The arrival of a premature son and the alien world of the NICU
| It is easy to see that he is sick. Wires and tubes cover his tiny body. The plastic isolette where he lays is surrounded by machines. They flash and beep and buzz as they keep him alive. The nurses poke at them and twist their knobs constantly. They are too busy with the machines to pay any attention to me. Right now, my son has no need for a mother. He needs the nurses and the machines.
The doctor leads us outside the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The unit’s double doors swing shut with a muffled thud. She begins to speak to my husband.
“He’s in very critical condition,” she says. “Things are touch and go right now. We’re doing everything possible.”
Our heads nod, although neither of us has any true understanding of just what this entails.
“We’ll keep you posted. There’s a waiting area over there.” Her finger points diagonally and to the left. She asks if we have any questions, while she continues to look only at my husband.
There is an uneasy silence as we try to think up questions. The doctor shifts her weight from one foot to the other and pats her pocket every so often to make sure her pager is there. Neither of us can come up with any questions; this is all such a shock. And it’s becoming clear to me that the doctor is deliberately avoiding looking me in the eye. This disturbs and distracts me.
Suddenly, her beeper squawks and she rushes back through the double doors into the NICU, her white coat fluttering behind. She doesn’t say if our son is the reason for her abrupt departure. She is just gone.
My husband leads me to the waiting room and every single thing about it strikes me as wrong. It is far too cheerful. The walls are painted too bright. The music is much too gay. The magazine rack is filled with baby magazines; their front covers show grinning, fat-faced infants with big round eyes. Is this someone’s idea of a joke? After all, this is where people sit when their babies are fighting to survive. It feels like the room is mocking me.
My mind replays the events of the last four hours and struggles to make some kind of sense out of it all. It is way too soon for our son to be born; he isn’t supposed to be due for 15 more weeks. And there is the obvious question, the one hanging over my head. Why did this happen? The fault can only be mine. Everyone carefully avoids saying it, but the truth is the truth. A mother knows.
The NICU doors open and we look up instantly. Our faces are filled with fear as we watch an older lady approach. She places something in my hand and my fingers automatically close. She tells us that nothing has changed and pats my shoulder before she disappears back behind the doors.
The items she placed in my hand do not even register until my husband takes them from me. They are Polaroid’s of our son, two of them. He doesn’t look anything like a human baby at all. His face is obscured by the tube in his mouth that is keeping him alive. The bond that mothers normally feel for their babies is absent. My mind searches for a word to describe this strange feeling but does not find it.
Two hours pass and my husband returns to this horrible room with coffee that neither of us will drink. He’s only back for five minutes before he leaves again to make calls. He needs to do something; he needs to feel some sense of purpose. He disappears down the colorless corridor and leaves me alone to wait. Somehow, it’s easier to wait without him. My eyes never leave the doors of the unit.
Another hour passes before the doors swing open again and the doctor walks towards me. She still avoids my gaze; her eyes scan the tiny waiting room as though she expects to find my husband hiding somewhere. She asks where he’s gone and my answer clearly disappoints her. She forces herself to talk to me.
“It isn’t good,” she begins.
This is so ridiculously obvious that the urge to burst into hysterical laughter erupts from some dark place inside me. It’s the kind of laughter that shows up when it’s least appropriate, like when you’re in court or church. The urge passes, but not without a fight. It’s my fear and exhaustion that fuel it.
The doctor continues her update on my son’s condition. Her medical jargon is meaningless but the expression on her face says it all. Every so often, she scans the hall for my husband. She has something more to say and she’d rather tell him.
When he doesn’t appear, she resigns herself to telling me. She looks deflated, like a balloon that someone’s let the air out of. For the very first time, she meets my eyes.
“There has been extensive bleeding in his brain,” she says. “That bleeding has caused severe brain damage. If your son does survive, he will most likely not be able to walk, or talk, or even feed himself.”
She pauses and gives me time to process her words, as if it is even possible to process words like those. She begins her foot-shifting and pocket-patting routine again.
“It’s too soon to know whether he’ll ever be able to breathe on his own,” she says. “It’s fifty-fifty at this point.”
Now my ears hear my voice tell her about the waiting room and how spiteful it is. It’s off-topic and completely irrelevant, and the doctor looks confused and a little bit scared. We’re even now. She’s probably had parents completely lose it before, and my left field remark makes her really, really wish someone was with me. This time, there is urgency in the way she scans the halls, but my husband still does not appear. The doctor isn’t quite done with her news. Every cell in my body somehow knows that the worst is yet to come. And it does.
“We want you to give consideration to signing paperwork that allows us not to resuscitate him in the event he takes a turn for the worse,” she says.
What does she mean?
“Once we get past a certain point in time, we have so many resources invested that it becomes very difficult to NOT take extreme measures to keep a child alive.”
What certain point in time? My mind isn’t following.
“Typically, we have a pretty good idea which cases are viable within the first three days, so we have a little time before you need to make any decision. It is something you need to spend some time thinking about.”
Now she won’t take her eyes off me. Is there any way to pretend that “viable” means something other than what it means? Is there any way to define "case" and not have it mean my son? No.The working part of my brain begs me NOT to read between the lines.
“There is always the possibility for a miracle. It’s happened before.”
This is not reassuring in any way.
“So, give it some thought. We’ll discuss it again when Day Three rolls around. And if you or your husband have any questions, please feel free to call. There’s someone you can speak with 24 hours a day.”
And with her message delivered, she disappears behind those hated doors. My brain unwillingly replays her words and attempts to deliberately misunderstand them. It tries to come up with the odds for a miracle. It tries to figure out a way to explain all this to my husband who absolutely believes that this whole NICU thing is just a relatively minor setback---that it’s only a matter of time before he’s going to be teaching our son how to play soccer and fish.
But a mother knows. Like it or not. The truth has been with me right from the very first moment and the truth will not be denied. There is nothing more to know.
The “Three Days” pass by and no miracle arrives. And it turns out that our decision is no decision at all. He is just too sick and too small. He is suffering. We sign the form.
The morning of Day Four arrives and they remove all the wires and tubes and wrap our baby boy in a blanket. It is the only time he will ever spend in my arms. He lives only one hour more and that one hour will be burned so deeply into my memory that it will haunt me for the rest of my days. He is so tiny and he fights so hard. His pain is mine. His suffering is mine. And then, finally, mercifully, it stops. He is gone. It is done.
And Life goes on, just as it always does. There is no great lesson to carry away, no matter how hard we struggle to find one. Our hearts heal and the painful memories fade. We are not designed to live in the past. All we can do is to live every day like the treasure it is. And that is far easier said than done. This mother knows.
Originally created for "The Ultimate Contest" on 6/10/10 in First Person without using the pronoun "I".