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February 13, 2012 / Mettā Reiki Center

The Gates of Hell.


Heard from another “NICU Mom”:  “It doesn’t matter how short or how long your baby has to stay in here.  If your baby is in a NICU and you have to leave without them, you have seen the gates of hell.”


From the operating room, I was shuffled away to the recovery area.  Ken stayed by my side the entire time.  My labor and delivery nurse also went with me to the recovery room.  I’ll never forget her – she was a fun-loving nurse with such a positive attitude.  In the recovery room, I told her that we never did get a tour of the NICU, and wasn’t sure what to expect.  She explained as much as she could to us, as best she could without being one of the nurses that worked right there. 


I was to remain in the recovery room until I was able to move my legs on my own and be able to sit up.  No problem, I thought, that would be easy – I could get that done in a matter of minutes.  (Needless to say, I had never experienced “spinal anesthesia” before.)


It was close to 12:00 noon when I got to the recovery room.  I focused on my legs and did that ‘brain thing’ that normally makes them move.  It didn’t work.  They lay still, like downed tree trunks. 


Another deep breath.  I can do this.  Move, legs.  MOVE!




Again with the tears.  “How long will it take for me to get my feeling back?”


The nurse said softly, “Be patient. Sometimes it takes a few hours.”


A few hours?  I didn’t have a few hours.  I just had a baby and had not even had a chance to see her yet, much less hold her.  I was far from willing to wait “a few hours” to see her.  I felt an animal-like panic rising in my chest and found myself getting angry.  I felt cheated by God, angry that my child didn’t even have a chance to know who her mommy was.  Right now she was somewhere else in the hospital with some nurse doing what I was supposed to be doing as her mommy.  The effort to remain positive was swirling down the proverbial drain.  I was despondent – and downright pissed.  I didn’t know where my child was.  I had to get to her.  And a few hours wasn’t going to cut it.  I gripped the rails on the stretcher and let out a groan, trying again to move something, anything.  Ken took my hand.  “She’s okay, sweetheart.  She’s in the best place she can be.”


No she’s not, I thought selfishly.  The best place she could be is in my arms, damn it!  But I also knew that he was struggling too, and doing his best to comfort me and keep me calm.  I went back to counting the dots in the ceiling and trying to breathe normally.


I knew I had to fight the anger – it certainly wasn’t helping my blood pressure.  The numbers were not as astronomical as they were the moments before surgery, but they still weren’t great.  That was another source of confusion for me.  I thought once I had the baby, all this “preeclampsia” crap would be done with.  Oh, how wrong I was.


1:00pm. I could barely shift my hips back and forth.  Ken is still by my side, showing me the tiny cellphone picture of our baby every time I asked to see it – which was probably at least every 5 minutes.


2:00pm. I could flex the muscles in my thighs.  Just the mere act of thrashing around in the stretcher, trying to toss my legs back and forth to convince the nurses that yes, I really could sit up so I could go see her, was becoming physically and emotionally exhausting.  The tears were coming more frequently, and were more intense.  I was starting to panic.


3:00pm.  Finally. I could move my lower legs – ever so slightly.


That was when the labor and delivery nurse stepped away briefly.  I heard her talking on the phone – it sounded like she was talking to another nurse.  I couldn’t make out the conversation, but I heard her say before she hung up, “Thank you…thank you so much.  I really need to get mom in there as soon as possible.  Please tell the super I appreciate this.”


She came back and explained that even though I couldn’t sit up, the NICU was going to make an exception for us and let me come in on a stretcher to see our baby.  Then I was worried – was this going to start some kind of weird commotion that would upset other babies or parents?  No, she reassured me, they had to do this every once in a while when the spinal anesthesia worked “a little too well”, and it was important that I got to see my child.


God bless that nurse.  We saw so many healthcare providers during this ordeal, but there are a handful of the special ones that I will remember for the rest of my life.  She is one of them.


A transporter arrived to help my nurse and Ken wheel me to the NICU.  We rolled down a bright, cheery hallway, around corner after corner, and arrived at a locked door.  My nurse waved to the attendant behind the window who opened the door for us.  We entered a hallway and I watched Christmas ornaments dangling from the ceiling pass one, by one, by one…


The stretcher came to a stop underneath the strangest light fixture I’ve ever seen.  It looked like a miniature planetarium with stars that flickered on and off.  There were sounds all around me – bells chiming, monitors alarming, nurses talking, babies crying, a mobile with a dying battery playing a creepy rendition of a lullaby…it was hard to breathe.


My labor and delivery nurse dampened several washcloths, put soap on some of them, and handed them to me, instructing me to scrub my hands as much as I possibly could.  Once we came regularly to visit, she explained that we would be required to “scrub in” for three minutes before going to visit our baby.  Let me say as an aside that we quickly learned those three minutes are the longest three minutes someone ever has to wait through.


After scrubbing in, we went to a second section of  “pods” – groups of cribs and incubators, four on each side.  Our daughter, Ali, was in an incubator in a back corner, next to a window where sunlight poured in. 


They wheeled my stretcher as close to the incubator as they could.  I looked inside to see where a beam of sunlight was shining down on this tiny, beautiful creature.  Her skin looked transluscent.  I couldn’t really see her face, because she wore a cap that was attached to two tubes that looked like hoses that were on either side of her face, attached to tubes that went into her nostrils. Taped on her face was a feeding tube that came out of her mouth.  IV lines and probes were attached to her arms and chest.  Straps of soft cotton held her in place in the incubator.  I could see her tiny ribs as she struggled to breathe, and her breathing was so fast….


A kind doctor approached us and began to explain what had happened with Ali in the past four hours.  She had been briefly put on a ventilator so they could put something called “surfactant” in her lungs.  He explained that it had to be put in her lungs because she didn’t have enough in there on her own right now, because “she shouldn’t be born yet”.  The tubes going in to her nose were what they were using now instead of a ventilator, part of a device called a “Bubble CPAP”.  She needed this, along with supplemental oxygen, to keep her lung sacs inflated – because “she shouldn’t be born yet”.  They would only be giving her a few drops of feeding at a time to introduce her digestive tract to food, explaining that she may have some trouble at the start but they would progress as she was able to tolerate it because “she shouldn’t be born yet”.


There has never another time in my life that I have felt such paralyzing guilt.


I’ve had many people tell me, “You have to let that guilt go.”  That is so much easier said than done.  I had been told so many times before I became pregnant with Ali that it wasn’t a good idea for me to have children because of my history of autoimmune problems.  And it wasn’t like we planned this…Ali was the most amazing, wonderful surprise I have ever been blessed with.  We didn’t go into a situation we knew would endanger her knowingly.  It just happened, and we did everything we possibly could to care for her while I carried her. But the long and short of it was this:  she was in this world eleven weeks early because my body was unable to care for her any longer. It was no longer safe for her to be inside of me – inside of me, she would have died.  So this was her fate.  From the very beginning, this precious creature had to fight.  No, she shouldn’t have been born yet.  But here she was.  And the cold, hard fact was that it was, indeed, my fault.


Inside, I was screaming.


But outside, I put a smile on, because yes, she was alive. She was beautiful.  Our baby girl was just the fighter we knew she would be, and even in that fragile state the nurses all described her as “feisty”, and I could not have been more proud.  Family members came to see her and were in awe of her tiny hand that would grasp a finger nervously placed inside the incubator.  The nurse had to convince me to reach inside to touch her, so great was my fear of hurting her.  “She’s your baby,” she said many times that day.  “You can touch her.  You need to touch her.”


I wanted to make absolutely sure that this little girl had positive energy all around her, so I kept a smile on my face, told her how proud I was of her, and did everything I could to whisper “I love you” into that incubator so that she could hear, and say it as many times as I could during the too short time I was able to stay with her.


I stayed as long as I possibly could with her.  I felt the cold sweats coming on and knew that the anesthesia was beginning to cause havoc in my body.  I was exhausted beyond coherent thought.  The feeling was beginning to come back in my abdomen, and it was far from pleasant.  The NICU nurse came to tell us that my room was ready, and it was time for my nurse to check my blood pressure.


I had to leave Ali.  There would be no “rooming in”, no hearing her coo and sigh while she slept.  Our first bonding moment was a tiny touch in an incubator, five tiny fingers squeezing my index finger in a brief moment of strength. I can’t describe the feelings that rushed through me as I felt the stretcher being pulled away from Ali.  Guilt.  Fear.  Anger.  Rage.  Despair.  Helplessness.  I wanted so much to be that upbeat, positive person who knew that everything would be fine, but the combination of physical and emotional exhaustion simply didn’t allow it. 


My husband squeezed my hand to give me reassurance that everything was going to be okay.  I squeezed his hand in return, wanting to get as much of his positive energy and optimism as I could.  He had been my rock up to that point, and has been every day since.  So many times I had come so close to coming completely unhinged, and he was there, steadfast and strong, mopping up the tears, making sure I looked directly into his eyes during the meltdown moments so I could focus on remembering how blessed we really were.  We had each other, and now we had an incredibly beautiful little miracle in our lives.  We arrived in my hospital room, he held me while I cried, as he had so many times before, and as he would do so many times after. 


That day was the first of the longest 63 days of my life.


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