Life lessons from the NICU

In February, we were blessed with a sweet child after spending five days in a Labor & Delivery room. I gave birth at 25 weeks to a 2 lbs., 1 oz. baby. Almost four months later, driving back and forth from home and work and the NICU, we were able to take our lil’ Nugget home.

From the moment you learn you’re pregnant, you worry yourself with the smallest details. For me, the most morbid thoughts were around miscarrying and stillbirth. But I don’t think anyone ever worries or plans for this outcome. With good reason, as the CDC estimates that less than one percent of babies in the US are born before 28 weeks. Despite some ongoing health concerns, we expect a happy, relatively healthy child in the coming months and years. Sadly, this isn’t a common outcome for many micro-preemies.

I remember the fear I had three days before I met our baby, being told our child had only a 60 percent chance of survival. Those are terrible odds. I’d tell you every day was an adventure and share the positive spin I kept repeating in my head during this time period, but the reality is those first six weeks I slept next to my cell phone in case I needed to race to the hospital to say goodbye.

This isn’t how we planned to spend the first four months following the birth of our child. We didn’t have time to make a birth plan. Our hospital tour was in real-time. My birthing class took place in an operating room with a team of medical professionals surrounding me as I pushed a baby out of me much too soon, and a separate team of NICU staff on-hand to whisk the child away from its mother. I wouldn’t be able to hold our baby in my arms for the first time until five days later.

My husband will tell you that waking up, getting in the car for 15–20 minutes, putting on a badge, going past security, getting on an elevator, picking up a phone to be let into the NICU, only to spend another two minutes scrubbing in before finally seeing your child every day for more than 100 days was worth it. And it was. Today I’m more in love with my husband than ever, witnessing what he did to emotionally provide for our child and me during this time.

But despite witnessing first-hand the miracle of how a woman’s body nourishes and protects a child in the womb, I mourn the loss of not having a third trimester. The level of jealously and anger I felt watching women waddle into the hospital and then being wheeled out three days later holding their baby was sometimes unbearable. And I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel that same pain today when I see an eight- or nine-month pregnant woman at work or the grocery store.

Putting aside the fear and anger, this experience taught me that we’re the lucky ones. We were told we couldn’t have children due to fertility issues after years of trying. To even have our child today is mind blowing. There are so many couples who don’t even get the opportunity to be pregnant. And there are babies born who will never see the beauty of the world we live in. Or feel the gentle warmth of their mother’s embrace.

I wept as I held my child, watching the isolet across from ours as another baby’s heart rate slowly dropped on the monitor. I will never forget the sound of the mother’s cries as her child passed away. She had given birth that morning. Her baby was 25 weeks old. Just like mine.

I met mothers whose children never made it home after spending a few weeks in the NICU. Others with multiples who came home with only one child. And more who spent upwards of a year or more in the NICU before going home with a child who would need a lifetime of specialized care and attention.

I met parents who drove more than an hour every day to see their child. Others who lived so far away from the hospital that their temporary home was a nearby hotel room. Parents who couldn’t see their child except once a week due to work commitments or because other children at home needed their parents’ love and attention too.

I watched from my child’s bedside babies receive their love and encouragement not from a mother or father, but the amazing NICU nurses who witness the best and worst of humanity on a daily basis. And I heard stories of parents who would use this terrible situation as an opportunity for fame and fortune, often calling the media themselves to weave tales of woe in hopes of a reality series or free handouts.

As much as I don’t want to pass judgement on others, don’t get me started on seeing parents who had no business having children in the first place. One woman caused such a scene in the NICU after threatening bodily harm on the nurses and doctors that the police were called. Hearing a Code Grey called for the same location as your child puts new meaning in the term Mama Bear.

I also witnessed first-hand the miracle of modern medicine. I saw a baby code several times and come back each time with the help of a team of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists. I saw the excitement in a mother and father whose little girl’s weight was measured in ounces — not pounds — going home. I learned to never under-estimate a preemie — who exhibit strength and resilience not seen in most adults. And I met a little girl who was born at 24-weeks. She had a level 4 brain hemorrhage, which required a stunt going from her head to her abdomen to drain fluids. She is lucky to be alive. And she is five years old today.

I try to avoid mention of our child on social media, because frankly, I don’t like how content I share with friends is then leveraged by advertisers and other organizations to profile me, my family and in some cases, invade my privacy. I also want our child to manage their own social media presence when the time is right instead of realizing a decade from now that Mom totally put searchable naked baby photos on a public site.

That said, I do want to use my story and platforms like Facebook to raise awareness of organizations like March of Dimes, whose various programs and support made our experience a bit more manageable.

So with all of that, hug your child a little harder for me today. Moms, pat yourself on the back for your body’s strength in carrying a child for nine months — even when it was miserable those last few weeks. Serious kudos to moms who push out full-term babies — because two pounds ain’t nothing on you! Dads, tell your child’s mother thank you for carrying your baby with strength and a profound sense of protection.

To those of you going through fertility issues, I love you and I am in awe of your strength. It’s not easy on your psyche or even your marriage, especially when you feel like your body has failed you and others around you seemingly have no issues getting pregnant. Hold tight to the belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel, however that light may form.

Remember, we are strong from the moment we are born. We have no memory of this, but we all fought hard to have a place in this world. We have the capacity to bring light and goodness — whether born at 25 weeks old or still figuring out life at 40. In the midst of all the terrible things going on, we have the power in us to do amazing things.

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