[Recently I have been blogging in response to a reader request. Part 1 covered my infertility and journey conceiving Anna. Part 2 described my pregnancy as an untreated bipolar. This is my 3rd and final piece in the series, Anna’s stay in the NICU.]
The first question they ask when you get pregnant is “when was the date of your last period?” Prior to getting pregnant, my PCOS had prevented me from getting a period for months. My due date had to be calculated via ultrasound measurements. According to those measurements, my water started leaking at about 36 weeks. We were expecting Anna to be a lot stronger, considering she was practically full term- but she ended up having respiratory issues at birth. It was later determined during her NICU eval that she was actually only 34 weeks, and her lungs were slightly underdeveloped.
In my last post I had explained that my October 17th had started at about 4AM. It was at this time that I had a major manic episode. It turned violent, and the physical exertion was enough to break my water. I stupidly waited until my OB office opened at 8:00 to call the doctor. I was seen at 9, and sent immediately to the hospital for an emergency c-section.
I had mixed feelings while waiting in pre-op. On one hand I was over-the-moon excited to meet my daughter, but I was also carrying a ton of shame that my behavior had caused early labor. My husband was the voice of reason, keeping me excited about our future and letting go of the past mistakes. There was nothing we could do to change our situation, so we made the best of it. We were expecting a small baby, but we were also expecting a healthy one.
I have an extremely low tolerance to medication, especially narcotics. As soon as the anesthesiologist started my IV, nausea came in like a tidal wave. I was sweating, crying, and trying not to vomit. I was completely disoriented, and voices sounded very far away. The surgical drape was practically on my face, tricking my mind into claustrophobia. I wasn’t completely aware of what was going on around me, or what anyone was saying. I felt the pressure change as the surgeon pulled Anna out, and listen for her to cry. Silence. Why was it taking so long?
Mike stood by my head, and watched the nurses. They took her right over to an incubation bed, suctioned fluid out, and immediately listened to her lungs. I told Mike to go take pictures for me, but he hesitated. I didn’t understand why. He kept his hand on my shoulder and watched from across the room. I started to notice how quiet everyone was. The room was spinning, and I couldn’t see anything while strapped down to the operating table. My thoughts raced with disorientation from the drugs. “What was going on? Had she made a sound yet? I think she had. No wait, now I don’t remember.” Finally, a cry. A nice, loud, distinct cry. The nurse came over with my daughter, and placed her on my chest. Mike and I cried together, relieved she was here and okay.
Coming out of the operating room is still kind of a blur. I was so tired, and so confused. Mostly, sooooo nauseous. I kept asking to nurse the baby. I’d previously struggled breastfeeding Jacen, and had done a ton of research to be more successful with Anna. It was important to me to get a good latch right away. I just wanted my baby, but the nurses kept saying, “As soon as we can. We’re just getting some numbers.”
When the pediatrician came in to evaluate Anna, the nurse expressed her concerns. Anna was visibly “tugging.” Tugging occurs when the respiratory muscles are not strong enough to maintain air pressure in the chest cavity. The skin and muscles sink in, and you can see movement around the intercostal spaces of the ribcage. At first, the staff had hoped this would be temporary. They even let Mike and I hold her, but I was not allowed to nurse her. They continued to monitor closely.
My mom, son, and sister had just made it to my hospital room when they came in to evaluate her again. They barely had a chance to meet her, only holding her for a minute or two each. The doctor told us she needed intensive care- something they did not have at this hospital. We were offered several local NICUs. I was still disoriented and confused. I didn’t know how to decide. My mom was the one who stepped in and said, “If she’s going to be transfered, she’s going to the best NICU. We want Women & Infants.”
The nurses got right on it, making phone calls and arrangements. The pediatrician immediately prepared Anna for transport. It was my OBGYN who made things difficult. Apparently he had gone home after completing my surgery, and coming back to the hospital was a major inconvenience. He told the nurses to have the pediatrician sign off on transporting the baby, but he wasn’t able to come in and validate my transfer quite yet. All I could do was cry. They were taking my baby away, even taking her out of the state- and I was trapped here. I was still sleepy from the drugs. I couldn’t speak, only silent tears ran down my face. I was terrified, devastated and completely lost. Thank God my mom stepped in again.
She told the staff that his answer was completely unacceptable, and he either needed to come in and get the paperwork done or find a doctor who could. She fought for me to be transferred that night, knowing the pain I would be in if they really made me wait until the following day. Mama knows how to get shit done, and that doctor came right back to the hospital with his tail between his legs.
During all of this, Anna began to deteriorate. She wasn’t maintaining her oxygen levels on her own, and the maternity ward did not have the equipment to breathe for her. My amazing nurse MacGyvered a contraption with items from a code-cart, and manually pumped air into her lungs until the NICU transport team got there. She saved my baby’s life.
Anna and I were still transported separately. Her condition was too severe to wait for my paperwork to go through, so my husband went with her. I followed just an hour later (instead of the 24 hours my obgyn had insisted I’d have to wait.) The drive from Wareham, MA to Providence, RI was the most painful experience of my life. I felt every bump and turn in my abdomen. My nausea was out of control, and my heart ached for my baby. I was still so confused- the day had moved so quickly and unexpectedly. Part of me still thought I was having a nightmare.
I didn’t get to see Anna again for several hours. I needed post transfer care, and her NICU setup was quite time consuming. I still begged to nurse, but was only allowed to pump.
Seeing Anna for the first time in the NICU is something I’ll never forget. There were so many wires and tubes, and she just looked tiny. She was quiet, and still. I just wanted to hold her close, but I wasn’t able to.
Within hours of making it to Women & Infants, a social worker came to see me. She immediately evaluated my mental health- going through what had caused my water to break, and how I was feeling at the time. I was started on psych meds right away, and even offered inpatient care that would allow me to keep the baby with me after her discharge from the NICU. I declined, just wanting to stay with Anna at the hospital. I also wanted to get home with her, and put all of this behind us.
Anna stayed in the NICU for over a week. When I was discharged from post-op, the hospital put Mike and I up in the Ronald McDonald House across the street. We were given a free place to stay, meals, toiletries, and resources- all within a 2 minute walk to the hospital. Words can’t express how lucky we were to have been able to stay there. If we had to go home, the commute would have killed me. Honestly, I would have lived on the couch in her room. I probably wouldn’t even have left to shower. I certainly wouldn’t have been in good conditions to heal from my c-section.
Most of the people in the house were parents of NICU babies. Usually, we were quiet and kept to ourselves. We were all stressed, scared and tired. A lot of us were recovering from surgery or complications from birth, and yet we were still neglecting ourselves to be with our sick babies. We could come and go as we pleased, and take whatever we wanted. There was food to go, things we could take with us to the NICU, and also sit down meals. Every night, there was a hot meal prepared and waiting for us. We could eat in the kitchen together, we could take it to our rooms in privacy. We could even bring our own groceries and use the kitchen to cook whatever we’d like. We could have family visit. There were video games for siblings, TVs, donated clothing and toys. They had everything you could think of to support breast feeding- extra pumping supplies, special refrigerators, milk boosting foods – everything. Mental health specialists and support groups were offered. I knew nothing about Ronald McDonald house before our stay, but I can tell you first hand how important it is to NICU families. It kept us together, fed, safe, and close to the baby. I have no idea what I would have done without them.
It takes a long time for psych medication to build up in your system. I struggled every minute of every day, especially with the astronomical stress of having a sick baby. Being in a new environment and living somewhere other than my own home gave me a ton of anxiety. I was severely depressed from the events that led to Anna’s birth, and constantly beat myself up for it. I tried my best to be strong, but it didn’t seem like it was enough.
There were moments of happiness. When Anna was 4 days old, I was finally able to feed her for the first time. Granted, “feeding” was rubbing a q-tip moistened with breast milk on the inside of her cheek, but it was something! There was the day they removed the feeding tube, and the day they disconnected the oxygen. She got stronger and stronger. Finally, they cleared us to go home. It was a happy day, but inside I still was not happy.
In addition to my existing mental health issues, I was consumed by postpartum depression. I could not forgive myself for going into labor early. My heart ached for the days I’d lost while she was in the NICU, instead of being home. I wasn’t making enough milk, and had to supplement with formula. It killed me inside. I religiously pumped, never deviating from my schedule. I also woke up with Anna any time she cried, cooed, or moved. I worked off no sleep at all, and still felt like a failing mother.
I tried to kill myself a few times. I genuinely thought my family would be better off without such a horrible mother. My moods and self confidence were permanently at rock-bottom. I questioned my choice to decline the impatient care that was offered to me in the hospital, and wondered if I needed to be institutionalized. I used the suicide hotline daily. I cried to mike constantly. He tried his best to help, but eventually had to turn to me and say “this is out of my realm of being able to help. WE need professional help.”
The rest is kind of history. WE got help. Not just me, the family. I am the one on medication, I see the therapist, but my whole family has been on this journey with me. They support me every day, and I’m finally feeling like a successful, healthy mother. My husband has done anything and everything you can think of, and stands by me no matter what. I would have been lost to my mental issues without him. He is the only one who turned around my suicidal impulses.
I work every day at being healthy. It’s a constant battle. My kids are my life, my husband is my world. I have no intention of going anywhere any longer. I still think about the mistakes I’ve made in the past- but in a way where I can learn from them instead of just being ashamed of them. My mental health issues put both Anna and my own life at risk. Going back to being reckless and untreated could do the same. I’m staying on track. I’m staying positive. I’m staying healthy.
Kate and the Kids.