Revisiting the NICU as a Volunteer

December 5, 2012

Bryce NICU RoomThe 150 days that my son Bryce spent in the NICU at Dell Children’s Medical Center were the longest, most trying days of my life thus far.  And it’s not hard to imagine that few trials going forth will test my resolve nearly as much as watching my 1-1/2 pound infant son fight for his life.

The NICU is a tough place to be.  Often times friends and family know that you have a sick baby and they want to offer support but they likely have as little experience in the NICU as we did before Bryce: zip.

After the first couple of weeks only our closest family continued to visit and I didn’t blame anyone.  When they showed up to a dark room chock-full of scary medical equipment, alarms blaring every couple of minutes and two distraught parents, I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t rush back the next day.

Unfortunately for us, Bryce didn’t just spend a couple of weeks teetering on the verge of life and death.  He struggled for months with the effects of being born four months too soon.  He had his first surgery at one week of age and had nearly a dozen, including several brain surgeries, before stabilizing enough for us to eventually bring him home five months after his birth.

In those latter months we spent a lot of time just being there with him.  Alone or with the NICU staff that we still today hold near and dear to our hearts.  But I would have given anything for a friend who’d been down that path.

And so I vowed that I’d eventually do that for someone else.  That I’d go back and offer an understanding ear to the families of that same NICU.  After Bryce had been home about a year and I’d gone through the rigorous volunteer training and screenings, I walked back into “our” NICU.  This time not as a patient’s worried mother but as an experienced veteran familiar with the equipment, the staff and the fears of being a NICU parent.

I’m not going to lie and say it was easy.  It was nearly as hard as any other time I’d walked that same hallway.  My heart hurt for the families I spoke with and the babies I witnessed struggling in the same way my precious baby had.

But the reward was ten fold.  Many nights there weren’t any families around for me to talk to and I spent my time making care packages for them or leaving them sticky notes, hoping I could connect with them at some later date.  The few, key times though that I was able to make a real connection with a family member, whether by answering questions, reassuring or just listening, will stay with me forever.

I know just how hard it is to find the time and energy to go through the process and take a few hours from your already limited personal time to volunteer.  It’s not for everyone either.  But if you’ve considered it, if you, like I did, wished there had been an understanding friend who’d been there to talk to during your NICU stay, I hope you’ll consider it.  If you can be there for one family who would have traveled that dark and daunting road alone then you’ve made a world of difference.

And if you want to give back to a family in need but can’t see yourself ever stepping foot back in the NICU, which I personally completely understand, then you might also consider becoming a Helping Hand.  The hidden gem of being a Hand to Hold mentor is it’s really a two way street.  Sure, you get to help someone who is traveling a path similar to your own but you also get the unintended benefit of a new perspective on your own path.

We’re a community and we might as well take advantage of that.   At the end of the day, we’re all bound to each other by our mutual struggles and our NICU experiences.