My daughter, Vanessa, was born at 36 weeks and 6 days. She was born in that nebulous late phase preterm (she was literally 4 hours shy of 37 weeks) gestation, not quite term. When she was born, she did not cry right away, and they rushed her over to the warming table and began tapping on her little chest as they quickly cleaned her up. Shortly thereafter she cried, but there was some fluid in her lungs so she was immediately taken to the nursery. They whisked her under my nose like smelling salts, and off she went.
Throughout the night I kept asking, “Where is my baby?” I had been told that they put the baby on your chest when it’s born. My baby went immediately to the warming table. They kept telling me that she’d be right back–first in the operating room in which I had had a c-section, then in recovery and finally in my room. I gave birth to my baby at 8:03 pm and at 2 am, still in excruciating pain, I had not held my baby and she was not in my room. At 8 am the next day, the neonatologist came in and told me the devastating news: my daughter was having trouble breathing and they wanted to more closely monitor her so they were taking her to the neonatal ICU. At that, I began to bawl. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be! I was supposed to be holding my baby. She was supposed to be rooming in with me, not 7 floors up above me. On her way to the NICU, they brought my daughter into my room and I held her for the first time, 12 hours after I had given birth to her. Then she was taken from me and I didn’t see her again until 3 pm that afternoon.
So much of my angst could have been mitigated had I been prepared. No, it’s in no one’s plan to have their newborn end up in the NICU. I think that many obstetricians avoid talking about the possibility of prematurity and the care of premature infants as if to speak it will somehow bring it into reality. But I can say that as a parent, I would have preferred to have had the discussion. To have been so ill prepared, to have never even contemplated the possibility of a premature birth and NICU stay, left me with an overwhelming feeling of devastation, failure and uselessness. I was her mama and yet everyone else it seemed was caring for my baby but me!
Read Darline’s advice about how to better prepare: What Every Pregnant Mother Should Ask About Preterm Birth
When I finally got to the NICU, my bracelet was checked to be sure that I was in fact my daughter’s mother. Then I was shown how to “scrub in” so that I did not expose my little baby (or the other babies in the unit) to extraneous germs. I was then lead over to a little warming bed upon which my daughter was sleeping. Immediately I reached for her to pick her up and all kinds of bells and whistles began to squeal. I stood there caught like a deer in headlights. A nurse came over, reset the machines, gave me a blanket to wrap around my daughter and helped me to position the wires so that we didn’t set off the alarms. And for the next 10 days, I spent most of my days in that unit with my daughter.
Many of you reading this will say, 10 days, is that all? Yes, my daughter was only in the NICU for 10 days, 10 of the most stressful days of my life. I was completely unprepared for any stay in the NICU. It was never mentioned as a potential outcome at any time during my prenatal care. My OB had talked extensively about me going on bed rest. Yet, each time we prepared for bed rest, my condition improved and we went for another few weeks.
Not once during that time, did she mention that my daughter could be born at any time and as such would very likely wind up in the NICU. I had no idea where the NICU was in hospital where I delivered. I had been exposed to NICUs in my physician assistant training, yet I had not been as a patient/parent. I didn’t know what to expect or what questions to ask. I didn’t know about all the wires and alarms. I was unprepared to see the tiniest of infants fighting for their lives. I was unprepared for the angst that I felt being separated from my daughter. I was unprepared for the feeling of utter failure that I felt for my less than perfect labor and delivery and how it resulted in my little baby being “alone and away from me” in the NICU.
Prematurity is no easy road. My daughter is 9 years old and although she had initial slow growth, today she is as robust as they come! She has asthma, but we’re unsure whether this is due to her preterm birth or to her father’s and my extensive family histories. We’ve been lucky. My daughter seems to have little other residual effects from her preterm birth. I know that this is not the case for so many other families and for that reason, I think that it is imperative and should be required that obstetricians discuss preterm labor, preterm birth and the care of the premature infant with couples throughout the pregnancy. Nothing may ever come of the discussions, but as fellow preemie parent, Obstetrician, and Preemie Primer Author, Dr. Gunter says, “Prepare for the worst but expect the best.”
Darline Turner-Lee is the owner of Mamas on Bedrest and Beyond. She is a woman’s health advocate and provides education, support and resources to women with high risk pregnancies on bed rest. Darline has 17 years of experience as a physician assistant, ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist and perinatal fitness instructor. In addition to two miscarriages, she is the mother of two children, one born just before 37 weeks gestation. Turner-Lee holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Tufts University and a Master of Health Science Degree from Duke University Medical Center’s Physician Assistant Program.
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