Almost a year to the day before having my daughter, I saw my godson whisked off to NICU before his mama even held him. They brought in an incubator that looked like a small spaceship and he, his father, his grandmother, the midwives, doctors and nurses were gone with him. Leaving just me with my best friend in the whole world, looking at me with heartbreak in her eyes. She had just undergone a three day labour, episiotomy, 20-something stitches and her baby had been taken from her in seconds. At 39 weeks gestation and a healthy weight, that showed me that NICU isn’t all about premature babies. I saw him a week later, at home, healthy. Still, I was scared.
My birth was incredible. (I’ll touch on this in more depth, another time.) I was 41+4 and after a little kickstart from the balloon catheter, I had a very quick, all natural labour and birth. I would relive it if I could, it was that extraordinary. Amaia was born at 7:29pm and by 12am, we had been discharged from the inner city hospital out to the birthing centre in my town. I was on cloud 9. I quickly fell to about cloud 2 the next morning, when I was informed that my daughters blood sample taken before leaving hospital showed that she was jaundiced. My blood type is O-, my daughter is O+. This blood type incompatibility doesn’t usually have negative effect during first pregnancies, but for us, it did. Somewhere in the last weeks of my pregnancy, my body created antibodies which were transferred through the placenta, and basically attacked all my daughter’s circulating red blood cells, leaving her with jaundice. This is called Rh Incompatibility.
You’ll be going back to Wellington, to the NICU ward, they said. Okay. Her blood count was only just over the acceptable level for jaundice. So I thought hey, we might only be there one night. Wrong. Her jaundice levels grew, and her blood sugars dropped. After two nights in the incubator under blue light, we were told her bilirubin (jaundice) levels had dropped enough to leave the incubator, she would be rooming in with us in our tiny, cold parent room, and if she could maintain her temperature and weight, we would go home the next day. She maintained her temperature and weight. We didn’t go home. I didn’t know why. Was it because we were young? First time parents? I could feel the depressive thoughts gathering at the edges of my mind. I know my NICU stay was nothing compared to parents who are there for months, parents who’s babies don’t make it home. I know that. But still, it was hard. After 5 days, we were released to go home. I couldn’t have been happier. I finally felt like we were free to be her parents to the absolute best of our ability. We didn’t have to answer to anyone, have other people ultimately making decisions for our child. Didn’t have to leave her alone in a plastic incubator, quickly rushed back in there as soon as she was finished feeding. Didn’t have to ask permission to touch our daughter. Finally bring her to the home we’d created for her. I was ecstatic.
In those last moments, I was standing in the hallway of the NICU ward. My partner was ahead of me, almost at the exit doors, proudly holding our daughter in her capsule. We’d been sent off with a quick carseat check and a few lovely, uplifting words from the head of the Neonatal unit. Standing there holding my bag & my chilly bin of expressed milk, I looked around one last time. And in that moment, I was everything I’d been blind to for the last five days. A mixture of exhaustion and sadness had turned me into a zombie. I fed Amaia. I pumped in the expressing room & took milk to the milk room. I slept. I forced food down my throat. And repeat. I barely made eye contact with people, let alone talked to anyone. I opened up to nurses every now and then, usually in the wee hours when the nursery had no one but me, a nurse and five other sleeping babies. But aside from that, I was absent. In that last moment in the hallway, I was present, and I looked. I saw the other nurseries. Amaia had been in the “big baby” nursery, so the babies in her room were bigger and, I guess, more healthy than some in other rooms. They were all in open cots, wearing clothes. As I looked around, in these other nurseries I could see (without staring) babies smaller than my forearms. Surrounded by wires, masks, tubes and machines. I saw the pain on their parents faces. I saw the nurses. For the first time, I saw the exhaustion, determination, and pain on their faces. I’d taken them for granted. I’d wanted to escape this place so badly, I hadn’t realised the sheer amount of pure soul these people pour into their job. They work tirelessly protecting the lives of the most fragile, innocent beings, and still have the time and energy to let you unload all your worries and fears onto them at two a.m. They grow attached to these babies just to wave them goodbye once they are strong enough to go home.
I went back into the nursery in that moment. Walked to the first nurse I could find and thanked her. Then the next until I’d thanked them all. I’d thanked them before, I’d thanked them every time they’d updated us, or grabbed us a chair. Common courtesy. These thank-you’s now, were something else. Heartfelt, almost apologetic thank-you’s. Like, I’m sorry I didn’t see you for all that you do for us & any babies that come through your doors. Thank you.
I no longer fear the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Don’t get me wrong, I never want to be there again. Having your newborn baby too “sick” for you to look after, to need a unit of nurses and doctors to essentially take over all decision making and care of your child, is terrifying. You begin to feel like you are simply a food source, that your child doesn’t need YOU. But if I ever have to be there again, I will be present. I will see the nurses and doctors for all that they do and how much they give. They give give and give. The reward for them, I guess, is seeing babies grow strong enough to leave. But I will let them know that I see them. That they are so incredibly appreciated. That I TRUST them. I know I am needed, but for the time we are here, they are too. And that is okay. I’ll thank them not out of the common courtesy that is engrained in me, but from a place of deep gratitude.