Plan for Nothing to Go To Plan (Part 2: The NICU)

I recently watched an episode of Black-Ish where Bow has to have an emergency C-Section to deliver her baby 8 weeks early. This episode ended with Bow being unable to get up to go to the NICU to see her baby, so she sent Dre and he is overwhelmed by a mixed bag of emotions at the sight of his tiny baby attached to a bundle of wires which in turn fed into a number of machines. This image stirred up a number of memories of Izzy’s first few weeks of life.

And I realised I never wrote the second instalment of Plan for Things to Never Go to Plan post. So, just over 12 months since the first plan went down the toilet, followed, unceremoniously, by almost every other best laid plan me and my new mom brain hatched, I thought I should return to the scene of epic plan fail – part 2.

JUST A QUICK RECAP: Five weeks before my due date and four weeks before my Ceasar date I was admitted to hospital in preterm labour. After four days of being in hospital, my placenta failed and Izzy went into distress which prompted an emergency C-Section. Luckily, the delivery went well and Izzy seemed in great health but a few hours after the birth Izzy had still not been brought into the maternity ward and we were informed she would have to spend an indefinite period of time in NICU due to a number of complications. So, for her first night in the world, my tiny baby (like Bow & Dre’s) slept in a machine, attached to wires and drips, lulled by the sounds of beeping, under the watchful eye of a stranger, her nurse Patience.

The next eight days would prove to be just as disconcerting as the first. Everything was so up in the air it seemed we would never know the comfort of solid ground again. Instead of the answers, we were desperate to have, we were almost always left with more questions. And the truth of a premature baby’s circumstance is that nobody can predict with 100% certainty what will happen – and even more truthfully nobody wants to in case they get it wrong.

After attending pre-natal classes and lots of time spent in the College of Google, I learnt about something called, skin-to-skin, where a baby is cuddled naked against the naked chest of her mom (or dad), this has proven to assist newborns in regulating their body temperature, heart rate and obviously has major bonding benefits. This sounded like an amazing way to nudge a brand new Earthling into the crazy world. I had planned for lots of skin-to-skin time. Unfortunately, when your daughter is in an incubator and attached to wires and drips, skin-to-skin is not impossible but it is definitely not the dreamy soft focus vision that comes to mind.

For almost the same reason my plan for breastfeeding was foiled. Not only were the drips and wires an added layer of difficulty to an already challenging task, the level of privacy in a NICU is almost zero. For those who are lucky enough to never have been inside a NICU it is busy, bright and confined (some might say cramped), so when it comes to doing anything you are never far away from the next someone trying to do their own something. I had begun pumping from day one to get my milk going but the first time I actually tried breastfeeding was a few days later in the NICU, with only a rickety hospital screen shielding us from the rest of the bustling hospital ward.

It was all a bit too much for me, so I decided to wait for her to come home before I tried that again. Instead, I became a dairy cow. While in hospital, I would wake up every two or three hours, express for about 45 minutes, walk my small but precious produce to the NICU, a floor up and on the other side of the building, to be ready and waiting for Izzy’s next feed. A hospital is a lonely, and eerie, place at 3 am, especially when you are gingerly shuffling around in slippers and three-day old PJs.

I carried on with this routine until I left the hospital and then once home, through out the night, I would build a store of barely half filled little milk bottles, supplied by the hospital. Every morning I would arrive with my Tropika-branded cooler bag containing my stash of milk (labelled in Sharpie with name, date and quantity).

Another incident that caught me by surprise had little to do with Izzy and everything to do with post-birth hormone pandemonium. On the evening of the third day, Will had left to go home and spend some QT with our fur-babies, I was on my own and out of the blue a tear rolled down my cheek, then another, then another, then another. It was not a trickle, it was not a stream, it was a torrent of tears. So what would any self-respecting woman do – she SMSed her bestie for advice on how to turn it off.

As a mother of two she responded to say it was fine, don’t fight it, they will stop eventually, its normal and giving birth releases a roller coaster of hormones. Her advice was punctuated by the perfect summation; “Having a baby is not for sissies.”.

This interaction had a dual effect, one was relief that I was not going stark raving mad, and two, a fresh round of flooding as my bestie had recently immigrated to America and I was once again reminded why I needed her here with me, not 2000 leagues over the sea in stupid Palo Alto, I mean FFS WTF.

Yet another plan thwarted, the plan to have an experienced and composed best friend nearby to hold my hand, had to happen virtually not physically.

In fairness, not all plans that went awry upset me – for one thing, we never so much as witnessed (never mind tackled) the dreaded tarriness of a baby’s first poop – called meconium. I for one do not feel less of a parent for dodging that bullet.

The NICU is a place of complicated and unpleasant feelings. But perhaps the most loathsome feeling we had as parents in that room was something I can’t label but was akin to gratitude tinged with smugness. We were by far the luckiest parents in that room, Izzy was never on a ventilator, feeding tube and her complications were seemingly benign compared to some of the other baby’s. Therefore it was hard not stare and try to imagine what the family next door or across the ward were going through and thank our lucky stars that our baby’s suck reflex was strong, that I had had steroids so her lungs were strong and that she was only four weeks early versus eight. Seeing others even teenier than our little spider monkey with ventilators covering their mouths, feeding tubes snaking into their noses in addition to the monitors and drips was almost too much to look at but at the same time, morbid curiosity meant we did.

The day Izzy was released could not have come sooner, my husband and I were both struck by such relief to be away from the distress of the pediatric wards, it is a place where a group of strangers together simultaneously experience the worst and best moments of their lives all the while isolated in their own little biome of hope and despair, anguish and joy, grit and helplessness, self-control and vulnerability.

How ironic that in less than 48 hours we would be begging to return our daughter to the familiarity of hospital and the protection of its trained professionals.