by Kelsey Londos
I was admitted to the hospital when my midwife discovered my blood pressure was through the roof. She suspected preeclampsia and told us to expect to stay in the hospital until I gave birth. I was crushed, knowing I would not have the natural home birth that I had planned. Our first night in the labor & delivery room was the most uncertain— we didn’t know if we’d be there until her due date, or if our baby girl would make it at all— all because of this disease that we knew nothing about.
After five days of trying to control my blood pressure and let our baby grow a little more in the safety of my womb, Francis Junebug was born at 33 weeks, weighing 3 pounds 6 ounces, 16 inches long. The NICU team was like a pit crew, quickly working to connect her to machines that would monitor her and some that would make sure she would breathe and grow. They held her up to me for a brief moment, then whisked her away before I could even hold her, let alone beam at her tiny features. My husband, Taylor, went with her, and later my mother and twin sister. My first look at Francis was over FaceTime— I watched my baby girl turn to hear the sound of my voice.
The next day my nurses finally said they would wheel me down the hall to meet Francis in person. I was so ecstatic, I could’ve run to her, never mind the many medications I was on or that my legs were weak from bed rest and labor. After scrubbing in, I arrived at Francis’s bed in the “Feeders and Growers” bay. I don’t think I asked for permission before scooping her (along with her wires and tubes) out of her isolette and into my arms. For the first time since I was admitted, I felt relief looking at my tiny, mighty preemie.
Over the next few days, still a patient myself, we settled in to NICU life. I was visiting Francis, attempting breastfeeding for the first time, when a green Hand to Hold bag was dropped off in my hospital room. Inside was a Christmas blanket and ornament from former NICU families, a lullaby CD, and a small stork charm on a necklace with information about Hand to Hold’s milestone beads. I immediately put the necklace on, proud to wear a symbol of my preemie baby when I couldn’t have her with me.
I was with Francis in her little corner of the NICU when Christine from Hand to Hold stopped by. With a smile on her face and a cupcake in her hand, she told me more about their mission, weekly support groups, holiday events, and the milestone beads that I was already so excited about. At my first support group meeting we decorated Christmas ornaments and received new beads. I added each to my necklace alongside the stork and wore it like a gold medal— Francis’s birthstone, three pounds strong, first diaper, first hold, first kangaroo care, breathing open air, first bottle, first bath, one week in the NICU! These were monumental accomplishments for someone coming into the world two months early, and celebrating with other NICU parents at these meetings made it that much more special.
Of course, sometimes preemies take big steps forward and small steps back. We were lucky to be facing very few complications other than Francis’s low birth weight, but I couldn’t help but cry with each new challenge. Along with bottles and breast, she was being fed with an NG tube which she frequently pulled out. She did the same with her IV, causing many, many needle pokes. No new parent wants to see their newborn gag on a feeding tube or bleed with the prick of a needle— both seemed too large for such a tiny thing anyway. She struggled with minor apnea and bradycardia (“As and Bs,” they called it), and we once watched in horror as her lips turned blue when she forgot to breathe. We hated to see Francis in her isolette, a little plastic bubble, when she should’ve been napping in the sunshine and feeling the breeze on her new skin, like we had planned.
Taylor and I were lucky to have our families so involved and supportive, but no one we knew had a preemie. Try as they might, they didn’t know how it felt to be deprived of holding their newborn after birth or to leave them in the care of strangers much too soon. Where their understanding dropped off, Hand to Hold’s support groups picked up. We were able to talk about these challenges with other parents who had been there or worse and who got through it. We all knew the phrases to avoid— “at least…”— and how exciting seemingly small victories were, like the first outfit after taking the IV out! Christine herself was a NICU parent and knew what questions we wanted to be asked and how to listen.
After 24 days in the NICU (29 at the hospital), we were finally discharged! We had earned all of our beads: Francis’s first outfit, attending support group, attending the discharge class, spending the holidays in the NICU, moving to an open crib, weighing four pounds and going home! Finally taking our baby girl home felt like Christmas morning (which we had spent in the NICU), and I was proud to have my Hand to Hold necklace to remember the little moments and the big victories.
Francis Junebug is a joy. She smiles and laughs, loves the sunshine, breathes in the fresh air, and enjoys the world around her! Her pediatrician confirms she is on track developmentally for a term baby of the same age, despite arriving two months early. Without Hand to Hold’s involvement during our NICU stay, we would not have as many tools for self care to help us be our best for Francis. We learned to appreciate the little things, to be present, to remember that everyone is stronger than they seem. On difficult days reliving the uncertainty and fear we felt in the NICU, I put back on my milestone necklace and hold my wireless, tubeless, growing baby girl in my arms and remember that we made it through.