Birthdays are filled with mixed emotions for me. I am a mother of a premature child, a survivor of the NICU, and now a parent of a medically fragile child. As we approach his fifth birthday, I am haunted by the memories of the day he arrived and the following days we remained in the NICU. The memories are anything but pleasant, and it makes celebrating his birthday incredibly difficult for me.
My water broke on October 9th, 2012 in the morning, but I didn’t know that it was broken at the time. There was just a tiny stream that poured out of me, and I was unaware this was my sack leaking. My contractions started almost immediately, and I found ways to manage the pain the first day by taking baths and laying on my side. The second day the pain became unbearable, and I knew that something was wrong. My husband left work to take me to the hospital. In a triage room, is where I was swabbed below, and the nurse told me I was leaking amniotic fluid. I was in labor.
I assumed because the leak started the day before my son would be born that night, but I was dead wrong. The pain was more excruciating with every hour that passed, but my cervix remained dilated at only 1 centimeter. Teams of doctors would walk in and out of the room. A neonatologist came to the room to inform me that because my child would be born premature, he would stay in the hospital for at least a week. I was stressed to be in labor so early, and I was sad to think I would have to leave him in the hospital after I was discharged.
At 9 pm on October 11th, the doctor came in, told me he was going to use forceps, and the baby was coming out. After 59 hours of active labor, my son was going to be born. I’ll never forget the whoosh I felt when my son’s head was finally pulled from my pelvic wall. All the pressure that had been building was gone in an instant. I didn’t hear a peep from the new baby that entered the room. There were whispers and comments about his color. The doctor didn’t even hold him up to show me he was born. My husband was the first to see him, and he said he was a gray/bluish color. My son still hadn’t cried. I asked the nurses what was going on, but no one answered my pleas.
Finally several an hour after his birth, a doctor brought him over to me. I looked over, and I remember a rush of love coming over me. I could not believe he was actually by me. His face was full of bruises from the forceps, and his nose was a yellowish red. He has scratches on his forehead, and he was still as quiet as a mouse. I reached over and kissed his forehead, tears rolled down my cheeks, and I welcomed my son, Von, to the world. They whisked him away, and it was six more hours until I saw him again. Von was born at 9:08 pm, but I didn’t hold him for the first time until 3 am the next morning.
During this time I became a NICU mom. The NICU is a world I’d never want anyone to experience. I saw the tiniest babies come into the hallways, only to be removed a few days later after they passed away. I watched parents weep in agony, mothers fall to the ground, and doctors and nurses walk around with somber faces. My son was the largest baby on the floor, but he was also one of the most unhealthy. He had severe jaundice, couldn’t eat by mouth, and he needed high flow oxygen to sustain adequate saturations in his lungs. Doctors found two small holes in his heart, pulmonary hypertension, an open PDA valve from his lungs to his heart, and gray spots on his lungs that appeared to be the signs of premature lung disease. He was only five weeks early, but he was a very sick baby.
I was incredibly depressed during this time, and I remember crying in the rocking chair next to his crib more than a dozen times. Leaving him every night in the hospital and driving home alone, was the most challenging part of being in the NICU. I would return home to a house filled with baby items but no baby. Most nights I cried myself to sleep. After almost two months in the NICU, he was discharged, and it was only the beginning of our journey. I was a special needs mom even then, and I had absolutely no idea.
Every year that has passed, more diagnosis have been added to his medical records. Every year there is another layer to his medical complexities, more medicines added to our cabinets, and equipment added to our closets. Since the first day he entered the world until today, he’s never been healthy. I relive the trauma of his birth over and over every October as we approach his birthday. For mothers like me that birthed children that were unwell, premature, or medically complex birthdays can be heartbreaking, filled with memories of unspeakable trauma, and feelings of depression. We relive the heartbreak of the day of their birth in vivid detail. Many of us can still smell the scent of the hospital blankets used to swaddle our infants. Our memories of their first days are not in the comfort of our homes but attached to machines, wires, and IVs in hospitals. Many of us don’t have newborn photos of babies stuffed into cute little places. Our pictures include children with tape on their faces, oxygen cannulas attached to their noses, and IVs in their tiny arms.
Many of us mourn the day of their birth each year, swallow our tears, and remind ourselves that although our children survived the trauma is still fresh in our hearts. We carry the pain of that day with us through each year, and as the years add up the wounds are still fresh. Many of us witnessed the deaths of small children in the NICU, saw parents grieve the loss of their children, went through surgeries, procedures, and testing with infants that many adults have never had in their lives. We are scarred from our time in the NICU, most of us have PTSD from our time there, and many of us don’t speak about this time in our lives because it’s too hard to relive.
If you are NICU warrior mom, please be kind to yourself as you approach the birthday of your child. Remember it’s going to be filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, you will feel grateful that you made it another year, and on the other hand the raw emotions of that day will play like a broken record in your brain. Be kind to yourself, gentle with your heart, and allow yourself the time to grieve. We can learn to move beyond the trauma with each day that passes, but each year the birthday of our child will be a cruel reminder of how many of them entered the world and didn’t leave the hospital for weeks or months after their births. Take the time you need to refocus, recenter and take care of your heart. One day in the future, most of us will find a way to enjoy the birthdays of our children.