothes. Latching on successfully. Every time a sticker on his progress train moved from red to yellow. And our first green sticker! Most important of all: weight gain! Every ounce up is significant and every pound hit is huge. There were so many celebrations. Even still, I’m so proud of him for every new thing he does. I’m just in awe of him.
I felt I had become an honorary nurse after the first few weeks. The things I learned about the development of the brain, nervous system, heart, skin, bones, lungs; things the baby books don’t go into detail about. I knew acronyms and fancy terms. I knew how to do everything the nurses did from watching them so many times. I knew how to work his feeding machine. I knew what the numbers on the monitor meant and what alarms were urgent and which were not. I could take his temp, change his diaper, rearrange his cords/tubes, take him out of his crib on my own, and fix his incubator “pillows” and sheets. It was a pretty neat feeling as a new mom to have so much knowledge about your baby. Not that I wasn’t still scared shitless when he came home.
Celebrating his 1 month birthday in the hospital was hard. But we brought the stickers and made it work, doing our hospital photo shoot.
Shortly after he removed his feeding tube we started trying bottles. Then he was graduated to an open incubator, then an open “crib”, each huge progress. The morning of our delayed baby shower we went to visit Nathan beforehand. We had walked in to see him in the open incubator and we were overjoyed at the unexpected surprise. As he gained more and more ounces, the nurses were starting to prepare us for bringing him home. There’s a certain criteria babies have to hit in order to go home. It involves 5 days without spells. Spells involve their own criteria with alarms going off for very specific things for a certain duration of time. You have to wait until day 5, or the very last-minute, to find out if you are officially bringing your baby home that day. Even with several baby books, years of working in a daycare and babysitting, I still had a zillion questions. I guess I didn’t trust that he was a normal baby like any other. There were some things that were going to be different of course, but overall, same rules applied. I kidnapped a couple of nurses asking pages of questions. They reassured me that I knew what I was doing. And they were so gracious with answering all my questions. They did have other patients after all.
That last week was very stressful. I felt like everything was crammed into 5 short days. All kinds of preparations. A heart ultrasound, blood tests, car seat check, other final tests. It was a LOT. When we came in on that 5th day hoping he would be going home, we found his train had all green stickers and a note saying he was ready to go!
We had his official hospital photo shoot which was a lot of fun. We packed up so much stuff! We watched a baby CPR video. We asked our final questions. We held Nathan. We cried. We thanked the nurses personally, 2 of which will always hold a special place in our hearts, although they were all great. How do you properly thank people who kept your son alive, safe and healthy? Words cannot do it justice.
I suddenly forgot how a car seat worked, I was so nervous. I don’t know what the hell I did, but the one nurse was laughing at me. I was like, oh boy, I can’t even get this right. But in my defense, neither could my husband. We made this cute sign and Nathan provided the perfect pose. He’s like “Hear ye, hear ye…”
As we were being wheeled out I could not believe we were taking him home. Finally. It was bittersweet. We had gotten to know the staff and they were our second family for the past month and half. I was going to miss them like crazy. I was actually going to miss those rooms, the halls, having experts care for my son, those beeps and chimes. I so wanted to kidnap a nurse, for real this time. It was a bit terrifying that it was actually happening. It was over.
We made it through day 1 at home with only one panicked phone call to the NICU asking what to do. There were days I couldn’t believe this was happening to us, days when it didn’t feel real at all, days that were bleak and grim and days that held hope. But we made it. Nathan is a happy and healthy 8-month-old and we are all stronger for the experience.