Our NICU Story

In honor of NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) Awareness Month, I am sharing our NICU experience. It is because of the NICU that our daughter was successfully breastfed. More precisely, it was because of one tough but amazing NICU nurse. As a result of her efforts, our daughter successfully breastfed for 18 months, I then went on to breastfeed my middle son for 22 months, I am still nursing my youngest at 14.5 months, and have helped nourish 20 other children with my donated breastmilk.

Without the dedicated NICU nurses, my journey may have been entirely different. For their patience, caring, and tireless work I am eternally grateful.

This is our NICU story.

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After a traumatic vaginal birth (details here) during which our debated 36- or 37-week gestation daughter coded and required resuscitation, then choked in the nursery, and experienced an unknown time period without oxygen, we were NICU parents.There were tests and physical exams, monitors and machines, jaundice concerns and lamentations over the physical and cognitive aftermath of our daughter’s oxygen deprivation. However, what I remember most vividly through the sleep-deprived memory haze is the breastfeeding battle. Despite having nursed well immediately after birth — the nurses noted the surprising amount of colostrum they discovered when our daughter choked — latching and nursing became a massive struggle once our daughter was admitted to the NICU.

Too weak and injured from the gruesome birth to walk independently to the NICU, every 1.5 hours I was wheeled from my room to my daughter’s bedside. I was engorged and each feeding worsened my pain and frustration. My breasts were sore and swollen. My child — bruised, puffy, and cone-headed from the birth — was incensed. I attempted to feed her for 30 minutes each time but always held her for an additional 15 minutes because I just couldn’t let go. This left me with only 90 minutes between feedings… day and night. Each feeding was the same: both of us crying, both of us agitated, both of us exhausted, both of us feeling helpless. What was supposed to be the most natural human experience was beyond us.

“Try sitting in the rocking chair,” the nurses encouraged, but even with two pillows beneath me, I could not shift or maneuver to simultaneously nurse and not inflame my vaginal wounds on the wooden chair. In our little curtained alcove in the chirping, bleating, whirring NICU, I awkwardly perched on my nest of pillows in the hard communal chair, feeling like a leaky, exhausted, bleeding, pummled version of the Princess and the Pea.

By day 2 I was able to cautiously walk from my room in the Maternity Ward to the NICU. There, I tried over and over to nurse. We used different chairs, different pillow arrangements, different positions. I’d prep myself with numbing spray and ice packs in my giant hospital-issue underwear before awkwardly waddle-shuffling through the ward to nurse my child.

Finally, one NICU nurse took the reins. She was a small middle-aged woman with short brown curls, glasses, and a palpable toughness about her. She was a force… she scared the crap out of me. Fortunately, the NICU gods smiled upon me, and this seasoned and calloused nurse identified with me. I reminded her of her own expectant daughter.

She suggested we try nursing in my room instead of in the NICU. “It would be less stressful for you,” she explained. She said she’d get the doctor’s approval. She did.

Starting that evening, every 1.5 hours, a nurse would unhook my daughter temporarily from her monitors, wheel my daughter’s clear plastic bassinet into my hospital room and 45 minutes later, my husband would wheel her back to the NICU. This was a more comfortable option, but not entirely successful. My daughter could latch but not for long.

By 3am, things fell apart. Days of little rest and no REM sleep left my husband and me in an irritated zombie state. The crying baby, the breast pain, the swollen everything, the frustration, the exhaustion, the ignorance, the fear, the trauma… it all bubbled over. It was too much. We fought. I don’t even remember why or over what. No one won.

When the sun rose, the tough-but-kind NICU nurse wheeled my daughter into my room. She was checking on me. I told her I was having feeding trouble. She offered to help. For the first time in my prudish life, I didn’t care at all that a stranger was manhandling my breast. I just wanted relief… to feed my child for longer than 2-minute stretches.

Repositioning, compressing, unlatching and relatching… we worked to find a solution. “You’re engorged,” she explained. “You have so much milk that your daughter cannot effectively latch. It’s like trying to latch onto an overfilled balloon. Then, once she does latch, she’s trying to drink from a fire hose.” She handed me a nipple shield, she mixed formula in a tiny dish, and used a syringe to apply two droplets on the tip of the shield. “Try this.” She moved and squished pillows, positioned my daughter just so… success!

The nurse then taught me how to hand-express a bit of milk in order to coat the tip of the nipple shield. “She won’t always need this,” she said, “but it helps her now.”

Every feeding, I’d squeeze my Shrek-like preeclampsia feet into my previously roomy sandals, ice and numb my sewn-together nether regions, waddle-shuffle across the ward to the NICU with my sitting pillows under my arm, scrub from fingertip to elbow in the communal NICU sink, close the curtain to our NICU alcove, arrange my pillows in the wooden rocking chair, carefully lower myself into my nest, express a bit of milk, use one drop to help suction the nipple shield to my breast and two drops to coat the shield tip, signal to my exhausted husband to hand me our black-and-blue daughter, latch our daughter onto my breast, feed her, unlatch her, burp her, snuggle her, hand her to my husband to place her in the plastic bassinet, clean the nipple shield in the communal sink, and waddle-shuffle her back to the NICU with my pillows under my arm.

By day 4, we had developed a rhythm. We were also on our last day in the hospital. “You will be discharged today,” explained the NICU nurse. My heart sank. “I will try to get your daughter discharged too.” My husband and I were terrified. In my mind, exiting that hospital without my daughter after having experienced that delivery would mortally wound me. It was an inconceivable option. It was a non-option.

Test results poured in that day. The formerly-scary NICU nurse reviewed each one. Jaundice was a sticking point but our daughter was borderline. The nurse briefed us in our curtained alcove as I breastfed. She prepped us for newborn home care because she was determined to send us home with our baby. She did not want one thing delaying us. Not one checkmark standing in our way. She was my NICU mama bear.

My husband and I, with sleep-deprived, first-time-parent minds, couldn’t process the information. We simply nodded and grunted. Then came the pediatrician assessment. This was the deciding moment. If he didn’t sign off, our daughter stayed.

The NICU nurse promised to call us in as soon as the pediatrician got there. She did.

As the bald-headed, towering, gruff pediatrician made his rounds, the nurse whispered to us not to worry. That she’d make this happen. She did.

At every pause she insinuated that our daughter was capable of going home. After every question asked of her, she lead to the logical next step of discharge. Having completed his assessment, the burly doctor exhaled a deep sigh and a pensive grumble. “She can go.”

The NICU nurse made it happen. She made it all happen. That day, the three of us went home together. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Louise!

 

My Traumatic Birth Story

Today is the fifth anniversary of my traumatic birth experience. Only now am I able to see others’ birth photos without feeling lightheaded. Only now am I able to watch birth scenes without getting panicked. It’s been a long journey but a healing and strengthening one.

I no longer have the nightmares, the unexpected flashbacks, or the anxiety waves. I am releasing the anger for what my husband, child, and I endured. I am letting go of the swirling “what ifs?” I am coaching myself through dismissing the jealousy I feel when I hear of others’ smooth, healthy, uncomplicated births. I am denying the self-imposed guilt. I am healing.

Trauma of any kind is an emotional — and often physical — hurdle that takes time, self-awareness, willpower, and strength to overcome. Birth trauma is no different. However, it’s a trauma that’s rarely discussed and hardly acknowledged. As if birth being a natural, common event makes it benign. As if — if you have been so fortunate — the presence of your healthy child negates your entire experience.

I’m sharing my story so that others know they are not alone, that they are not broken, that they are not weak, that there is hope. That it is in their power to move forward. This is my story.

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With my first child I had a traumatic vaginal birth. I had been on bed rest for two weeks due to gestational hypertension. By a debated 36 or 37 weeks, I’d graduated to full on preeclampsia, which was even more concerning due to my congenital (stable and well-monitored) heart defect.

On the morning of July 18, 2011, I began exhibiting labor signs. By 1:00pm my husband and I were walking into the Labor and Delivery ward of our local hospital. I was probably earlier on in labor than I suspected when I arrived at the hospital, but I was a first-time-mom. What did I know?

The nurses checked my blood pressure. “Don’t you dare move,” one told me as I asked to visit the restroom, “you’re ‘this’ far away from a possible stroke!” I stayed in that bed until the evening. Catheterized, contracting, thirsty and hungry, awaiting an eventual epidural, I was told the doctor wanted to break my waters. If not that, we’d need to consider a c-section. My body wasn’t handling labor well.

I was terrified of a c-section, as I’d only ever heard horror stories. I opted for my waters being broken. It didn’t take much as I’d been 2 centimeters dialated and 90% effaced throughout my 2-week bed rest. Labor progressed.

It was 1:30am. The nurse held one foot and my husband held the other. I pushed and I pushed and I pushed. Blood vessels in my eyes popped at the pressure. The doctor came in and looked concerned. “Prep for a section.” She told the nurse and left the room. “No! No c-section. Please!” I implored the nurse. “I’ll talk to the doctor.” The nurse returned moments later. “Let’s get pushing. If we can get this baby far enough down, maybe we can avoid a c-section.” It was go time!

I pushed, we reconfigured stances, I pushed more. I tore. The doctor arrived. More pushing. More tearing. A cut. I pushed, they pulled, the ring of fire… then the monitors showed my baby was in distress.

Eight nurses came racing into the room, one jumped on top of me, told me not to scream as they pushed on my belly. I could feel my wounds burn with every push. The nurse on my chest looked at me with wild eyes and a stern voice, “This baby needs to come out NOW!” We all pushed, the doctor pulled, and out she came. 3:36am. We were all exhausted but it wasn’t over yet.

The nurses rushed my daughter to the exam table. The monitor blocked my view entirely. “Is she OK? Is my baby OK?” I kept asking, but no one answered, no one flinched . It was as if my voice evaporated as soon as it left my mouth.

I birthed the placenta. “Time to clean you up.” The doctor said, but I barely heard her. I was too focused on trying to see my daughter. Trying to glean some shred of information from the huddle of medical staff hovering over my daughter’s body.

I turned to my doctor, who was preparing to sew my torn and cut lower portions. “Is my baby OK?” I asked her. She looked toward the exam table and then to me, her eyes appearing concerned, “You may feel a pinch.” I felt everything.

Local anesthetics tend to be relatively ineffective on me but I couldn’t communicate that now because all I wanted was to know if my daughter was alive. Tears streamed down my exhausted face. I hurt in every possible way but I was stuck on an unfamiliar bed with an unheard voice while being sewn up like a torn shirt

I looked to my husband, who was standing in a mix of shock and terror beside me: “Is she OK?” He asked the nurse. The nurse quickly looked up from her efforts with our baby, “We don’t know.”

Moments later: baby cries. The nurse handed me my under-7lb baby. My daughter’s face was bruised and swollen, her head was elongated and pointed. “Shoulder dystocia,” they told me as I latched her onto my breast. “She choked on fluid.” I stroked her matted brown hair. “She ‘code pinked.'” I grasped her tiny purple hand. “We resuscitated her.”  I held her close as she nursed.

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We later learned that, due to an old injury, my tailbone impeded the exit route. There’s nothing we could have done besides opting for a cesarean section, but no one could have anticipated that precise impediment.

After my daughter unlatched, they wheeled her to the nursery for some assessments while the nurse helped me to the bathroom. It was 5:00am as the nurse wheeled me into my room in the Maternity ward. The sun was beginning to rise. My husband wearily pulled and tugged at the visitor chair to convert it into a bed. He flopped down to try to get some rest. “Your daughter will be in shortly,” the nurse told me as she checked my wires and monitors, “try to sleep.”

I closed my eyes but my mind was still racing. I looked out the window and watched as the sky turned from purple to pink. As the sun rose and the last few clouds were drained of their rosy hue, a nurse came in the room. “Your daughter experienced complications in the nursery, ” she told us. “The doctor will be in soon to tell you more.” My husband and I stared at one another, our traumatized minds hazy from two days without sleep.

An hour later, the pediatrician arrived. He sat down in the corner chair and told us that a nurse in the nursery found our daughter purple and not breathing. She cleared our baby’s airway and resuscitated her. It appeared to be a blockage of colostrum and fluid. They weren’t sure how long our daughter had been without oxygen, if there’d be permanent brain damage, or if she might choke again. She was in the NICU.

The doctor took my husband to see our daughter, as no wheelchairs were yet available for me and I could not dependably walk yet. In that empty room, I cried. I wailed. I mourned. Every bit of pain, exhaustion, and fear poured out of me. Then, drained, I stopped and stared at the white dry erase board on the wall in front of me. I was silent.

Five years later, our daughter is bright, highly verbal, perfectly able-bodied,  and healthy. My husband is healing, as am I, from our experience all those years ago. We’ve come a long way, but we’re still mending. Surviving and savoring our journey together.