For most families, the birth of a child is a joyous occasion. In the months preceding the event, there is a lot of activity and anticipation. Names are debated. New outfits are purchased. A place in the house is prepared to accommodate the new arrival. Everybody is excited. As they should be.
For 1 in 8 families, however, this joy suddenly turns to trauma. That’s the number of babies born prematurely each year. My younger daughter is one of those.
I have not gone into much detail on the circumstances of her early arrival in this forum. It’s an emotional journey. One that is difficult to put into words. I have heard it described as a roller coaster, but I find this metaphor inaccurate. While a roller coaster has its ups and downs, these occur on a planned course for which the track is carefully laid. A more apt comparison would be climbing a newly discovered mountain. It’s uncharted territory. The way up is treacherous, the obstacles to overcome countless. And what lies on the other side is unknown.
Our journey began on December 12, 2009. This is the day my water broke, without warning, 16 weeks early. At first, I didn’t know what had happened. I was sitting on the living room floor wrapping my nephew’s birthday present when I felt a small gush of liquid. I thought I had lost bladder control, and for some reason I felt the need to make this announcement to the man who was still sleeping. I’m sure he was silently cursing me for waking him up before 7 to tell him that I had wet myself. But, as I was standing there, it happened again. Another small gush of liquid. He immediately told me to lie down. One more gush, and we were loading into the car and heading to the ER.
We arrived and told the person at the desk that we thought my water had broken.
“How far along are you?” the attendant asked.
“Almost 24 weeks,” I said.
“You don’t belong here,” she said as she rushed to get a wheelchair.
Minutes later, I found myself in another part of the hospital, hoping someone would come in and laugh at me for coming to the ER because I had peed my pants. That did not happen.
A couple hours later, my doctor arrived (on a Saturday morning) to tell me that my water had, in fact, broken and that I was going to have to be transferred to another facility equipped to handle a case like mine. She assured me that it was not my fault. Guilt still found its way in. What had I done to cause this? What should I have done to prevent it? Was I going to lose my baby?
Through the miracle of modern medicine and perhaps some divine intervention, I did not lose my baby. She actually stayed put for another month and got some much-needed growth. Even so, she weighed only 2 lbs 9 oz at birth and had an entire trimester to make up for. During that time she would have learned to breathe, eat, and regulate her body temperature without assistance. We were far from the top of the mountain. It would be a 10 week trek full of sharp turns and steep inclines. Not a journey one wishes to repeat.
This past week, my sister found herself on this journey. She went in for a routine checkup and learned that her blood pressure was elevated. A few days later she was having an emergency C-section. I watched her baby girl being loaded into an ambulance and transported to a hospital with a larger NICU. Afterwards, I saw my sister in the recovery room. Then, in a private moment in the elevator the tears came.
Where there is trauma, there can also be joy. After all, a trek up a mountain does offer some amazing views. You just have to know when to look. For the mother of a premature baby, these joys are likely not understood by those who have not been on the journey. Holding your baby for the first time after the trauma of being separated from him or her for several hours or even days is one such joy. Of course, holding a newborn brings joy to mothers who have not experienced such trauma, but for a preemie mom, the trauma intensifies the joy. Seeing my sister hold her baby, wires and all, brought back brought back some of that joy.
Then, there are the not-so-likely joys. During my visit, the nurse came in for baby’s next feeding (via tube). In the NICU, feeding time is also diaper-changing time. This would be my sister’s first time to change her daughter’s diaper. It was a dirty one. Afterward, the nurse weighed the diaper (not something one normally does, but everything a preemie takes in and puts out is measured and charted.)
“How much does it weigh?” my sister asked.
“25 g,” the nurse said.
“Wow!” both my sister and I exclaimed.
“That’s almost a whole ounce,” I added.
Yes, poop brings a smile to the mom of a preemie. My own daughter did not have her first poop until she was six days old. She finally had to be given a suppository, which worked like a charm. That first poop brought a sense of relief to her very worried parents.
Perhaps the biggest joy of all is the day baby gets to come home. Today marks the second anniversary of my daughter’s homecoming, and as I remember that day and the joy it still brings, I hope my sister and her family will soon reach the top of their mountain. The view is nothing short of glorious.