When we first learned we were headed to the NICU, I was sitting in the perinatologist’s office for a standard 20-week “advanced maternal age” ultrasound. At that point, the doctor didn’t think I’d make it to 24 weeks. Our son was diagnosed with IUGR, or restricted growth, and was showing multiple soft markers for a chromosomal abnormality. The prognosis was not good.
Fast forward to 36 weeks. I managed to keep him cooking, but delivered a very tiny 3lb. 9oz. baby during an emergency c-section. Initially we thought our stay in the NICU would be a few days or a couple of weeks. It turned into 44 days, two NICUs and an emergency bowel surgery to save his life.
Not quite what I expected.
Earlier this month, we celebrated one of two NICU reunions and I was reminded of my most important NICU lesson: gratitude. Our son just turned three and the progress he’s made is astounding. Yes, we’ve had nine hospital stays for a combined three months, six surgeries, more than a dozen specialists and nearly 200 therapy appointments. But, it is his contagious laugh, his joyful demeanor and his sweet, yet mischevious, smile that remind me every single obstacle was worth it.
It was the conversation with one of my neonatologists that has stuck with me. He said, “Luke has come so far, yet there are so few who really understand. I do. I understand, momma.” Then we shared the look and nod of understanding. It took all I had in me not to break down right there in the middle of the beautiful hospital courtyard. Dr. M was with us during our son’s most critical week of life. He walked alongside us and the incubator as we wheeled him into emergency surgery. Every time he gives me a hug or says “brilliant” (he’s English, so it always sounds smashing) I see the same glimmer of hope I held onto during that tumultuous NICU stay.
When I snap photos with our sweet nurses and see their eyes glisten as they peek at Luke, I know they know. “This is why I keep doing what I’m doing,” said one of Luke’s primary nurses. The NICU reunions keep us all grounded. As moms and dads, they remind us that we can weather something so utterly horrible. As doctors and nurses, our children are reminders that the work they do affects generations of families. To those other families, peering at us from hospital windows wondering what all the fuss is about, we give them hope that happiness may just be around the corner.
Those smiles you spy? They were hard won. While I never ever, in one-thousand years, want to be a NICU resident again, with each passing year I am grateful for the experience. I learned how to be a better mom, a better advocate for my child and a better wife. I learned that there really are angels who reside on earth, they scrubbed in with us every day at the NICU sinks. I learned the NICU road to recovery comes in the form of hills and valleys. And, most importantly, I learned to say ‘thank you’ to the people who made an everlasting impact in our family’s life.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, I know who’s at the top of my gratitude list. Who is at the top of yours?