What is a Miracle?

March 19, 2014

“He’s a [medical] miracle,” said half a dozen medical professionals during his first year of life. At my annual physical my OBGYN held my one-year-old’s hands and walked him around the room. She talked about his day of birth like it had been yesterday. She wore a teary-eyed smile. He was the smallest viable baby she’d delivered, born at 23 weeks, survivor of eight surgeries. He’d made it, and it was amazing. So she called him a miracle as she walked him down the hall. I didn’t blame her, but it’s a term I hadn’t used.

Maybe I didn’t say “miracle” because the term is overused. Grandmas everywhere coo over babies and called them little miracles. Say a word too much and it loses all meaning. But that’s not all of it.

I involuntarily joined the world of parents of preemies, a world of many medical miracles: children who lived, who are doing far better than anyone expected. I rejoice at these kids, at all they’ve overcome. I understand why they’ve been called miracles. But I didn’t want to join this club.

I didn’t want to need this miracle.

When I went on bed rest unexpectedly, I began praying for a full term baby. I only needed 16.5 weeks to get there, to get to 37 weeks.

Instead I got eighteen days, barely enough to get him into fighting range.

I’ve appreciated every day we’ve been given. Seeing what could have been, knowing how narrow his path to life was, I am in awe. But there is sometimes a dash of regret that he wasn’t born seventeen weeks later.

During the raw battle of the NICU, I started to forget that babies aren’t normally born with eyes fused shut and translucent skin, needing to be intubated and poked, measured and weighed. In the NICU I discovered so much of what can go wrong, and I started to feel that everything always went wrong. I was scared to get pregnant again. I censored myself from saying insensitive things to friends who were happily pregnant with no knowledge of the NICU.

I became a pregnancy skeptic. So many friends were having issues. Shortly after our son was born another friend was suddenly on hospitalized bed rest. Their daughter was due a month after our son’s original due date, still over four months away.

I held my breath for them. I celebrated as they hit twenty three weeks, then twenty four. I thought of ways that I could help make their transition to the NICU smoother. I figured they would join us there, as that’s just what seemed to happened with pregnancies like mine, pregnancies like hers.

Picture of full term baby

Four months later, their baby was born, full-term and perfectly formed. My son would be nine months old before his feet fit into her chubby newborn prints. All the advice I’d wanted to give on NICU life went out the window. She held her own heat and ate her own food. Her eyes were bright, her PDA closed in-utero, and her diapers tossed without being weighed.

I dropped off some goodies in the maternity ward on her birth day. As I walked away I thought, “This is a miracle.” The miracle I’d wanted. After all that worry, their baby was here, blissfully content in her mother’s arms. She was proof that pregnancies don’t always go wrong. Babies are not always born fighting for their lives. Even when pregnancies have problems, many still make it to full term. I needed that reminder.

I didn’t stay long on their floor because I had my own miracle waiting for me. I thumbed at a button on my shirt. The button had been given to us that morning by our social worker. It said “We’re Going Home Today.” No time to share a drink. As I walked from the maternity ward to the children’s hospital I flashed the button at the barista behind the coffee counter. After five months, she knew me well. “No way!” she exclaimed. I showed my semi-permanent parent badge at the security guard and punched a “3” on the elevator to get to my son’s room for the last time. We met with a neonatologist to go over discharge papers. He proclaimed our son a miracle. After 150 days, we were all going home.

NICU graduate in gown

Two miracles came that day.

Without our medical miracle perhaps we would have missed a miracle that happens more often than not: the not-so-simple miracle of the full-term birth of a healthy child. I’ll never again take that miracle for granted. I didn’t get the miracle I wanted, no, but I am so glad that someone else did.

Whether I like it or not, full term or premature, maybe grandmas everywhere are right. Maybe all babies are miracles.