Life in the NICU

I’ve put off writing about my childbirth experience in part because I don’t like thinking about it, and also in part because I feel guilty for feeling traumatized when there are so many other parents out there who’ve experienced real trauma. But if I postpone this topic any longer, I’ll be so far removed from it that it will hardly be relevant. So here goes nothing…

I had a birth plan. Nothing went according to plan. But this wasn’t because everything went wrong; I just didn’t bother to follow it or share it with anyone once I went into labor. Not my specially purchased nightgown, not my book of sudoku puzzles–hell, I didn’t even bother to pull my hair back into a ponytail. None of it mattered once the contractions began.

And that was fine with me. I didn’t care that the plan I had painstakingly *ahem* labored over was completely disregarded. But towards the end of the big show, my contractions weren’t becoming more frequent. Consequently, my baby was becoming distressed, trapped midway between his happy home of nine months and the outside world. The doctor warned me that if I couldn’t push him out on my own, they’d have to do an emergency c-section.

Then my temperature spiked. The doctor suspected I had an infection that would need to be treated with antibiotics as soon as possible, which meant my baby would also need to be treated. A team of nurses from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) arrived with a portable heated bassinet, just in case they needed to whisk away my baby to the NICU. By sheer willpower, I pushed my baby out without the aid of contractions and with some assistance of a vacuum. No c-section for me, thanks!

Covered in goo just like in the movies, but mine all mine, my son arrived safe and sound. He had a good, strong cry. My husband held my hand tightly and cried tears of joy.  The doctor immediately handed him to a NICU nurse. I asked her if I could hold my baby. She looked at me and said sternly, No. A moment later, I asked her if I could breastfeed him. No. Then she brought him to the portable bassinet. A team of nurses worked frantically, cleaning him, taking his temperature, and assessing his overall health. I couldn’t see him past the nurses’ bodies, and my husband looked worried. I called out to my baby through the wall of nurses, welcoming him with sweet words, and he turned his head toward me.

Finally, they finished their assessment and prepared to leave. From across the room, one of the nurses flatly informed me that his temperature was slightly elevated, probably due to an infection I’d acquired during labor. Therefore, he was being taken to the NICU. I wouldn’t see him for three to seven days.

Stunned, shocked, numb–there are no adjectives that accurately describe how I felt at that moment. His APGAR scores were high. He weighed a very healthy 8 pounds, 11 ounces. Yet the nurse was telling me that my son was being taken away. Someone must’ve said something to someone because one of the nurses handed him to me, bundled and silent, so that we could have a quick family photo. It was a bittersweet moment caught on film. And then I had to give him back.

The nurses bustled out with my son, and my husband followed. The doctor left as well, and the techs made quick work of the room, leaving moments later. Then it was just me in the room. It was strangely silent after all of the activity that came before. I sat there in the bed I delivered my baby in, and I wondered if I’d had  a baby at all. Had I been dreaming? About ten minutes later, my husband returned, looking exhausted and worried. I cried.

A labor and delivery nurse entered the room and asked us what had happened. After we told her, she said “that just isn’t right.” Then she told us she would find a way for me to see my baby, even if it meant she got fired. She delivered on her promise. I don’t think she lost her job.

My son wound up staying in the NICU for one week so that they could administer antibiotics to him through an IV. Our fevers were gone by the end of the first day, but there we were: my healthy, full-term son surrounded by unfortunate babies born months too soon, and I in the recovery room with an empty rocking chair and the muffled sounds of mothers comforting their babies in the rooms next to mine.

My husband and I spent our waking hours in the NICU; although, we were only allowed to hold him during designated “cuddle times”–a euphemism for feeding times. In other words, we could hold him only to feed him (every three hours), and we were given 30 minutes to feed him, a time limit that was strictly enforced. I struggled to breastfeed him both because I only had 20 minutes each time to attempt this new trick before they made me give him formula, and because they’d gotten him hooked on bottle feedings. It wasn’t until the third day when I was discharged from the hospital that a lactation specialist bothered telling me I needed to pump if I wanted to make any milk and how to use the machine.

Determined to breastfeed, I began pumping around the clock and bringing my milk to the NICU for the nurses to feed my son instead of formula. I continued to try to breastfeed while in the NICU, but the nurses aggressively enforced the feeding time limits. One of them even went so far as to threaten me when I complained about having my breastfeeding interrupted so that I could then feed my son 30 mLs of formula: “If he continues to lose weight, the doctor will keep him here longer.” My son had indeed lost weight–a completely normal part of breastfeeding as the actual milk comes in, replacing the small amount of colostrum that comes in first. When I asked her why weight loss was normal in healthy, full-term babies, but not for my nearly nine-pound son, she didn’t answer and simply stalked off.

And that moment really sums up the problem: the NICU nurses didn’t know how to care for a healthy baby. They were incapable of working in a grey area and became defensive and even aggressive whenever their modus operandi was challenged.

My son is home now and napping in my arms–I hardly ever put him down. When we sent out the birth announcement, it had the following message printed on it: “In our hearts he was already ours, we just needed to bring him home.”

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