September is designated as NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) Awareness Month
This month is a time to honor the families whose precious babies had a stay in the NICU, a time for NICU families to reflect on that journey and its impact on their lives, and a special time to celebrate the medical professionals who dedicate their careers to these little babies.
The NICU is a special unit in the hospital that offers specialized care for babies who have been born with medical complications, and/or babies who have been born prematurely.
The NICU experience (or as most of us refer to it as the NICU roller coaster) makes a deep impact on any parent no matter the length of stay. 1 in 10 babies will face a stay in the NICU. Mission Hospital NICU is a Level III unit with 51 beds and serves 17 Western North Carolina counties. Although the length of stay varies for every newborn, approximately 70% of patients have less than a 10-day stay. The remaining 30% could have stays lasting weeks, months or possibly longer depending on the degree of prematurity or sickness.
Prior to our own journey in the NICU, my perception was significantly different than what we experienced. At 25 weeks, I was inflicted by Severe Preeclampsia/HELLP Syndrome which is a life-threatening condition. The medical interventions could not hold off the veracity of the disease and I was rushed into an emergency cesarean.
The NICU team awaited my son’s arrival, performed their initial procedures, brought him to me so I could see him, and then immediately transported him to the unit. My husband, Nik stayed with the NICU team and Solomon, our 1lb 4oz, 12.5″ micropreemie, as they worked on stabilizing him. Nik describes that time as watching the Neonatologist act as a medical quarterback. Dr. Amber Fort was giving orders to a team of nurses, respiratory therapists, and support staff. It was important to work quickly and precisely since his severe prematurity left him vulnerable to endless outcomes.
Solomon had an intense and critical course. During that time, my hours and days and weeks and months consisted of sitting isolette-side in an oversized purple recliner. The alarms, beeps, and alerts became the soundtrack of this experience. But rather than being alarmed, I learned to understand the various sounds and their meanings. I learned about the instruments that were monitoring his heart rate, pulse, oxygen levels, blood gases, temperature and more. I learned Solomon’s routine of receiving treatments, medications, and feedings. I picked up on the protocols the nurses had to follow throughout each day. I created a list of terminology so I could track his improvements and setbacks. I attended the daily rounds with the team caring for Solomon so that I could understand his condition and their decisions being made. I was invited to weigh in on the conversation and tried to share my maternal instinct. But for the most part, I listened and leaned into their expertise to make the best decisions.
Premature birth can create various side effects and brings certain intricacies to development. The NICU nurses taught me how to hold him and touch him so he could feel the presence of his mother as the most powerful medicine that could be offered. I focused on what was happening presently because there was no time nor importance than looking back or concentrating on forward. It was vital practice to stay present and stay grounded.
The NICU team encouraged us as his parents to lead his care when possible. At birth, Solomon’s tiny preemie diapers were about the size of the palm of your hand. They were ginormous on him so we had to fold them in half. His body was about the size of a kitten. Due to his gestation, his blood vessels and other some internal parts were visible through his thin skin. As our time in the NICU passed, we connected and formed our bond through sacred kangaroo or skin-to-skin time. This is healing for both the baby and the parents. My body felt whole again when my sweet miracle lie on my chest, wrapped in heated blankets to maintain proper body temperature. I earned my masters degree in cord/wire handling. Imagine trying to relax while embracing an itty bitty baby who has as many as a dozen or more wires, lines, and tubes attached to various limbs or body parts. These instruments monitoring and administering life into your baby. Even entangled into that chaotic display, my heart merged with the deepest part of my soul as Solomon and I were reunited physically. It was in those moments that my trauma, anxiety and fears would cease. I maintained a mindful energy of joy, strength, determination, positivity and hope any time I was in the NICU. I recognized that the spirits in that space were energy sponges. Any energy and feeling that I carried into the unit was directly shared with Solomon and his fellow NICU warriors. I saved my trepidation, sadness, and nervousness for home and specifically the shower. The water would flow down my head and my eyes would release the dam.
Due to the shameful way maternity leave, or lack thereof, is structured in this country at eight weeks, I had to return to work so that I could save the last four weeks of my FMLA so I could care for Solomon at home.
Solomon’s condition included brain bleeds, chronic lung disease, multiple infections, and resistance to some medications. Throughout his 106 day stay, Solomon experienced a plethora of treatments, therapies, administered rounds and rounds of medication, and a couple of surgeries.
We shifted our stay from the critical care section to what is referred to as “transition or step down.” The area is filled with private rooms and with a “bed” for a parent to stay. I got the privilege of staying in the hospital on what I can describe as a deluxe restaurant booth that flattens into a hard and uncomfortable bed. It didn’t even matter that I felt like this bed was bought from a prisoner’s supply warehouse. My baby boy fought so eloquently with bravery and the strength of a hero. He was our miracle of miracles and I was his mommy.
On Sunday, December 6, 2015, I unplugged my baby from the machines, wiped the bandages off that held the pulse monitor and clothed our solider in a lion outfit. His little 5lb. body swallowed by the large car seat. And after all of that time, trauma, unknown outcomes, and holding space, Nik and I teared up while we walked him out of his place of birth and into the world. The NICU had become a place of safety and warmth. So while some folks fear the NICU, we feared leaving. That is some comedic stuff right there.
We certainly had a lengthy stay but the NICU is a place that makes an impact on anyone who has experienced their child being admitted no matter the length of time. Everyone has their own path and their own eventual healing from being there. The NICU team have a difficult job but do so with grace and ease and overwhelming amounts of compassion. I want to invite anyone who feels called to share their NICU journey here with us.