I stood there by the bassinette looking at my baby. The pump of oxygen from the machines, the tubes, the tape and all the other medical things I could not identify combined together to create one very specific scent. I can recall it in my mind clearly even though I cannot tell you what things contributed to its composition. He was one of two babies in a “pod” as they called it at Children’s Hospital. One nurse for every pod meant constant medical supervision. We developed a brief but intimate knowledge of the nurses that made up the 12 hour shifts throughout his entire stay.
When he was first born, everything seemed fine. Then, when I was holding him, the world’s most fantastic lactation consultant, Ginger, said, “I don’t like the color of his lips. It doesn’t seem like he’s getting enough oxygen.” She never missed a trick. He was immediately taken back to the nursery for evaluation and observation. Steven called our pastor and he came to the hospital. Elijah was baptized right there in the middle of the Conway Regional Hospital nursery. I was unable to leave my room, so only Steven was in attendance with Pastor Gierke for that occasion. He’s the only one of our boys whose baptismal birthday is on the same day he was born.
Elijah lay there, hooked up to monitors, with no one appearing to do anything for hours. I kept calling to ask for information and got no update. When I asked if he could come back to the room then, I was told no. Eventually, the pediatrician who had been unavailable for evaluation for 12 hours, finally showed up and diagnosed his condition. It was determined that he had a hole in one lung. It was likely caused by fluid in the airway not pushed out during the c-section. The pediatrician then attempted to put a chest tube in to relieve pressure and inadvertently blew out the other lung.
At that point we had a baby with two not-really-functioning lungs on a respirator who was immediately transported to Children’s Hospital. This transfer did not happen without incident. Two infuriated parents, one overly compensating aggressive doctor, and a bunch of confused nurses contributed to a spectacularly awful experience.
I was stuck at the hospital alone for another day and a half. It turned out I couldn’t just waltz out when I just had my third csection. I wanted Steven to go with Elijah to Children’s so he wouldn’t be alone there. My fantastic in-laws came to our home to care for the other boys. Those postpartum hormones, being alone at the hospital, and worry for all my babies taxed me significantly. In short, I was a wreck. I ate pudding cups and jello, and cried as I guzzled ice water and sprite, counting down the hours until I could get out of that place. The maternity ward was a depressing place to hang out without a baby.
When I was finally set free, a friend of ours who worked at a hotel in Little Rock, got Steven and I a room for a couple nights so my first out of the hospital post-surgical sleeps could be in an actual bed. We could drive easily over to the hospital to sit with our baby. After that, Steven had to return to work, so I slept with all the other NICU parents in the waiting room.
Each day we would give our names to the gentleman at the desk in the waiting area to tell him we would be sleeping there. He then put signs on each of the pull-out chairs after visiting hours to designate our sleeping spots. I used it sparingly. I was on a pumping schedule every 2-3 hours. I would set the alarm on my phone to vibrate. I would slowly and painfully lever myself up off the pull-out chair to go pump in the lactation room. Then, I’d pop in to check on Elijah in his bassinet before returning to my spot to catch a wink if I could.
NICU parents lived in an alternate universe that existed simultaneously with the rest of the world, but on a different plane. We wandered around in a haze of exhaustion and worry, living hour by hour and test by test. We each had a badge we wore around our necks designating us as parents of a patient. The badges only said our child’s name. We did not even know each other by our given names. For example, our podmate, was Zachary’s mom. I did not know her real name was Mary-Claire for several days. Some of the parents stayed in the waiting room overnight. Some stayed at a hotel, and one family even stayed in an RV on property near the hospital. We just called them the RV people.
The first week had been abysmal. Two blown out lungs meant Elijah had to stay positioned specifically in the bassinet with the respirator. He was sedated and could not be held. I could look at him and touch him gently on his arm or leg in a place where there was no wires or tubes, but I could not hold him.
In the early days, the doctors would not give us a good prognosis. They kept saying things like, “We don’t know how long it might take to heal” and “We can’t make any promises or guarantees, he’s a very sick baby.” They would shake their heads from side to side and refuse to comment. Every day we anxiously awaited any news they could give us on his progress. He had x-rays twice a day to determine the healing in his lungs. When we felt the need for the moment to be lighter, we talked about what his superpowers might end up being after all that radiation.
His pod mate, Zachary, had a severe case of jaundice but had healed to the point his mother could hold him and rock him there. They were from much farther away than we were. I was so jealous of the way she could sit in the rocking chair, holding her baby.
I was sustained in no small part during that ordeal by the generosity of others. My mother in law sent me Reeses Pieces candy in large quantities as well as other snacks. For some reason, I only remember the Reeses. She brought my other children to visit us at the hospital after caring for them around the clock. A friend with her own baby in the NICU at a different hospital would come to visit. We were able to go through an extremely weird time in our lives together. It was a blessing in the time of trial to have each other.
One day, I was feeling particularly sad and scared. I went to the lactation room to pump and as I was washing my hands at the sink, tears were rolling down my cheeks. Crying in front of others is something I have loathed my entire life. I thought I was alone in the room, but just then another mother stepped out from behind her curtain. She walked over to me, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s going to be okay. Can I pray with you?” I nodded at her, unable to speak a word. She then prayed for me and my child. I do not remember a single word of the prayer she spoke that day. Her sweet, caring heart and her faith, though, they shone brightly enough to remember forever. A couple days later I found out that her baby had been at that hospital for 3 months.
Over the years, I have tried to give a little humor and a shoulder to lean on to people I’ve known who have gone through a similar experience. I always do this, thinking of that sweet lady who did it for me while I was there. I wonder what she would think to know her brief moment of kindness has made a much larger impact.
In the end, Elijah was okay. During the second half of his stay, after Zachary was discharged from the hospital, a new baby took his place as Elijah’s podmate. That baby had been born at 26 weeks. He was so tiny you could not even see him over the cuddly side sleeper wrap they would put in the bassinet to cuddle the babies tightly. The entire thing was covered in a clear sheet of plastic to hold in heat and mimic the womb. His young mother sat there in a daze. The parent of a child in the NICU had an emotional grid that was constantly being wiped out and reset. She was only at the beginning of a long journey.
After a couple of weeks, Elijah’s lungs had completely repaired themselves and were fully functioning. We constantly joked that getting out of there was like getting out of Fort Knox. You didn’t get to leave just because your baby was well. You had to watch these videos about parenting, demonstrate you knew how to buckle your child in a carseat, and room in overnight under observation. They had to witness your ability to care for the child. I had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I’m sure many parents could use that help in the beginning. On the other hand, he was my third child and his medical issue was not my fault. It seemed punitive and demeaning to be told I could not take my baby home until I met an arbitrary set of criteria. I was exhausted with being told what I could and could not do.
My biggest regret of the entire experience was that I took no pictures of him in the hospital. I was just so overwhelmed that I could not bring myself to do it. The only picture I took of him was in the car seat on the way home. You could see the shaved side of his head where they had inserted his PIC line for nutrients.
Today, Elijah is a straight A student, with a self-depreciating sense of humor. He is meticulous in the care of his belongings and sweet with other people. Almost 14 years later he still has the tiniest of scars where his chest tube was inserted as an infant. Although his start in life was incredibly rocky for all of us, I can honestly say we are better people for having experienced it.