My name is Linda Merritt, and I am a NICU nurse as well as a NICU mom. After hearing Hand to Hold founder Kelli Kelley speak recently at NANN’s 31st Annual Educational Conference, I realized I needed to share my story to let parents know that even though you may be from the medical field, you still experience trauma in the NICU as a parent.
My son Acton is truly a miracle baby because he was not even supposed to be here. I had gone through four years of infertility with three miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy in my fallopian tube), causing my left tube to be removed. After my last miscarriage, I was told I was in perimenopause and had less than 1% chance of ever getting pregnant again, let alone carrying to term since all my losses were at 6-7 weeks. We went to one more infertility doctor to investigate embryo or egg donation, but after finding out the cost, my husband and I decided it was too expensive, and we would possibly be throwing our money away since I could not carry to term. So we decided I would pursue my PhD in nursing, and my husband would buy an expensive stereo.
Two years later I was accepted to a PhD program, but I decided to put it on hold to take a nurse manager job in Massachusetts. My husband stayed in Texas to make sure we liked it there and if so, would sell the house and join me. Six weeks into the job, I decided to do a random pregnancy test. To my shock, it was positive. The next day, I found out I was 10 ½ weeks pregnant. Two months later I came home to Texas where I was able to obtain a night shift PRN position in a Level III NICU and a full-time teaching position at a community college.
On the nights I worked in the NICU, I would talk to my son, telling him he needed to stay inside of me. I told the neonatologists they could not have him to take care of. I did not even do a baby registry until 27 weeks, because I was afraid to do it before I knew he had a fighting chance.
On February 12, 2009, I would have my last OB checkup in my OB’s office, where we made arrangements for a scheduled C-section on April 10th, when I would be 38 weeks. We were so excited when we left her office.
February 14, 2009, was just another Saturday. My husband said at lunch that day, “Imagine the odds. My wife had less than one percent chance of getting pregnant and now I will have a son.” After lunch, we went to Starbuck’s, as always, to get him a coffee. As we were walking across the parking lot, I felt a pop and felt like I had to go to the bathroom. My husband had to grab me because I almost got hit by a car. I told him I had to go to the bathroom really bad. So he went to order his coffee while I ran to the bathroom.
I was drenched like I had just wet my pants. “I either wet my pants or my water just broke,” I told him. When we got home, I knew there was something seriously wrong because there was a constant drip. We headed to the hospital. While he sped down the highway, I called my OB’s office and started freaking out. When I got to the hospital, I was told my water had broken. I spent the night in labor and delivery, but never went into labor.
The next day I was transferred to the antepartum floor. I would spend the next 11 days there on strict bed rest, not even allowed to take a shower or use the bathroom. To this day, I shudder when I see a bedside commode and can picture that room, down to the minute detail.
On February 25th, my ObGyn told me I was 32 weeks. Everything was still okay with both of us, so the plan was to take him at 34 weeks. That night, I was talking to a friend on the phone and felt a sharp pain. I must have called out in pain because she asked me what was wrong. I told her about the pain. She said it could be labor, but I brushed it off. However, between 1am and 2am, the contractions were coming so quickly, I lost count. I called a nurse, who put me on the fetal monitor, but we could not pick up anything. My ObGyn’s partner came in around 3 am and did an exam. I screamed when she put her hand inside me, it hurt so badly. She yelled she felt a body part and I needed to be prepped for an emergency C-section. I barely had time to call my husband before they were wheeling me down the hall to the OR.
Our son Acton was born at 4:21 am, weighing 3 lbs, 8.4 oz. My husband would arrive about five minutes after his birth. I remember lying on the operating table, freaking out because I knew what was going on on the other side of my curtains (since I had done it myself a thousand times), but I could not see or hear anything. I kept asking someone to tell me what was going on, but no one would answer me.
When I heard Acton cry, it was the most beautiful sound. My husband arrived just in time for us to see him for the first time together. The neonatologist was one of my favorites who I had worked with in the past, so I knew Acton was in good hands when they took him to the NICU.
Acton would end up spending six weeks in the NICU. At first he did great. He only needed nasal CPAP for 36 hours, went briefly to nasal cannula and then stayed on room air. For a long time, it was so surreal to me. It felt like Acton was just my favorite baby in the NICU. With this baby, though, he was one-on-one, and I got to hold and spend all my time with him. After about two weeks, I started saying I could just take him home, because I could handle all the equipment and knew how to take care of him. After all, as a NICU nurse, this is who I am and what I do.
Then Acton became sick. I remember that day clearly. Two days before, he had been weaned to an open crib successfully and took his first bottle like a champ. On that Monday and Sunday night, he had five episodes of apnea and bradycardia, which was unusual for him. The NICU did complete blood cell counts every Monday, but that Monday his white blood cell count came back elevated. The neonatologist told me he was going to do a c-reactive protein. My parents and I were driving to lunch when he called me to tell me the results and I dropped the phone when he told me how high it was. We never were able to find out for sure what caused Acton’s infection. He also was never so sick that he needed a ventilator or oxygen, but he ended up with a central IV line and received two weeks of antibiotics.
Acton finally came home April 8th, 2009, after spending 41 days in the NICU. He is now a healthy, happy 6 ½ year old. For those of you who find yourselves on the opposite side of the bed like I did, here is the advice I can give you: Embrace both sides of your personality. Remember, yes you are the parent, but you are also a health care professional. Don’t be afraid to keep asking the questions until you are satisfied with the answers. Reach out to the parents around you or a support group like Hand to Hold. These parents and former parents can help you and be there to listen. But most importantly of all, enjoy your little one because they are so precious and strong.
They are truly superheroes.