S tried to visit Baby Felix in intensive care on the night of his birth. One nurse thought she needed a wheelchair, but S insisted she was well enough to walk, and her attending nurse agreed. Fifteen feet later, just steps past the NICU door, her racing heart and light head had her leaning against the wall, panting for air.
“Mommy can’t come here like that,” one nurse shouted at us. “She’s gonna collapse, and we’re trained to help babies, not adults!”
“I have to sit down,” S told me.
She rested for a few minutes at the nurses station, and then I helped her back to the room. This was probably a good thing, because when she saw Felix the next morning he was off respiration and intubation, resting calmly in a small plastic greenhouse-like box called an Isolette. He became alert at the sound of our voices, but we couldn’t remove his monitors or IV to hold him. In fact, except for feeding we had to touch him through twin portholes on the side of his box. Changing his diapers required some hand-eye coordination. But despite these restrictions and the bright lights, constant supervision, and intermittent beeps of the medical equipment supporting the prematurely born babies around us, our first minutes together as a family were far more sweet than they were bitter.
The nurses fed Felix at three, six, nine, and twelve o’clock. On Tuesday afternoon S began the routine that she would follow throughout the week of coming every three hours to take his temperature, change his diaper, and put him to the breast. In the beginning, I hoisted her out of bed, supported her when she walked, and did tasks that required mobility, such as finding her a chair, setting up the white cloth screens that gave her a modicum of privacy while feeding, and dampening the cloths for wiping his butt. Between visits with Felix I foraged for meals, kept up with the steady barrage of calls and texts from concerned friends and family, and made sure S was following the doctor’s and midwives’ orders to the letter. If she dropped something, I picked it up so she didn’t have to bend down. If she needed her peri bottle refilled with water in the middle of pooping, I came in to do it. I even helped her in and out of her socks and underwear. The only time I could relax was sitting behind S while she fed the baby. Watching them together, relief and exhaustion would wash over me as I rested without worry for a few minutes.
On late Wednesday afternoon S was deemed fit for discharge, leaving us in a quandary. The midwives were clear that it wasn’t safe for S to travel back and forth from the hospital to Brooklyn in her condition. Nor was it practical. But we were told the baby wasn’t going to be discharged till the next morning. Though I understood that hospital beds cost a lot and were in high demand, I couldn’t accept that a mother of only two days and her son were recognized as two patients, and that the hospital expected my wife to go home and leave her baby. Not only could we not abandon him emotionally, but we wanted him to continue breastfeeding.
We ended up in the Parent’s Room, a charmless, stuffy cell a long walk (from a post-episiotomy point-of-view) from the NICU. It had two squishy, low-to-the-ground cots reserved for mothers, but as long as there was no demand, I could stay there too. Which I needed to. S wasn’t able to get in and out of the bed by herself. We tried to make light of the depressing conditions, figuring we could rough it for a night. It was like camping, but in a hospital.
But on Thursday morning the doctor told us that after overcoming his “transitional difficulties” Felix had now developed jaundice. His skin tone hovered “somewhere between a peach and a mango.” She explained this was a common condition in newborns when the mother has Rh negative blood and the baby’s is positive. Another common cause of jaundice is bruising during birth—something he’d certainly experienced. His forehead in particular had some purple and red marks, and there was also a nasty abrasion from the vacuum device on the back of his head. The skin around the suction site was so swollen with fluid that it jiggled when we picked him up like a water balloon.
The nurses positioned an ultraviolet light positioned over Felix’s Isolette and protected his little eyes with padded goggles. The UV rays broke down the toxins in his body (toxins that, though dangerous in large quantities, have the cute name bilirubens—pronounced like the boy’s name Billy Ruebens), which were then passed in his poop. Throughout the day his bilirubens level went down, giving us hope. The doctor had said that if they dropped sufficiently he could go home on Friday.
On Friday morning we were excited to find that except for an orange tint around his eyes (like a reverse tan, from where the goggles shielded his skin from the UV) Felix was a normal shade of baby. The nurses seemed sure he was about to be discharged, asking if we had any last questions about caring for him at home. But the doctors had changed shifts, and the new doctor wanted to keep him another twenty-four hours “for monitoring—just in case the levels spike back up.”
I tried bargaining her down to twelve hours, explaining that S was running on vapors. The walks to and from the NICU had taken their toll. Her feet had swollen to twice their normal size. Her bottom still hurt like hell and between the pain and worry and the feeding schedule she was only getting two or three hours of sleep a night. And of course the emotional toll was draining her as well. She hadn’t been in fresh air for five days, or had a clear view of the outside, and the NICU, crowded with babies in various states of health, was not a cheery place to be. On Thursday, after learning Felix wasn’t getting discharged, one baby went into v-tach as S was feeding and she had a mini-meltdown. I worried she couldn’t handle any more.
As S broke down in tears, I went from pleading with the doctor to arguing. In vain. The bureaucracy had spoken. Felix was staying another night. And the doctor recommended that S go home and rest.
“Oh no,” I said. “We’ve been here all week. We’re not leaving without our son.”
Intellectually I knew it was better for him to stay, but I felt so fucking angry. As awful as the week had been up to then, this was the first time in our hospital stay I felt like we weren’t being recognized as people. The doctor spoke so cold and clinically; instead of communicating concern, it seemed she just wanted to cover her ass in case something went wrong.
Exhausted and depressed, I collapsed back in our cell, sleeping so deep not even my vibrating cell phone woke me up. My fatigue lasted throughout the night, and I didn’t accompany S on her late night feedings. She had the routine down pat by then anyway. Amazingly, after some tears of disappointment, she continued to push herself to make every scheduled visiting time, and finding that her milk had begun to come in.
On Saturday morning there was practically a parade of nurses marching Felix around, as we were told to get our bags ready—he was going home! S asked “Really?”
One of the nurses who had cared for Felix right from the beginning said, “This is your baby, right? Come on!”
Outside the sun shone for the first time all week, and the breeze felt fresh and clean. The West Side Highway—full of joggers and bikers, families out on strolls, people lounging on the pier—never looked better.
Later that night, at home in our bed, the symptoms of recovery that S had avoided either because of adrenalin or from sheer will came rushing on all at once. Blood pressure changes caused painful tightness and tingling in her legs, hot flashes made her sweat, then tremble with chills, she became dizzy with anxiety and panic. The lack of sleep finally slammed her and she lost it. She spent the next several days sequestered in the bedroom, resting and regaining her strength.
But we made it through, ultimately with a healthy baby. Like during the labor, Felix was a fighter, a survivor. After a slow start, his condition always improved. There was never any doubt he’d be better. Despite our travails, we were among the luckiest of families in the NICU. Felix’s neighbor turned two weeks old while we were there, and was so tiny and premature, he was sure to be there for some time. Every day his parents came in to visit him. The day before we left his mother was sitting in front of his Isolette, clipping out illustrations of Bugs Bunny to decorate it.
There were also some benefits to being in the hospital for so long. Not only did Felix’s wonderful nurses get us used to our new titles by greeting us with “Hello Mommy! Hello Daddy!” but they also taught us how to hold, comfort, wash, and feed him. Perhaps most importantly they showed us that there is no one right way to handle or care for a baby. You do what works.
Instead of coming home nervous, we walked through our front door both overjoyed and confident. If we could handle that week, we told ourselves, we could handle the next six, what many say are some of the hardest of childrearing. And for the most part, so far at least, that’s been true. Though we’re still keeping our fingers crossed.