Letters from the NICU

Feb. 8, 2009

Hi Thomas. I’m your dad, Colin. Your mom, Rachel, and I are sitting with you in the NICU. You were born Feb. 5, 2009, at 7:07 p.m. Things have been hectic the last few days. You see, we weren’t expecting you for five more weeks. Unfortunately, your mom suddenly starting having some health issues that could have endangered both of you, so for your safety and her’s, the doctor said you had to come out and join us.

I remember well the space in the hospital where my son was born. It was a cozy room down a back hallway. It had a small sofa, a recliner and a television most new mothers are lucky enough to never really need. In the room, there were pamphlets about caring for premature babies and the benefits of breastfeeding. There was literature about vaccinations — and, finally, a poster on the wall of a new mother, smiling as she held her new baby.  I remember thinking the poster was cruel. Sure, all my friends who were mothers had that same big smile as they carried their babies out of the hospital for the first time. I was expecting to be that mother, too. But I wasn’t.

I stared at that poster for 17 days as I unsuccessfully tried to pump milk for Thom who was just down the hall in a small, sterile bassinet, hooked up to monitors, with a feeding tube up his nose. 

I can’t imagine how many mothers, like me, cried in that room as they stared at that poster — knowing their own child was in the hospital’s NICU — uncertain of their future. All those mothers were robbed of their first few weeks with their newborns. They were sent home from the hospital and had to leave their babies behind.

Feb. 9, 2009

It’s about 8 p.m. and you’re still in the NICU. They haven’t given you a bottle in a couple days because you’re having reflux. You’re on a few different medicines and we’re hoping you get better fast because we really want you home with us. Your mother and I feel very incomplete when we’re not around you. Your mom is holding and rocking you right now — and we’re both crying because this is so hard. We’re beyond happy you’re here with us, but it hurts to see you in here and not be able to be with you all the time.

Colin and I decided that after five years of marriage, we were ready to have kids. I was 30 at the time and it took me only a month to get pregnant. I did everything right — I was fit, I exercised regularly, I was a healthy eater, I slept well. 

But sometime around the 20-week mark, I started feeling different. 

My doctor said I had to stop running and should stick with walking. I struggled with round ligament pain. I suddenly had morning sickness, but anyone who’s experienced it will tell you it doesn’t just apply to mornings. I remember getting ready for a doctor’s visit on Dec. 31, putting my boots on, zipping up my coat and suddenly throwing up all over myself. 

Something was wrong. 

But when you’re pregnant, people repeatedly tell you that getting sick and feeling lousy is just part of the deal. 

I never had high blood pressure until I was pregnant, and as the months went by, it kept getting worse. I remember waking up from a nap one January afternoon and seeing black spots. 

I didn’t say anything, I just chalked it up to drowsiness or some random pregnancy symptom.

Feb. 11, 2009

It’s a big day for you. Not only have they removed your oxygen mask, but your IV came out of your belly button. This is the first time we’ve seen your face without something on it since you were born. You’re also feeding more from the bottle. The nurses removed your feeding tube today, but you’re not yet able to get enough to stay off it. The doctor just explained to us you’ll be making a few steps forward and then one or two back, just about every day. At this point, the doctor is guessing that you’ll likely be here for seven to 10 more days. 

I was due March 10, but on Feb. 4, during a regular checkup, my blood pressure was so high my doctor ordered some blood work. As I waited for preliminary results, I was instructed to lie on my left side as I was hooked up to a bunch of monitors in a tiny exam room. After what seemed like an eternity, my doctor ordered me to go on bed rest. I was allowed only an hour a day to shower and do things around the house.

The following morning, my doctor’s office called. Blood tests showed my liver enzymes were all over the place and they were worried about preeclampsia. 

I was ordered to get to the office as soon as possible. We packed an overnight bag just in case and headed out.

It was a Thursday and my doctor said he was scheduling me for induction on Monday. 

Before he added me to the schedule, he checked for dilation and found I was already at 4 centimeters. 

Within minutes, I was in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV and they started me on Pitocin. My doctor broke my water. 

Seven hours later, Thom was born. I was able to hold him briefly before he was quickly taken away to the hospital’s NICU and hooked up to oxygen. 

All those visions I had of bringing him home from the hospital, being able to hold my child whenever I wanted — and being that poster child for the happy new mother — vanished. Instead, my husband and I became unwilling members of the special NICU parent club.

Feb. 20, 2009

We thought you might be coming home today, but the doctor says you need to stay until Monday. Your mom and I are upset about this, but we know it’s the right thing. We’re very anxious to get you home. This experience has been tougher on her than she’ll let anyone know. She says she doesn’t feel like a mom when we’re home without you, but I tried to get her to see that she feels that way because she definitely is a mom.

Fortunately, most people never experience the inside of a NICU. Most parents never know the emotional toll of leaving their child behind at the hospital and fearing for their newborn’s life. You watch other babies come and go, and give friendly goodbye hugs to those other NICU mothers you’ve come to know as they leave with their babies. While you’re happy for them, you’re seething inside at the same time because it’s not you. 

 If you do find yourself in the NICU parent club, know the nurses will become your greatest support system. It’s been seven years, and I haven’t forgotten Richard, Laurie, Beth or Dawn. 

Try to find humor among the sadness: Rereading Colin’s journal of the experience brought me to tears, but it also made me laugh as he talked about visits from family members and friends. 

When the doctor tells you it will be five or six days, expect more. NICU parents know it’s one step forward, two steps back. It’s heartbreaking to have your child’s discharge date moved back repeatedly. 

Your emotions will run wild, and the experience may not hit you right away. You’ll be preoccupied with your child’s well-being, not how you feel yourself. 

When you’re finally home and things calm down, you may find yourself with your own emotional issues. 

Seek help. It’s not uncommon for NICU parents to be diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, sometimes even years later.

Feb. 22, 2009

So your departure date got moved up — to today! We’re sitting with you for the last time in the NICU. It seems like such a long time since you were born. I said to your mom on the way here today that it feels to me like today is your birthday.

Today, Thom is 7. He has no medical issues we’re aware of. In fact, he’s the tallest first grader in his class. 

He eats like a teenager. He loves reading, building weird contraptions, playing soccer, swimming lessons and leaving his LEGO pieces all over the floor. 

He rarely stops talking. And as much as we often crave quiet time, Colin and I know that loudness and crazy-little-boy-antics are far better than the silence and isolation we felt in the hospital NICU.

Rachel Brougham is a writer, editor and recent Minneapolis transplant. At this moment, she’s most likely getting Thom a snack or telling him to clean up his mess.