Courtesy of Rachel Turiel
Courtesy of Rachel Turiel
November is National Prematurity Awareness month, a cause close to my heart. My son, Col, was born at 25 weeks, almost eight years ago. We were airlifted to Denver when my water broke at 24 weeks. Col was released from University Hospital 101 days later, on his due date.
I had many notions of what motherhood would be like while my baby was still safely paddling his amniotic waters. None of them included repeated blood draws, x-rays, brain ultrasounds, IVs, shots, steroids, antibiotics, ventilators and continuous supplemental oxygen, all before he was due to enter this world.
Some medical professionals recommended before Col was born that we forego trying to save his life, the long-term risks associated with such an early birth were too great. And once he was born, the doctors in Denver were unable to make any clear prognosis on our child’s future. It seemed they were legally obligated to give us the laundry list of every possible disability when I raised the shaky question, “Is he going to be okay?”
There were some rough patches in Col’s first few years. He learned to crawl, walk and then run while constantly tethered to an oxygen tank. We were sent to the emergency room numerous times for “respiratory distress.” I had the phone number of the home oxygen supply company and our pediatrician memorized. But, eight years later, our son is strong, bright, healthy and ringing the high notes of my heart every day.
The following story is what was happening on Col’s 18th day alive.
Entering the neonatal ICU is like stepping out of the wilderness into downtown Las Vegas. Everything is loud, bright and artificial here. Also, the odds stink and we pray a lot. We pass through the triple gauntlets of security, check-in desk and finally the hand-washing station, where my husband and I scrub off every particle of the outside world and start praying.
I am very superstitious about it all. As long as I’m friendly with the nurses and keep the words, “please-let-him-be-okay” threading through my mind like an inky typewriter ribbon, this truth will imprint itself and we’ll be among the lucky ones. Also, these words are the locked-armed protestors who hold back all the other possibilities. The ones I can’t imagine – the ones that could whoosh your heart out of its bony cage, flinging it into orbit outside your body forever.
We walk through the sea of incubators, each draped in the same cheery but faded, zoo-themed fabric. Alarms ring and nurses clickity-clack across the crisp linoleum floors.
Inside our son’s plastic shell it’s a balmy 98 degrees, humidity piped in like the set of some breezy beach movie. He’s swaddled in a tiny scrap of pale blue cloth, and wedged between two cotton bolsters, designed to mimic the pressure of the womb.
“Hi baby,” I whisper, sticking my arms through the portholes to lay a hand on his back, no bigger than a deck of cards. His dark blue eyes are open.
“He’s waiting for you,” Nurse Alison tells us. “He’s been awake the last 15 minutes.”
I blink back tears. I want to scoop him up and carry him out of here.
“I’ll take it from here,” I’d tell the nurses, batting away their protests like a swarm of paparazzi. But he’d die without these machines that keep his lungs inflated – inflated! – and buzzing with oxygen.
Three weeks ago my son was safe in my womb, fluttering around his amniotic ocean, aquatic and anonymous. I spent my days managing our small-town herb shop, where we dispensed dark, fragrant tinctures, knobby, finger-sized roots and the belief that medicine should come from the Earth. Our baby was to be born at home, into my husband’s strong carpenter hands. The only unanswered question was what scented candle to burn during my labor: lavender or rose.
Then a sudden and voluminous gush between my legs sent us to the hospital. The nurse-midwife pronounced, apologetically, “Your amniotic sac broke. There’s no fluid left in your uterus.” Ever the optimist, I waited for the good news, the part about western medicine’s fix for this troublesome problem. “Once your water breaks,” she continued, “labor is likely to start. We need to airlift you to a level 3 hospital immediately; if your baby is born here, we can’t save it.” I was 24 weeks pregnant.
I place a thermometer in our son’s armpit and Dan and I change his diaper, so small I could hide it in my hand. Dan lifts his legs and our boy’s thin skin, mapped with blue veins, sags off his thighs like a puppy’s. I wipe his bottom with a single cotton ball.
Nurse Alison approaches with a medical binder that’s absurdly thick for a baby alive 18 days.
“Rachel?” She places a hand on my shoulder. The nurses know to approach me gently; I’m quick to cry.
“He’s not back up to his birth weight yet,” she says, opening the binder to an unimpressive graph.
“But he’s tolerating his feeds well,” I respond in the language of the NICU.
“We really want to see him hit 2 pounds,” she said. “He may be working too hard. If he doesn’t start gaining weight, the docs want to put him back on the ventilator, take him off breast milk and start him on fortified formula.”
I am falling down a cliff. Like so many other times in this place, I want to cover my ears and belt out songs of peaceful resistance; “La La La. I don’t hear you” my toddler self would say. We’re supposed to be the miracle family, beating the grim statistics the sad-mouthed doctors have warned us about. The doctors who can’t promise that my son will be normal, that one day he’ll ride a bike, mud splashing his legs as he turns around to flash a smile that says: “See? I told you I’d be okay!”
I wish I could be more like the mom who hobbled in yesterday wearing the blue hospital-issue gown – the secret handshake of mothers who’ve washed up on the shores of Pregnancies Gone Awry. A nurse said that her baby will need an IV threaded into his tiny, premature hand. “We’ll give him a little sedative first to keep him still.” The new mom leaned in and whispered to her swaddled wisp of a son, “You’re gonna get the good drugs.”
I nod compliantly to Alison; she hands me a pre-emptive tissue just as the first tears squeeze from my eyes. Dan hugs me. He’s better at this than I am. He sees our son frolicking in the woods, while all I can do is keep the mantra, “please-let-him-be-OK,” unspooling from my heart.
Reach Rachel Turiel at firstname.lastname@example.org.Visit her blog, 6512 and growing, on raising children, chickens and other messy, rewarding endeavors at 6,512 feet.