The Handhold *or* When everything changed
*backstory, circa January 2005*
It wasn’t when I felt that first gush through my legs at midnight, storm clouds knocking around the winter sky, when everything changed. It wasn’t even hours later, my pregnant body shivering in a hospital gown, awaiting the ultrasound technician’s precarious arrival through the quiet fury of a Colorado snowstorm. During those moments—my 24 weeks-pregnant belly pulsing with contractions—I still had hope. Dan and I even constructed, like a flimsy cardboard shack, the plan that once the docs released us back to our normal lives where pregnancies grow to term and healthy babies are born, we’d drive straight to our favorite diner, order whopping breakfasts and count our blessings.
My midwife entered the hospital room, neck wrapped in a colorful scarf, hair moist with snow and lips set to a frown. She knelt by my bedside, adopting the pose that would become all too familiar in the next week, as I was visited by a parade of specialists. Her voice had the slow, precise gait of an elementary school teacher giving a lesson on enunciating. “Your amniotic sac broke,” she parsed. “There’s no fluid left in your uterus.” Ever the optimist, I waited for the good news, the part about how modern medicine had a fix for this very problem. She continued. “Once your water breaks, labor is likely to start. We need to fly you to Denver immediately; if your baby is born here, we can’t save it.”
At 24 weeks a baby is mostly formed. This isn’t to say it can live outside of the womb without great assistance, but every organ is present and accounted for. Every organ except for the lungs, still nubby caricatures of their future selves. The alveoli—designed to grab oxygen from inhaled air—are winter-scarred saplings compared to the branchy canopy of full term lungs. At 24 weeks, the heart thumps, the bladder empties, but the lungs are still practicing their highly skilled work of breathing.
The EMT who rode with us in the back of the ambulance while we inched and spun towards our small town airport on snow-packed roads asked if we knew the baby’s gender (we didn’t). He told us about his own pregnant wife’s morning sickness as if we were at some cheery birthing class talking shop. I didn’t mention that the last thing my midwife said—her words pinging in my brain like a slow drip—was, “if this baby is born in the next 48 hours, I recommend wrapping it in a blanket and letting it die on your chest. The disabilities associated with babies born this early are tremendous and the life-saving measures can be cruel.”
Our emergency jet ride lifted us over the roiling snow storm where the skies were the depthless blue of a newborn’s eyes, the sun dizzyingly bright. I lay on the stretcher, oxygen in my nose, monitors beeping out data, feeling the pebbly place in my chest where the unyielding love and protection I already felt for this baby merged with the equally vast sorrow at my body’s failure to provide it a safe home.
The plane landed 350 miles away from home and another ambulance ferried Dan and me to the labor and delivery floor of a big city hospital. I had landed in the foreign country of Pregnancies Gone Awry, and yet this was still not the moment when everything changed.
My sweet pregnancy was now a medical crisis. Every few hours a nurse checked my vitals and tracked the baby, who was moving lower and lower in my faulty womb. The doctors breezed through my room, their sad mouths spewing grim statistics. Babies born at 24 weeks had long hospital stays and multitudes of problems: blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy, feeding tubes, brain bleeds; words that change a parent’s life forever. Based on the teetering piles of frightening information plus my midwife’s advice, we were steeling ourselves to let the baby go.
With my amniotic fluid drained, I no longer felt the baby’s kicks and hiccups which were once like text messages reminding me “I’m here! I’m okay!” But my baby’s heartbeat, galloping like a wild horse through the desert of my womb, remained strong.
After several days of bedrest, Dan leaving for short stretches to roam the snow-grimy streets of Denver, we were visited by a new neonatologist. This was the very moment after which nothing was ever the same. Dr Gien, dark and handsome, announced that I had now held on for 25 weeks, which changed everything. “If your baby comes now,” this doctor said, “we can tell pretty quickly if it needs heroic life saving measures. Many babies take the mature route at 25 weeks and do okay.” This was our first handhold of hope, which we gripped until our fingers bled.
Our son was born 3 days later at 1 pound 12 ounces. He stayed in the NICU for 101 days and though he needed blood transfusions, IV nutrition, antibiotics, diuretics, steroids, oxygen, and my pumped breast milk tube-fed in doses of 1 tablespoon every hour, he is now a strong, bright six year old. Lately, days pass where his birth story—and the worrisome years that followed—doesn’t alight in my mind, but flits by like a captive bird finally set free. Most days I see a vibrant, loved boy riding his bike in the late afternoon sun.