Thursday, December 5, 2013

Life as a NICU Mom

It was unlike anything I'd ever seen or experienced before.

The kind of traumatic thing you don't easily forget. My heart would catch in my throat every time I entered those doors.

I remember the first time well.

It. was. awful.

Not where I imagined seeing my son the day after his birth.

Months later, I still struggle to write about it. I have so many things I still want to share with you all. So much that happened. So much I want to say. I still need to fully write out Elijah's birth story.

As I've been working on Christmas cards and photo books recapping our first 5 months together, I still end up having to walk away from the computer after a time. I still get emotional and my body gets all tightened up over it.

It's just not something easy to put behind me.

There are even harder things out there, for sure. This was a big deal for me. I sometimes still can't fully process that it happened to us. That we weren't living in an alternate reality.

That first time I got to go see him. I was pushed in a wheelchair down the hallways with crying babies and happy but tired mamas to the private elevator for parents only from Mother & Baby straight to the NICU so we didn't have to leave my unit or interact with the public. Pushed up to the door where we were seen on a little security camera and we had to pick up the phone and announce that we are Elijah's parents, here to see him. I welled up with tears and cringed with anxiety and a lot of fears.

As my husband, mother, and father all washed up, they showed me how to as well {they'd all been down there a few times already before I was allowed to get out of bed after my c-section}. Three minutes of scrubbing our hands and forearms with this slimy stuff that would wipe away all the germs and practically take off the top layer of my skin, so that I could go see my own son.

Elijah was located at the back of the unit, straight down from where we signed in. I remember as Tim pushed me and told me where he was, I stared at the number to his little curtained room. It felt like forever to get there. I wanted to run to him, pick him up, console him, tell him it would be okay.

Instead my heart caught in my throat. The monitors attached to him. The beeps. The cries. I got tighter. Tried so hard to keep the tears locked in me so no one would see how much I hurt for my baby. I couldn't let all these nurses see my hurt.

But oh did it hurt. I couldn't process that this was my child.

He'd come out of me about 24 hours prior. How was this all possible? I'd just had a c-section, barely able to process that I even had a child, much less that he was alive and in the NICU. I was in a state of complete shock, thinking I must have certainly been dreaming and that this nightmare would end.

They don't prepare you for this in those childbirth classes. We didn't know how to act. They weren't sure where to stand. I was maneuvered around in my wheelchair several times before I was positioned better to be able to touch Elijah. We were in shock and so uncomfortable.

My heart broke in two as I held his little leg under a warming unit. In a tiny place he didn't belong. I stared in wonder at my little boy, broken, needing help breathing, attached to all kinds of stuff. Scary. So unsettling.

My mommy instincts kicked in and I knew he needed some loving, so even though the nurse wasn't too sure {he was still pretty sick and vulnerable at this point}, we were allowed to hold him for a short time.

He was attached to so many things it was hard. I barely had enough strength to hold him for a bit. Tim was able to do skin-to-skin. My mom and dad briefly held him. I was limited to an hour down there. It was time to leave.

Elijah was crying at the top of his lungs as we left.

My heart broke apart.

And I completely lost it. I buried my head in my robe sobbing as Tim wheeled me away, signed us out, and we went back into our private little elevator.

Comforts came from all three as I tried to settle my tears and stared at the floor.

It didn't get much easier the remaining 10 days we visited him there, but we did get more comfortable as the days wore on. We knew we needed to be advocates for our son, and my mom helped remind me that we can speak up and not be shy. Once we got some SUPER great nurses we definitely started to feel better. They reminded us it's okay to fight for our child, that even though the nurses get attached and want what's best for the child's health, the parents are still in charge.

That's not the story I've heard from every NICU parent. Sometimes nurses and doctors can make things way harder than needed on the parents. Our nurses {save a couple...} were phenomenal. We couldn't have asked for better care for our son!


The NICU is the type of thing where people have sympathy, but they definitely can't fully understand it unless they've been through it.

There's nothing like it. There just isn't. You think you can understand, but I know I thought I did and really didn't. It's incomprehensible.

There's an unspoken respect between parents, but not lots of conversation. There are quiet nods toward each other of mutual understanding and no need for words as you watch the other parents talk to their baby's doctor or nurse, as they hear the bad news and cup their hands over their faces, and as you watch the other parents staring at their baby, praying they'll be okay. You don't hear much laughter or cheering in that place... unless you're there when the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup and they announce it over the otherwise-never-used intercom system. 

The nurses try to make it easier. They give you notes "from your son" when you're visiting him in the NICU on your 35th birthday, and they give you cake. They give him a mohawk after bath time and save a picture of it for you. They encourage you to keep pumping and trying to get milk, and they give you his burp cloth he's been laying on in hopes the scent will help your milk production. They make butterfly artwork with his feet and turn it into Butterfly Kisses from your son. They smile and pat your back when the tears still come on day 10 as you leave him one more time, knowing the next day will finally be his last in that place. They hug you and console you, and close the curtain around you to give you privacy as they say they'll be next door if you need anything. Amazing. Those nurses are rockstars!!

But still... nothing can replace the feeling you have when you finally get to leave. You want so badly to be there for your child, but sometimes if you stay just one minute longer you may scream.

I nearly tripped over my own two feet one day as I got out of there as fast as I could, looking for a trash can and then needing to hide out in the bathroom for a few minutes as the world spun and I nearly vomited everywhere. It was just such a sickening experience.

I couldn't stand another moment of watching my child going through all of that.

And I couldn't stand another moment of the tears, beeps, cries, heartache of other kids and families. Watching the suffering and sadness in that place is gut-wrenching. Watching our child move to a back room once he was doing better while another baby got the bigger, acute-care room Elijah had just been in was hard. Watching that baby, so teeny tiny, be surrounded by doctors and equipment as he got set up to spend likely many months there just made me so sick.

It's just all too hard.

Harder than I ever could have imagined possible.


Looking back I can certainly see things that were good that came out of it. Things we learned, ways we grew, and the new understanding we have of these kinds of situations.

Days spent in a NICU changes a person. 

It will never leave us. That sorrow. That challenging time.

But oh, the sweet sweet joy we have every day with our now thriving son.

Worth every second. Every bill. Every insurance issue. Every phone call. Every follow-up doctor appointment. Every fear. Every concern. Every smile.

I wouldn't trade him for the world.

And therefore, I wouldn't trade his birth story for the world.

I wish it were different. But it just isn't. It's our story now. And if you're a NICU or former NICU parent, just hear me in saying:

You are not alone. It does get better. The further you get from the experience, it does eventually start to get easier to swallow.

We could not have done it without our faith in God. Ever. Cannot imagine even attempting.

I confess my struggle with it all, but that I'm also deeply and fully filled with overflowing thanks to God for our precious boy, the gift he is, and for that time in the NICU as it made us into who we are today. We are so thankful Elijah is still with us today!!

We know that's not always the case. We have friends who watched their baby boy die in the NICU about 6 months after his birth. It was so tragic. So devastating. But they know the love of God and they have hope they will see their baby again in Heaven. They know it's going to be okay.

It doesn't make the pain go away, but it does make every day a little easier as we await the glory that comes on the other side.

For those of you who might be going through this today or something similar, know that God is with you. He will never leave or forsake you.

Hang in there! It does eventually get better.

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