Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Newborn Intensive Care Unit, NICU or as I remember it, a blur.
They said I could see him tonight. Why can’t I see him? The agony of the denial was unbearable as the nurse explained that due to my medication and my wound vac I couldn’t visit Graham tonight, his first night on Earth. Have we not suffered enough?! An induction, a 3 day stint of labor to end up with an emergent c-section with a horrendous infection and I still can’t go see my baby? He is only hours old, I pleaded with the nurse. The apologetic look on her face did nothing to calm my envy and I demanded she leave. Tears slowly fell from my eyes as I wondered how I could produce any more tears. This isn’t fair, none of this is how I dreamed this would be. Shane and I held tight to each other as we let the exhaustion take over and I drifted off to sleep.
Good morning, my mother called entering my tiny recovery room. My emotions swirled, I wanted my mom and my family but I knew they weren’t just here for me. They too wanted to meet Graham. See I was so bound and determined to be the first one to visit him in the NICU. I mean, I am his mother after all. Isn’t that like a God-given right? Everyone continued to skirt around the topic when the nurse entered the room. Please please please let me go see my son, I begged that nurse. She stalled saying that with the medication, the wound vac, the catheter and the doctor hadn’t approved of anything yet. Then go ask him!
FInally she returned and said the doctor approved. Hell yeah, FREEDOM!! I can see my son, maybe I can even hold him and introduce him to his family. All I have to do is get out of bed and we can go. I can do this, ok Courtney just swing your legs over and sit up and we are golden. I flexed my abdomen in an attempt to sit…OUCH! A sharp burst of pain erupted through me as if the staples were being ripped out of my abdomen. I fell back and cried in defeat. I just want Graham to know mommy is here and we are going to be ok. I want to be there as my mother meets her grandson. I know they have to leave for their home in Texas soon but I’m not ready. The crushing weight of the unachievable swirled around the room like a thick fog of disappointment.
Sighing reluctantly, I turned to Shane and nodded. My family came all this way, they should be able to meet Graham. The family in which he gained his namesake after my father and my maternal grandfather. Once again something was being taken from me, my hopes and dreams, the events in which I had spent the past 7 months, no years thinking about. With all my willpower, I held my breath until Shane ushered them out of my room agreeing to bring them to meet their grandson. Tears started to roll as the door closed, separating me from the freedom I craved. My son, my baby, my first born…so close yet so far.
I CAN AND WILL SEE MY SON! I willed myself to move, then sit, then use the bathroom. I’ll be damned if I don’t see Graham TODAY! Lucky for me, I could hear Shane and my family enter the room from visiting our baby. Bring me a wheelchair! I am going to see him! I called out to no one in particular. I don’t care who brings it be it Shane, my family, a nurse or a janitor. I will see my baby. Shane entered, my hero, with my chariot. Take it easy, he stated with that sly smirk. My family agreed to take me down to the NICU floor and give Shane “a break.” Not sure what that was supposed to mean, I’m a catch! As I entered through the security doors, I saw dozens of tiny babies and machines everywhere. They were all so tiny. Was Graham really THAT small or do I remember him so vaguely already? At last, my eyes caught glimpse of my beautiful 5 lbs 1 oz 17.5in baby boy. Never mind all the wires, tubes and jaundice, he was the most beautiful human I have ever laid my eyes on.
Rolling up to the enclosed incubator, I slowly reached my hand inside and introduced myself for the first time to my son. Hey little one, I’m your mommy. Graham gently reached out his hand and set it on top of my own. For the first time in days, my eyes welled with happy tears. May I hold him? Nodding in understanding the nurse opened the giraffe and gently set my son in my arms for the first time. This was our moment, my moment. He was so small, and there were a lot of wires. I carefully studied every feature of Graham, trying to memorize everything about him. I wanted this moment to never end, never pass and to never forget. Graham, meet your grandma, I cooed handing him over to my mother. My heart burst with joy as I watched my mother look down into the eyes of my son. An experience that for years I thought was impossible and now just dreamed to witness for my own eyes. She offered him to my dad but he said not to worry, he wasn’t leaving until the following morning. Enjoy the time as it is precious. Together we basked in this moment, the moment we had all been waiting for.
The next 7 days involved a new room, limited visits to Graham but thankfully a webcam monitor. A camera had been placed inside the giraffe incubator that held my baby boy. Remaining inpatient myself during these days, I could only visit the NICU twice daily and monitored him via the webcam the rest of the time. The staff explained how Shane and I needed to keep our IDs and passes on us at all times, even though we would see familiar staff we would be asked often for these as safety measures. Also, that we needed to contact staff for permission to hold him as they would need to help and be present.
The doctors were concerned primarily with his oxygen levels as well as the severity of my infection and jaundice. He was going to need tubal feedings through his mouth. My visits to the NICU were short and long between. Waiting in anticipation, I watched the camera in my room willing time to speed up so I could reach into that enclosed giraffe and touch him so he would know mama was here.
Discharged. That should be a joyful word. The ability to leave a place or situation. What the Oxford Dictionary doesn’t include is the heartache you feel as you are discharged post delivery but you are not carrying the small infant that was safe in your womb when you arrived a week prior. Instead, we moved into a NICU room with Graham.
Shane, able to take his FMLA leave, ran errands, checked on our house and our pup and rotated sleeping on a tiny cot in a designated family room so that I wouldn’t have to continue sleeping in recliners and could have the cot in our designated NICU room. You see, the world keeps moving even though time felt slow and never passing in the NICU. But the responsibilities continued on in our outside world. We had to learn to care for ourselves and a premie all while in unfamiliar territory. Meals consisted of lunch, take out or cafeteria food and supper came from the little locker space that stored minimal PB&J supplies, poptarts and chips.
Beep…click….beep…..shift change…beep click beep… The never ending sound of machines constantly going. Graham was finally in an open incubator but with all the wires and tubes still made holding him a complex dance of perfection. It didn’t matter, none of that mattered, I was finally with my son!
A Speech Pathologist will come to meet you all today. Graham continues to struggle with swallowing but we feel that it is time to switch from the mouth tube to a mixture of nose tube then add a bottle every couple days. The doctor continued to explain but all I could think in my mind was how does a child not know how to swallow. Even born prematurely, that never crossed my mind. 8 bottles a day, my brain snapped into the present. When Graham can drink 8 bottles a day he can go home. Determination filled my heart and mind as I gazed at the doctors before me. At least now we have a goal to work towards.
Between donated milk and my own power pumping I was able to give him feedings every 3-4 hrs and what they called nourishment feeds through his nasal tube feed. Life became an endless cycle of doctors, nurses, lactation consultant and speech pathologist. The machines beeped on, blood tests, power pumping, two failed hearing tests, recording of diapers….never ending data collection. To break up the monotony of our time in the NICU they planned activities to help cheer up the families within the unit. Family photos, we couldn’t have regular newborn photos done so we signed up to have pictures taken.
At this point during our stay I had know recollection of how long we had been here or when we would return home. Weeks 2, 3 and 4 all blurred together. Shane and I were alone. Often I would sit in our room holding my son and let the tears continue to fall. This was not how my experience was supposed to be. This entire journey had been difficult, When would I/we catch a break? Scrolling through my phone I caught a glimpse of another baby, not just any baby but a healthy bundle of joy born a few days prior to Graham. My step sister, I was so excited yet so envious of her beautiful pictures and posts of them home together happy and healthy.
Visitors were limited due to it being in a part of the hospital with very sick premies. We were notified anyone was at the front and wanted to visit for our privacy and for regulation of what tests or exams that were on-going with Graham. A couple friends of ours came to meet Graham but even with visits I still felt that we were so isolated. Knock knock…I nearly spilt all the milk that I had been power pumping currently and in walked Shane’s mother and stepfather. Family, I guess you could consider us that with some stretching of the definition. Shane jumped and wrangled them out and to a waiting room, where he texted me asking what we should do. Our relationship was strained to say the least and hearing that most of my in-laws arrived brought anxiety to the forefront of my mind. Like I’m not exhausted enough as it is? Hard beds, constant beeping and clicking, on going tests and getting nowhere fast. These people have been horrible to us both and had the audacity to refer to our child as a bastard because we weren’t married yet but now that he was here they wanted to meet him?! This isn’t on me. You decide what you want, I sent the text to Shane, but he needs rest due to a long morning so I don’t want anyone holding him. I pulled the curtain closed between the recliner and Graham. I needed to take care of myself for a few, I didn’t want to see them. Sitting there with my headphones in trying to drown out their voices but it didn’t work. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I begged in my mind for them to leave. Leave me to wallow in my emotions of headache, pain and experiences that had been robbed of me from a “normal birthing experience.” It shouldn’t be this way. I shouldn’t have been this way…
“You can go home today.” As soon as the words left the doctors lips I felt as though we had won the lottery. We could go home?! Just one final test, the one hour car seat test. The 5 weeks we had just spent in this hospital came down to this one final hour. 60 mins…45 mins…30 mins…breathe he will make it…20 mins….I can’t do another day….15 mins…what if after what if, the minutes ticked on. Anxiety, relief, jubilation and anticipation coursed through me like the 4th of July. 5 mins…4…3…2…1, WOOOOOOO!! He did it!
We had been in our own little bubble for so long that I felt as though I would miss it. We were going home but that didn’t mean the road ahead would be an easy one. But at least we would be together, no matter what.