The Agony of a Deep-Freeze Thaw

January 9, 2011

by Carol Ramsey

There is a very special relationship, not well documented and known only to a small subset of the population. It is the relationship between a NICU Mom and the deep freezer in her garage.

To explain this fully, I’ll have to start at the beginning. I met my friend Barbara in the NICU (neonatal intensive care) at Seton Hospital when our girls were born just a few days apart, mine two months premature and hers three months premature. We felt a connection instantly, because we had both been pregnant with twins and our first twins, mine named Grace and hers named Jack, had both died.

Now Sophia and Kate were here and the early delivery feels different from the beginning. I’ve never felt so intensely strange, so hopeful and lost at the same time, to think Sophia might be all right, but not be able to hold her. To know that she is being taken care of, but not be able to see her all the time. To want to breast feed her, but know she isn’t coordinated or strong enough. The regular ways a Mother cares for a baby and the ways the baby feels her love weren’t possible and the six floors between the Mother-Baby unit and the NICU seemed like a million miles apart.

But, there was one thing I could do. I could provide breast milk for my baby. This would make her stronger and healthier and I could show my love by feeding her, even if there was a pump, a refrigerator, nurses and a feeding tube in-between us.

So, the same day Sophia was born, a lactation consultant showed me how to use the breast pump. I would need to pump every 2-3 hours around the clock to stimulate my breasts so the milk would come. I used to be a Software Project Manager and now I was a Breast Pumper, it was a full-time job and I took it very seriously.

I pumped about twenty times before I got a few drops of milk. The hospital provided syringes to store the milk instead of bottles, because the amounts were so small. Not only that, but they provided a little plastic tube that fit on the end of the syringe so I could suck up the tiniest of tiny drops of milk off the pump supplies. And I was soooo proud of my first few syringes of 1 ML or 2ML milk that I could send to Sophia. Her stomach was so tiny then, this was enough for an entire meal. Here is my milk, baby, I’m taking care of you!

At one point, something was going on, a visit from a friend or a nurse doing something, and I left a syringe of milk sitting on the food tray for 25 minutes. I panicked. This was Sophia’s FOOD. This is what kept her ALIVE. I didn’t have time to call a nurse and worry if they had time to bring the milk to the NICU right away. I was by myself, with no one to push my wheel chair through the halls. So, two days after a c-section, I took the milk and left my room on foot. I walked the halls to the elevator, got the eighth floor and got through NICU security. I walked as fast as I could manage to Sophia’s nurse and said, out of breath and near tears, “THIS IS SOPHIA’S FOOD! IT HAS BEEN SITTING OUT FOR 25 MINUTES!”

The kind and gentle nurse took the syringe and said it was going to be OK. They leave milk out for 4 and 5 hours at a time, without any problems. I felt so relieved, maybe a little silly, but mostly relieved.

So, fast forward several months. Both Sophia and Kate are at home now and doing well. Because our breasts got a little ahead of our girl’s small stomachs, we brought home frozen milk from the NICU. And because our girls need a high-calorie, high-mineral formula for two feedings a day, we have milk stored from those pumping times. I imagine most NICU Moms end up with a deep freezer in the garage, so the milk will last longer and there is still room for ice cream in the house.

Think of this story, think of the precious drops of breast milk that represent all a Mother does for her baby, when I tell you how Barbara walked into her garage yesterday and saw the lid of the freezer open. She had left it open. For a long time. Almost all of the milk had defrosted. And the timing couldn’t have been worse. She had just gotten over a stomach bug which made her dehydrated, so she wasn’t making enough milk anymore and she needed her deep freezer supply to know that Kate would be fed.

And Barbara’s strength was amazing. In just a few hours, she had gone through the first four stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining and depression and was already in the final stage of acceptance. She was asking me what I had done to increase my supply, things she might try so she could take care of Kate.

I told her what had worked best for me – drinking lots of water, never going more than six hours without feeding or pumping, and, for a limited time, pumping after breast feeding, to get a little extra milk to store and let your breasts know you need more. But, then I said, hey, can I recommend that you spend some time in grief for your milk? Can you stand by the freezer with your husband tonight and say a few prayers? Because this is a loss and you should give yourself space and time to recognize the loss.

She said thanks for that. She knew another NICU Mom with a deep freezer of milk would understand. She said she was worried, because she didn’t have any safety net, if she didn’t produce quickly, Kate would be on more formula. I didn’t think of this yesterday, but I let her know this morning, that she does have a safety net. I have a freezer full of milk and I put Kate’s name on one of the bags. No worries. It will all work out.

This article is reprinted with permission and was originally published Nov. 15, 2007 on Graceful Parenting in Austin.