Becoming a NICU parent

It's not something you plan. Nobody wants to be NICU parents. I certainly didn't think we would be.

I was naive. Perhaps a little too confident. I'd had a healthy pregnancy. I took all the right vitamins, ate a healthy(ish) diet and stayed active until the end. My baby would be perfectly healthy.

If you read the first part of our birth story, you know that there was meconium in the amniotic fluid. (What that means: Memphis pooped before he came out ... and you really shouldn't eat or inhale poop.) A team put a tube down his throat in the delivery room and sucked it out. He was fine, they thought. Nothing serious.

And here's where our new beginning isn't what we had hoped for.

October 12, 2017

4ish p.m.

Once we're all in the postpartum recovery room relief washes over me. I was hemorrhaging (losing too much blood) but I am going to be just fine — I just take special medicine, some iron supplements and have to be in a wheelchair for a few days.

But despite all that, I feel great because my sweet baby is right next to me where he belongs. He's OK. Finally, I can rest. I labored for over 24 hours and exhaustion is starting to sink in.

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11ish p.m.

I'm breastfeeding Memphis and he just won't stop. If he's not nursing, he's crying. The crying gets worse and worse and it seems like he's breathing really fast.

"Something's not right," I tell Kris.

Even though I've just met Memphis, I know this isn't a normal cry. 

Kris calls our nurse and she comes to check on him. "He is breathing fast," she says. "Let's take him to the nursery."

Kris follows her to the nursery while I stay in bed. There's no time to get me in the wheelchair. Kris tells me he'll keep me posted. I try to rest. I wait. 

Then Kris returns and tells me that Memphis is in good hands and the doctor is working with him to figure out what's wrong. 

We both sleep.

I know it sounds crazy to sleep at this point, but we're both beyond exhausted. We can't be there for Memphis if we don't sleep. The doctor encourages us to rest and tells us that he'll wake us up with an update.

3:30 a.m.

The doctor comes in the room. The moment the door opens I'm wide awake. Even though I was able to sleep, part of me stayed awake and alert, waiting for my baby.

"Mr. and Ms. McDonald, Memphis is stable, but he is in the NICU now."

The doctor continues to talk, and I'm trying to listen, but I'm so overwhelmed.

My baby is in the NICU. 

His respiratory rate is super high. They're not sure why, but the doctor assures us he's stable, he's in good hands and they are going to continue monitoring him and running tests to determine what's going on. 

My baby is sick.

I'm in shock. This isn't what's supposed to happen. Not to my baby. He was just fine only hours ago.

I sit. Kris comes over to the bed to hold me. I cry until I drift back to sleep.

This isn't happening.

7 a.m. I think.

(All of these times are educated guesses. Because time really didn't seem to exist.)

Once my eyes open I'm wide awake. I wake Kris up. "I need to see my baby."

I haven't showered since delivery. I haven't brushed my hair or looked in the mirror. But I don't care about anything else but seeing him. Nothing else matters.

Kris helps me out of bed and into the wheelchair. He wheels me into the NICU where we are given the rules: Wash your hands up to your elbows. Put your phone in a plastic bag. No children under the age of 12. Only two visitors at a time ...

I listen to the rules but am a little annoyed. I need to see my baby. Now.

Finally, Kris wheels me around the corner and I see him. My precious boy. He's under a lamp to keep him warm. He has a neon blanket on his little body to treat his jaundice. (I didn't even know what jaundice was.) He's connected to a lot of wires and there's a feeding tube in his nose.

"Hi baby," I say. "Mommy's here."

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And then it starts. I sob.

My baby is sick.

I hold him for who knows how long. I just keep telling him I'm sorry and that Mommy's here. I feel helpless and I ache with a longing to switch places with him.

October 12-14, 2017

Time ceases to exist. There is nothing but my baby. And he needs me.

I go to him every 2-3 hours.

"Hi baby," I always greet him, "Mommy's here."

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Sometimes they let me breastfeed him if his respiratory rate is low enough. If it's not, I feed him a bottle. I change his diaper. I hold him and rock him and tell him how much I love him. 

I'm a zombie mom, living life in 3-hour intervals, wheeling around the cold hospital hallways from my recovery room to my baby all day and night. He needs me.

October 14, 2017

What-is-time o'clock

"Momma, you need to rest," one of the NICU nurses says. She isn't being sarcastic or sweet, she's being stern in a tough love kind of way. "If you get sick, you can't take care of your baby. You have to take care of yourself."

But my baby needs me.

"She's right," Kris says. "You really need to take care of yourself."

Kris and the nurse have the same serious look in their eyes. And I know they're right, but I feel like a failure.

My baby needs me.

Kris says he'll take the night shift tonight. He'll come in alone to feed him while I sleep. The nurses offer to do it — after all, neither of us really needed to be there at all. But I only agree because Kris will be there. The nurses are caring and wonderful, but they're not Mom and Dad. If I can't be there, I'm at least comforted knowing Kris is.

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All night

Every three hours, Kris's alarm goes off and he goes down the hallways to change, hold, feed and love Memphis. He reads him stories. Tells him it's going to be OK.

I don't sleep. Not really. I try, sincerely I do. I maybe doze off for a few moments here and there.

"You really need to rest babe, I got this," Kris says.

I know he does. But as soon as he opens the door I ask him how our baby's doing. Did he eat OK. Was his respiratory rate any lower. Did he have a poopy diaper. 

I'm guessing I probably got about 2 hours of sleep that night. But I did rest and I feel better for it.

October 15, 2017

5:30 a.m.

It's morning. I get to see him again!!! I did what I was told, I slept. Or at least I rested. Anyway I was in bed. But now the sun is out and I get to see my baby.

We agreed I could go for his 6:00 a.m. feeding so I have some time to kill. I shower. I wash my hair. I replace my hospital gown for real clothes. Sure, they're sweatpants but they're still an upgrade. 

I've graduated from the wheelchair and I WALK down the hallways. My walk is slow, my hair is wet, and I'm sure I still don't look like myself. But compared to the shell of a person I'd been the past few days, I look like a million bucks as I enter the NICU.

"Look at you, Momma!" The nurse says. "You're a real person again!"

I can't get to Memphis fast enough.

"Hi baby," I say. "Mommy's here."

Sometime in the afternoon

The doctor starts to make his rounds. Kris and I are holding Memphis, waiting. Hoping for good news. Memphis has gotten better. His respiratory rate has slowed down, he's no longer jaundice and he's able to breastfeed consistently. (No more feeding tube!)

And the news is wonderful. They believe he had meconium in his lungs, but he fought it on his own without the need for antibiotics. They are going to let him sleep in our room tonight, coming every few hours to check his vitals, and assuming it goes well we should be able to go home tomorrow.

He can sleep in our room!

HOME? Tomorrow!? 

We're beyond thrilled. 

We get to take you home, baby.

October 16, 2017

Our "test run" went great. Memphis gets to go home today! We start to pack our bag while they run some final tests on Memphis.

I've never been so excited to go home.

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October 23, 2017

We've been home for a week and Memphis is doing great. Even though he gets up every 1-3 hours to eat (like every newborn), I haven't slept better. I'm so at peace, lying in my own bed, looking over into Memphis's bassinet to see my sweet sleeping baby. Life is wonderful.

5ish p.m.

Memphis is crying. As babies do. But coming out of the NICU, we're a little extra sensitive as parents.

"He's breathing really hard," Kris says.

I want to believe that he's wrong. That he's overreacting. But I call a nurse and she tells me to count his breaths. Kris is right. His respiratory rate is super high again. She says to take him to the ER right away.

This isn't happening. Not again.

We take him to the ER and they run some tests before admitting him. They need to keep him at least overnight.

October 25, 2017

Overnight turned into days turned into an ambulance transfer to one of the best NICU's in the city. 

Nobody can figure out what's wrong with our baby. 

The not knowing is almost the worst part. The worst part is seeing our precious baby in so much pain.

I thought we were done with this. But here we are, back at the NICU, walking the halls of the hospitals like zombies. Nothing in the world matters except Memphis.

October 27, 2017

They ran just about every test. Several blood tests. A urine sample. They send his stools to labs for tests. They look at his lungs, his belly, his heart, his brain. Next up is a spinal tap.

But finally, FINALLY, something comes back positive.

It has nothing to do with the meconium. He has gas. He's unable to digest milk protein and his gas is so severe that it's pushing his stomach into his lungs and making it hard to breathe.

Gas. It's just gas. I mean, severe gas — but they were testing for much, much worse and I'm so relieved. 

I can't help but feel guilty. This whole time I've been nursing him, trying to make him feel comforted and nourish him and that's been what's hurting him most. 

He's allergic to me.

It's an odd feeling. To feel so relieved but also inadequate. 

Mostly relieved.

They put him on a super special formula and he improves immediately. They continue to monitor him for a couple days to make sure this is, in fact, solving the issue.

October 29, 2017

And it does. 

He gets to go home. Again.

And he's been home ever since. 

After two weeks of exclusively eating his super fancy formula, we started reintroducing breastmilk. Now he's exclusively breastfed and doing great.

A note to NICU nurses, doctors and volunteers

The work you do is extraordinary.

You face parents during our hardest moments and help us find some comfort. You care for our babies with compassion and love. When our hearts break as we leave our baby's bedside, the only thing reassuring us is knowing that you're there. Holding him. Caring for him. Letting him know it's going to be OK.

You put our babies first but you also make sure we, the parents, eat and rest and have support. You give us a room to stay in. A hot meal to eat. A shower. One church group even gave our baby a homemade quilt to wrap him in love. These gestures mean the world.

I am forever grateful to you.

My baby is my everything. You literally gave me my everything. The English language doesn't have the right words to describe how we feel so these two will have to suffice:

Thank you.

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