The First Time I Saw Jackson

June 9, 2010

Jackson in the NICUIt was a Polaroid picture – the lighting bad, the image fuzzy. My mom taped the picture to the handrail on my bed. I was numb. The pain medication and conflicting emotions flowing through my body made it hard for me to focus on the photo. Could this really be my son?

At 24 weeks gestation, my son was born by emergency c-section. He weighed one pound and eight ounces and was 12 and a-half inches long. His skin was transparent. He wore a tiny sleeping cap that engulfed his head. He had wires and tubes touching almost every part of his body. Nothing could have prepared me for such a sight.

I had a normal, healthy pregnancy. There were no signs of preterm labor. From the first pain to the delivery was just two and half hours. I had no time to prepare my mind, my heart, or my body. In a cramped, dimly lit room at St. David’s Hospital a nurse examined me and my water broke. She told me there was “nothing we can do.” What did that mean? They could not stop the labor? They could not save my baby? What was happening?

I was whisked down the hall on a gurney and prepped for an emergency delivery. My doctor had not arrived. How many weeks was I into my pregnancy? I could not remember. My husband and I debated. A nurse produced a date wheel and calculated the weeks. The baby was viable. Did that mean it could survive? More confusion.

Would I need to push? I had not taken a prenatal class. This was all happening too soon. The baby was transverse. I would need a c-section. “Call the insurance company,” I kept telling my husband – the only thing I could “control” at that moment.

When I awoke from the anesthesia, my mind was foggy but full of questions. Where am I? What happened? This was not just a bad dream? A nurse told me I had a daughter. Confusion. My baby lived? “No, the baby is a boy,” my husband said. More confusion. A call to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit confirmed it was a boy. I was a mother. I had no idea of what was to come. I lapsed back into a drug-induced sleep.

I don’t remember much about the following hours. It was now dark outside. How much time had passed? My husband was with the baby. My parents arrived from out of town. A friend brought food for my family. Nurses came in and out. I could hear everything going on around me, but I could not focus. My husband brought in the Polaroid of my son. How could this be my baby? I was so sleepy. I just wanted to close my eyes and shut everything out.

At 3:00 a.m., almost eight hours after Jackson’s birth, a nurse arrived to take me to see him. I did not want to go. The unknown terrified me. I had never been to a NICU. Until that time, I did not know what the acronym stood for. The thought of seeing Jackson hooked up to machines and monitors scared me. My mom encouraged me to go. She told me how important it was for Jackson to hear his mother’s voice. She told me to do it for him.

The morphine drip could not stop the pain of getting out of bed for the first time. I was carefully placed into a wheel chair and rolled down a hall to the NICU. We had to pass by the viewing window for the full-term babies. I choked back the tears and turned my head away. My husband and mom were at my sides and squeezed my hands in support.

I thought I would be entering a small room with two or three sick babies. I was shocked to find out we had to be buzzed through a locked door. The nurse helped me scrub in – something I would do hundreds of times in the coming months. I quickly realized the NICU was full of babies just like mine – there must have been 30 or more. Shock. How could I not have known what an NICU was? How could I have let myself be so unprepared?

We arrived at Jackson’s station. His name was written on a small sign made out of blue construction paper. It was adorned with Winnie the Pooh stickers and attached to the heat lamp above his bed. The open bed was higher than the wheel chair so I had to stand in order to see in. And there, lying naked under a sheet of plastic wrap was my baby. He was so small and helpless. He had no body fat. His transparent skin looked like leather. His entire body was covered in fine sandy-brown hair. He had a bloody arterial line running into his belly button. A tube to a respirator was taped to his mouth. With each breath his small chest heaved up and down. Bright lights were pointed at him and monitors beeped all around. I was overcome. My hands shook. The heat from the lamps made me feel weak and nauseated. I leaned on my mom for support. I could not control my tears. I asked to go back to my room.

This was not how it was supposed to be. I had played it out over and over in my mind for months. My husband would be at my side coaching me, telling me to push. My baby would be wrapped in a blanket and placed on my chest for me to hold and nurse. The baby would remain in my room and we would take it home a couple of days after the delivery. That was how it was supposed to happen.

But the reality was that I was in a hospital room surrounded by flowers and friends and family while my son fought for his life in the NICU. I felt like a failure. I felt cheated. My dreams had been snatched away. I was angry, sad and above all else – scared. I did not know if I was strong enough to handle the enormous challenge that had been given me. But luckily, I did not have to face it alone. I began to pray.

My husband felt an immediate bond with Jackson. For me, it took longer. For this, I felt tremendous guilt. Of course I loved Jackson, but it was not the indescribable bond so many new mothers attest to. I was scared to love him – I was afraid to let myself get attached. I was his mother, but I could not hold him. I could not feed him. All I could do was watch as a bystander as doctors and nurses worked to keep him stabilized as he fought for life each day.

I rode an emotional roller coaster for days that turned into weeks and then months. But there was no time to focus on myself. I had to face the challenge before me – I was on a mission. I was this child’s mother, and he needed me to be strong. My husband and I spent hours in the hospital chapel. We found comfort and strength in our faith.

As the days passed, it got easier to accept our situation and focus on what it was going to take to get our baby home. Jackson faced so many challenges – including heart surgery to close a tiny valve in his heart on his fifth day of life. He rallied and continued to fight.

After the first week, I was able to change his diaper for the first time. My husband stood ready with the video camera as I held Jackson’s bird-like legs with one hand and gently wiped his bottom with a cotton ball. I was so nervous and scared I might hurt him. But a nurse encouraged me and told me step by step what to do.

Gradually I began to drown out the sounds of the monitors and just concentrate on Jackson’s tiny body. I willed him to breathe. I no longer noticed the IVs and was able to softly stroke the back of his hand with my index finger. I sang to him in a voice no louder than a whisper. I sat vigilant at his bedside day after day. And when it was time to go home each night, I would wrap his tiny fingers around my index finger and pray, “Lord, look down from heaven above and touch this special child with love. Protect and guide this little one till each and every day is done. Remind us often that it’s true; this little life is a gift from you. A miracle you’ve sent our way! Lord, bless this little child today.”

Jackson BoxingHis skin slowly turned pink. The protective layer of fine body hair fell away. He gradually began to gain weight. He made progress and then he faced setbacks. We prayed through the obstacles, and we celebrated each milestone with joyous hearts. It would be more than six weeks before I held Jackson for the first time. I will never forget the feeling of his tiny body on my chest. There were wires and tubes and a handful of nurses there to assist – but for me, it was just the two of us. He was mine and I was his. And, at that point I knew, he would come home.

Jackson will turn 10-years-old in August 2010. Today, he is a healthy, happy and active little boy. Tiny scars are all that remain to remind us of his long battle in the NICU. All parents remember the first time they saw and held their newborn son or daughter. My memories are bittersweet. But they are my memories. They hold the story of the miraculous gift of life granted to my son due to the amazing advances in modern medicine and the miraculous power of prayer.