Life in the N.I.C.U.

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One week after Sam’s birth, I was still living on the maternity floor. That was fine because it made it feel less as if I was leaving my baby behind. I stared out the window of my hospital room. The sky looked dull and gray – much like I felt inside. I wondered if life would ever be normal again. I wondered why this was happening to us.

I was relatively young and healthy; had taken good care of myself, had done of the necessary prenatal care, and yet things had gone so horribly wrong. I remember asking the kidney specialist if being exposed to acrylic fumes while I was having my nails done could have caused such an outcome. Looking back, I realize what a senseless absurd questions that was, and yet I needed a reason- any reason why Sam had become so sick and I guess I was looking to blame myself. It was my responsibility to keep my unborn child safe and healthy, and somehow I failed to do this.

I started to wonder if I would ever be able to hold my child. I had to follow a strict set of rules just to be anywhere near him. The beginning of each visit was spent as if I were preparing for surgery, sterilizing myself with an intense hand washing routine and donning an ugly yellow plastic gown that served as a definite barrier between me and my child. The protocols we had to follow were protective measures designed to keep Sam safe, and yet they were the exact things preventing Sam and me from bonding they way a normal mother and infants does.

Not being able to touch Sam was extreme even for the NICU. Most babies there were “feeders,” meaning they simply needed time to grow. No situation in the NICU was easy, but at least most of the mothers could touch their babies; in fact, in most cases it’s encouraged in order for bonding to take place. My baby was too fragile. We couldn’t bond. I wasn’t sure if he was even aware of my presence. I wondered if he would ever see me.

He was sedated to ease his discomfort and he was given such high doses of steroids that his eyes could hardly open. There were still major difficulties ventilating him. The ventilator was effective in giving him a breath in but for some reason he was unable to get the air back out. This had become a major complication. I knew we were still in dire trouble.

The whole situation felt unnatural. My feelings felt unnatural. I think on some level I was relieved that I had not held my baby. What kind of mother feels that way? What kind of mother did that make me? But how would I cope if I attached myself to this beautiful baby and he was taken away from me? As much as I resented these strict rules, maybe they were protecting me by keeping me from loving Sam too much.

My days were spent standing watch by Sam’s isolette. I wasn’t a doctor so there wasn’t really anything I could do for him. All I could do was sit by him hour after hour analyzing each shallow breath. I am not sure there are many things in life more tortuous than watching your child struggle to breath. I wanted to breathe for him.

Being in the NICU felt like being in a different world. I was never able to leave him without being consumed by anxiety and the fear about what my happen when I was gone. It had now been three months and one week since my hospital admission. I had lost touch with the date and the time. What was happening in the outside world really didn’t matter much anyway. My life became about Sam and finding a way to help him get better. As much as I wanted to be home at this point, I knew that the sterile environment we were forced to be in was necessary in order to keep Sam alive.

Things were not good with Sam, but they were at least better than the days before. This was enough to provide me comfort. I am sure, somewhere inside of me, I knew there was still a chance he wouldn’t survive, but I couldn’t think about that anymore. I needed a break from the intensity of experiencing those feelings. Maybe it was denial or some self protective measure but I allowed myself to feel more positive about Sam’s prognosis.

I rarely left the NICU that first few weeks, but every now and then I just needed a break from our reality. I couldn’t go far away from Sam, but at least I could escape to a small waiting room that was down the hall. There was nothing private about it and it didn’t provide many comforts, but at least it allowed me to escape the bright lights and the constant sounds of ventilator alarms sounds which I will never forget.

Sitting in the hospital waiting area, I was physically present, but still in a state of emotional numbness. My mind was in a fog. I remember glancing up at the TV. The sound was turned down and I could see what appeared to be a small airplane flying into a large skyscraper. I figured I was delirious from the past week’s events; something like this couldn’t really be happening. Someone turned up the volume on the TV and a news reported came on to announce that what appeared to be a small aircraft had just hit the World Trade Center. I remember being stunned by what I was seeing. A few minutes later another plane flew into the Pentagon. It was so surreal, ironic. It was September 11, 2001; we finally had a break from our own personal tragedy – now the rest of the world was experiencing theirs.

Read more of this story in Sam’s Story.

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