You’ve come a long way baby
Today is Prematurity Awareness Day. Hundreds of bloggers have dedicated their cyber-platforms to the topic of prematurity today. This is our story:
I used to be scared of flying. The mysterious creaks and clatters of take-off unleashed a surge of adrenaline and the thought “that’s the airplane wing, detaching.” I learned to watch the flight attendants; surely if something was amiss, their faces would reveal it.
It was like this too in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), where my son Col (rhymes with soul) spent his first 101 days. The nurses were my barometer of safety. They knew Col better than I, and for much of Col’s time incarcerated in an incubator, it seemed he belonged partially to them and partially to some otherworldly force, like he was still tethered to the invisible weave of the entire universe. (My mom used to say to Col when he was a just a wide-eyed crumb of a human, “You’re so wise now. Soon you’ll be forget everything and become very silly”).
Col was born in the dark night of a new moon under florescent lights in a room containing no less than 14 people. Dan snipped his umbilical cord in a brief moment of normalcy before Col was whisked to the neonatologists table, where 6 angels in green scrubs performed modern magic on Col’s tiny body. After my clinging placenta was torn from my uterus by a resident who looked like she’d just graduated high school, I fell into a quick, dreamless sleep. It wasn’t until the next morning that I saw my firstborn; the child who—born at 25 weeks gestation—should still have been back-flipping through the salty water of my womb. This doll-sized baby, my son, had a ventilator plunged down his impossibly narrow trachea and an IV threaded into his bead of a bellybutton. Another IV was sunk into his arm, which was barely 5 inches long and the width of my pinky finger. His head was covered in slick hair of indeterminate color, and his eyes were not yet opened. Lanugo—that embryonic fur of the womb—covered his body. He was 13 inches long and 1 pound, 12 ounces.
I’m not sure how long I stood there, at his incubator, his body bathed in a perfect Hawaiian simulation of artificial heat, light and humidity. His nurse Allison urged me to “talk to him, he wants to hear your voice.” She opened the portholes of his plastic house, just wide enough to stick hands through without losing much heat, and I lay my palm like a blanket across his swaddled body. “Hi my son” I whispered. Col didn’t have a name yet, though a cheery, colorful sign was taped to his incubator, announcing: “Baby Boy Turiel; 800 grams.” “Hi, my beautiful boy. I love you, I love you so much” I managed through tears. Allison handed me tissues and pointed out how Col’s galloping heartrate slowed, hearing my voice.
That same day I found a journal left at Col’s bedside by Kami, the nurse on duty when Col was exhaled from my faulty womb. Kami wrote: “Hi Mom and Dad, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer to meet you, so I came early. I was just too impatient.” A long paragraph of medical details follows, then this, “I am a very feisty boy. I even tried to pee on my nurse in the delivery room! I had a pretty eventful night but have been such a good boy, they may try to take my breathing tube out in 5 days! I’m a tired boy, so that is all for now. Love, your baby boy.”
On Col’s third day alive he opened his left eye and peered up at his Daddy. That same day his brain scan came back normal, which came to be the loveliest and most reassuring word. And Dan and I moved into the Ronald McDonald House, where 30 other parents (is that what we were, parents?) with hospitalized children lived. On his fourth day, the nurses lifted the cover off Col’s incubator like it was some jazzy convertible and Dan and I kissed his downy head. On his fifth day, he had a serious of apneas (forgetting to breathe) and bradycardias (subsequent plunge of heart rate), which sent the nurses scurrying to his bedside to rub his back—big as a deck of cards—vigorously, literally reminding him to return to his body and breathe. (This was an utterly common occurrence, though scary enough to take my breath away). On his sixth day, his bellybutton IV was removed and I got to hold him for the first time. Extracting him from his incubator was a delicate and tricky procedure. I cupped his floppy body in both hands while a nurse lifted his sprawl of tubes and wires. This kangaroo care became my most potent medicine. On his seventh day Col started receiving my pumped breast milk through a feeding tube in his nose (his mouth already occupied by oxygen-delivering equipment). He got 2cc’s every 4 hours, slightly less than one tablespoon each day. Kami wrote in his journal “thanks so much Mom for your hard work on getting me my breast milk. I got some tonight and loved it.”
When Col was two weeks and had dropped to 1 pound, 8 ounces, we met with a social worker who asked what our desires were for Col’s future. Dan, my husband, said “to start to feel the blessings of the Earth and the smells of our home.”
Col was feisty. At 1 ½ months—and almost 3 pounds—he’d tear off his C-PAP (device which delivers oxygen while keeping the lungs inflated) and hold it up in his tiny hands like a hunter displaying his kill. And yet, he still slept about 23 hours each day—alone in his incubator with a ragtag zoo of stuffed animals—except those 2 one-hour periods we were permitted to hold him. At 3 pounds, he looked positively chubby to us, and indeed, he was finally sturdy and fat enough to take his first bath, another delicate and tricky procedure, requiring the quick shuttling of his wet, toweled body to a warming table as if he were a lump of rising dough. After weeks of painfully slow growth and breathing setbacks, Col was hitting his stride. His physical therapist, Frieda—whose work mostly centered on recreating the womb-pressure preemies miss out on, causing floppy, hyper-extended muscles—increased his reps from 3 to 6. A veritable workout! Though if Col so much as yawned, grimaced or had an apnea, Frieda cut the session short, declaring Col too tired or stressed to continue.
And then like the high-stakes board game that is preemie life (Col grows two ounces overnight, jump forward three squares! Col needs a blood transfusion, return to start), Col developed an infection at 2 months and went back on the ventilator, back into the high-care room with the just-born preemies, these impossibly tiny humans and their bewildered parents, struggling to fasten the tiniest diapers on their children’s sad, limp bodies. For more than a week we couldn’t hold our son; he was taken off my breast milk and put on a synthesized cocktail of “nutrition” via IV. He received blood draws, x-rays, blood transfusions, antibiotics, steroids, diuretics and he lost precious, hard-earned ounces. After five days the nurses agreed to let me hold him but minutes later they rescinded: his apneas and bradycardias were firing like a fireworks finale.
It has been almost five years since that January new moon; those days are written in my heart and mind like a collection of oversized books stacked on a shelf. If you opened Volume two you’d see that at 17 months, Col ran and jumped and swooshed down slides with an oxygen cord parroting his every move. He also breastfed and grew as slow as an alpine daisy battered about by mountain winds. Flip through a little further and we’ve left our beloved Colorado home for the oxygen-rich seaside in Humboldt County, CA. And there’s that McKinleyville doctor barking at us “do you know the signs of respiratory distress?” while a feverish Col gulps oxygen at warp-speed while lying motionless in my arms.
And then check this out, Volume 4: Col is riding a bike and working 64-piece puzzles. He’s an uncannily cheery and resilient boy who says, when his sister pulls apart his lego ocean liner, “that’s okay, I can build another one.” And then slam, ER visits twice last winter, his tender lungs soothed by a stream of oxygen piped into his nose, the way I’d be revived by ice water on a scorching day. But look! There’s that camping trip at 9,500 feet last summer where Col scurried around for three days like a small animal who had finally found his home, who truly knows the blessings of the Earth, as his father wished for him so long ago.
I think of Col’s first night in the world, after those six neonatologists huddled over his brand new body, each of them playing a crucial role in making Col’s body compatible with life. And Kami, his night nurse settling in to pen these words “…it’s been an eventful night…” I bet if I could have seen her face, I would have known that despite the rattling clanks and creaks of Col’s take off into this world, there was no reason to be alarmed.
** Infinite gratitude to Col’s compassionate, wizardly nurses Allison Phardel, Stacy Gieg, Kami Hanchett and Julie Query.