If you are like me, someone on the other side of those locked double doors greeted you upon your first visit with “Welcome to the NICU”.
I will never forget my first time in the NICU – the sterile smell, scrubbing in up to my elbows and being wheeled back to see my babies because I was recovering from an emergency C-section. As I rounded the corner to enter the pod where our babies were located, my heart sank and then shattered, as I peeked into a plastic, temperature controlled box, known in the NICU as an isolette. My daughter weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces. Her skin was transparent and I could actually see the blood flowing through her veins. She was on life support, and I could see her tiny rib cage pulling in and out as it breathed for her. I remember thinking she looked more like an alien than a baby, so I asked my husband to push me over to see our son, hoping that he would look more robust. As I looked into his isolette, it was the same image and he weighed in at a meager 1 pound 10 ounces. I began to cry. I cried for days, then weeks and months on end. Every time I went through those doors, I heard that voice in my head, “Welcome to the NICU.”
What exactly does it mean to be a NICU parent?
It means that you likely went from being happily pregnant, dreaming of your baby’s future, to a belly that was empty and without life. You may even find yourself rubbing your belly expecting to feel movement and then realizing your baby is no longer there.
It means you are dealing with an unimaginable amount of guilt even though your doctors told you that you did everything right and did not cause this. However, your brain just can’t convince your heart, so you truly believe that your baby is in the NICU fighting for their life because your body failed…you failed.
It means that when you are getting discharged from the hospital, you will look over to see another family leaving with their healthy baby, balloons and lots of excited family members while you are without your baby, all of your family has already left and all you can do is weep huge tears of sadness.
It means that you will not be waking up multiple times a night to feed your newborn, but instead you will be pumping your breast milk that will then be fed to your baby the next day through a tube.
It means that you will be getting daily reports from your baby’s doctor while he is using words that you have never heard before. Even though you don’t understand what he is saying you just shake your head “yes” because you don’t want to let on that you have no idea what he is saying.
Being welcomed into the NICU takes its toll on a family each day they are there. Families of the NICU are exposed to trauma on a regular basis and it sometimes leads them down a path towards acute stress disorder (ASD), postpartum depression (PPD), or even post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It pushes families to make difficult and impossible decisions for their child that most people cannot fathom. The NICU…it changes you.
BUT the NICU experience also leads to discovering strength within that you never realized you had – not only physically but also mentally. It is truly awe-inspiring!
It introduces you to a world of medical professionals like neonatologists, NICU nurses, and NICU respiratory and developmental therapists. These professionals end up becoming a part of your heart and family. They empower you in this steep learning curve and love your baby the way that you do.
It teaches you how to bond with a baby so small and so fragile in ways that are miracles within themselves.
It gives you this amazing opportunity to witness miracles on a daily basis as your preemie learns how to breath on his own, maintain his own temperature, grow, and eventually coordinate sucking, swallowing and then breathing so that he can finally eat by mouth. These are the BEST NICU days!
It gives you an entirely new perspective on life. You learn how to truly appreciate small things and not take anything for granted…it is an unbelievable gift!
It gives you the keen ability to see your child for who they truly are and not who you want them to be. You suddenly are able to get resources in front of them so they are able to develop into the person they were intended to be.
Erin Hanson, a poet, once wrote…
“Life is unpredictable,
It changes with the seasons,
Even your coldest winter,
Happens for the best of reasons,
And though it feels eternal,
Like all you’ll ever do is freeze,
I promise spring is coming,
And with it, brand new leaves.”
You see, the NICU changes you in every way. While you are holding on tight during the eye of the storm, you are transforming into the parent your preemie needs you to be. It has been 7 years since I was the lost mom sitting in those NICU chairs, but I have daily reminders of what it was like. I have become a better mother because of it and for that, I am truly grateful.
So today, on World Prematurity Day, I hope that you are able to take that moment to look into your precious miracle’s eyes and reflect on how far you both have come.
About the Author
Natalie Gordon is a full time Program Facilitator for NICU Helping Hands in Fort Worth, Texas. Since August 2013, she has worked directly with families during their stay in both the antepartum unit and the NICU at Baylor Scott &White All Saints Medical Center and Cook Children’s Medical Center. She provides bedside support on a daily basis, weekly evening support, educational sessions, and bereavement assistance including materials as needed.