(Note to my readers: I decided to put a pretty, serene image at the top of this post, rather than lead with some of the other pictures I want to use. A couple of them might be distressing to some viewers. Nevertheless, I want to share them, because they are the reality of this story.)
It was a cold, dry day in mid-January 2001 when my wife’s water broke, 24 weeks into her pregnancy.
We rushed to the car, a candy apple red Mazda, and I drove to the hospital, where we were given a room immediately. After various testing, sonograms and examinations, our obstetrician informed us that our daughter had a 10 percent chance of survival.
The baby’s blood pressure rose as the empty amniotic sac wrapped tightly around her.
If we could somehow keep our daughter inside the womb for at least another week, while delivering steroids to help more quickly develop her lungs, we might increase her odds to 50 percent.
Alongside the emotional sledgehammer of this news, my wife also had to endure side effects of the magnesium sulfate solution delivered to her during that week in order to prevent contractions.
I stayed in the hospital with my wife and unborn child for fifteen hours, and was “relieved” by her parents who had driven two hours to get to us.
I had held my tears all day, and immediately cried the most I had ever done in the walk across the bone-chilling, midnight parking lot.
The next morning I returned to find my wife and daughter both still in stable conditions. My wife looked miserable. I sat by her bedside for a few hours, helped her with lunch, and spent some time with my in-laws.
A week later, our obstetrician performed an emergency C-section when both my wife and the baby could no longer take holding on to each other any longer.
I sat next to my wife in the operating room and held her hand through the surgery. She was kept awake throughout, and the last thing she had to eat was a red cherry popsicle, which she vomited up.
The medical team set up a sterile curtain to block my wife’s view of the procedure. Where I was seated, I could easily see over it. I watched as the doctor made the incision and proceeded to remove various organs in order to reach the uterus. I felt the operating table shake with every movement.
At 12:20 A.M., out daughter was born. She weighed 1 pound, 8 ounces, and was about 12 inches long.
She wasn’t breathing when the obstetrician took her out of the womb. That reflex just wasn’t very well developed. Neither were her lungs, but we hoped that the extra week and the steroids would help.
Two nurses hurried past me on their way to take my daughter to a nearby table, where they would clear her airway and use a small hand-powered respirator to feed air into her.
She was wobbly, skin bright pink, head outsized on a thin body devoid of any fat. She didn’t look alive. But the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) team said she was, and I believed them.
They anesthetized my wife, to force her into some much-needed rest, and I left to wait in her assigned room.
I saw our daughter about an hour later, in her first incubator.
A couple hours after that, a nurse informed me that my wife was waking up, so I went back to check on her. The next afternoon, we saw our daughter together, in her incubator. The NICU was a noisy, busy place, the sounds of machines and nursing activity filling the space at all hours.
This would be where our daughter would spend the next 3 and a half months of her life.
At the turn of the 20th century, premature infants had no truly specialized care. Babies born as early as my own daughter would have perished almost immediately. A French doctor named Martin Couney brought primitive incubator technology to the United States in the 1890s. His mission was to save preemies, but in order to afford it he had to monetize the mission by displaying them in sideshows. Even though his technology was proven to save more babies than what was regularly available in hospital settings of the day, it took decades for those same hospitals to actually adopt Dr. Couney’s methods.
In that first day, my daughter had 50/50 odds of survival. As every successive day ticked by, those odds improved, little by little. She had been born without some of the worst case scenarios: bowels or lungs that simply didn’t work, spina bifida, total blindness. She had varying levels of anemia, jaundice, and apnea. For the first couple of months, we couldn’t be sure if she would avoid some other common medical issues of extreme prematurity, which could include severe mental and vision impairments.
The following months were extremely stressful and punctuated with moments of joy: the first time we got to touch her tiny hand, hold her, bottle feed her.
She got sick a couple times, early on, which set back her progress. With the skill of the dedicated NICU staff and whatever willpower our daughter was able to muster, she pulled through.
There were usually six to eight other preemies in the NICU at any one time over the course of our time there. We heard the nurses refer to the preemies more than once as “the sickest of patients” in the hospital. For their first weeks, and sometimes months, they relied on technology to keep them alive: to breath for them, feed them, and monitor their every life sign.
The NICU staff presented us with a tiny knit hooded sweater one of them had made, white with pastel blue and pink stripes, using a doll baby pattern. The outfit was still too large for our daughter.
My wife and I felt a great bond with the other parents there. We connected through a singular event common to our lives which little else could match. It was a long journey of hope and worry.
We took our daughter home on May 18th of that year, only a day before her projected due date. She was a little under 4 and a half pounds.
She had a companion, which had to remain attached to her 24/7 for the first couple months we had her at home: a heart monitor. Our daughter had one potentially life-threatening condition, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). When she couldn’t keep some of her formula down, she would choke it up which could shock her heart or lungs, causing apnea or bradycardia. We ended up calling 9–1–1 three times in the first few months at home due to these events.
She was so underweight that our pediatrician told us to “get fat into her whatever way we can.” One suggestion was to mix ice cream into her bottles.
It took almost a decade for her weight to catch up and place her where she should be on the growth charts.
She’s in college now and headed into the nursing program.
Thank you for reading and sharing!