Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tales from the NICU: Foreshadowing and Dramatic Irony

In September 2012, my full-term newborn son spent the first three weeks of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit. "Tales from the NICU" are stories from our unexpected stay there. 


When my son was born, they put him right on my chest, wailing and new. His heart rate had dropped shortly before birth and they said he was breathing a little fast, that it looked like he might have swallowed a little amniotic fluid, so they looked him over for a bit and quickly handed him back to me. I wasn't worried. I was just so relieved that he had arrived, red and healthy and huge. That first night with him was pure bliss. I had had a natural birth so I was a bundle of pure energy and excitement and I couldn't believe how great I felt. We hardly got any sleep because I kept waking up over and over just to peek at him. I would sit and watch him sleep in his little bassinet by my bed, fascinated by his realness. I'll never forget that feeling, of motherhood so fresh, for as long as I live.

The next morning, the nurses said they would like to run some tests just to make sure everything checked out okay. I was disappointed that he would be away for a bit, but I wasn't worried. My husband went with him to the nursery while I rested. While they were gone, a nurse came in to look me over. She asked when it looked like we would be leaving. I still felt great, so I said as soon as possible, after the 24 hour minimum, and she gave me this gentle smile that said, "O sweetie. How naive you are." But I brushed it off. I wasn't worried.

About an hour or so later, a doctor came in. I was there alone as she told me that it looked like my baby may have an infection, that she wanted him to stay in the NICU for a day or two. It wasn't until after she left that my husband came back. He had gotten lost in the shuffle somewhere and when I saw him I realized two things at once: that I wished he had been there when they told me and that we were both there without our baby, that he was off somewhere without us.

Soon after that, a nurse came in with a pump so I could get my milk supply going while I was away from my baby. Not even the tiniest drop of colostrum came out, but I wasn't worried, I trusted that my body would do what it was supposed to.

I don't remember how long it was before they let us walk down to see him, but I do remember that he was still on the right side of the NICU when we came, the side you don't want your baby to be in, though I didn't know it then. I remember all the beeping, and all the itty bitty babies, and the hush. I remember my heart snapping in two to see him there, not in my arms, not in our home, hooked up to an IV, and so soon after leaving the comfort of my body for the very first time.

I sat down beside him for a little while before they let me nurse him. He had seemed pretty disinterested every time I tried, but I wasn't worried. I had never nursed a baby before, so I didn't know what it was supposed to be like. But as the nurses watched us, they could tell he was having trouble and decided to try suctioning him out with a tube. It was terrible to watch, but he did a little better after that, so I thought the nursing problems were fixed.

The next time we went to see him, he was on the left side. That's when my midwife stopped in to check on us. I told her that they just wanted to give him some antibiotics, that it would be just a couple of days, five tops. She told me not to get my hopes up too high, that she had a daughter in the NICU once for a short stay that turned into two weeks. Still, I wasn't worried. In the midst of this nightmare of a situation, I was optimistic and unemotional far beyond my nature on even my best days. I think it was the birth hormones. There were hints everywhere that I can see now, that this wouldn't be a short stay, that nursing was not going well. If the story of my son's stay in the NICU was a book, this is the part where the English class would identify the obvious literary devices, saying, "Ah! There it is: foreshadowing!" The nurses, my midwife, even my husband I think, knew where things were going, that it was not okay, but I couldn't see it, or refused to see it. I, an English major no less, I only read the story that I wanted to be written and refused to read the one that was unfolding on the pages before me. "Ah! There it is," they'd say, "Dramatic irony!"

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