Okay, you know that whole bit about exhaling? Forget that. The only exhaling I’ve been doing these days is in rapid succession in the form of hyperventilation. I’m not sure what happened; I had been doing so well. Throughout bed rest, the hospitalizations, the urgent c-section, and the two weeks that followed, I had managed to keep it together, sanity and sense of humor somehow intact. And then out of nowhere, I crashed. It’s troubling, because I used to think of myself as a really strong person. I had endured a lot in my life and had, thus far, managed to sail through unscathed. Just one week after being raped and held hostage at gunpoint, I dove headfirst into high school soccer preseason…and secured a starting spot on Varsity as a freshman. I had never been the type to be phased by much. But then, I had never had a child in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Now I do. And now I’m a huge pussy.
Last Monday, I went to the hospital to visit my daughter. The visit started out much like the others; I alerted a nurse to my presence, delivered a cooler full of breast milk, changed an impossibly small diaper (filled with an impossibly large amount of feces), and popped the thermometer under Blake’s armpit to take her temperature. After all was complete, I settled in to the rocker, ready for some good old-fashioned Kangaroo care. The nurse rearranged all of Blake’s fifty-seven wires and cautiously picked up my tiny 3 lb munchkin, placing her gently on my chest. I looked down at my baby and studied her closely. Having come early, she had not yet had time to shed the lanugo that adorns babies in utero, and so her back and arms are covered in a large amount of hair. Her head is unnaturally narrow, and she closely resembles an awkward 40-year-old man. She’s adorbs.
We sat in silence, her napping on my chest and me watching her, until the silence was broken by the familiar sound of an alarm. Normally, when Blake experiences a bradycardia, she drops to around 80 beats per minute and is eventually able to pick her heart rate back up unassisted. Other times, she simply needs a minor nudge from me to remind her to start breathing. Not this time. As soon as the alarm sounded, my eyes locked on to the monitor, like they had every time prior. I watched her heart rate drop from 170 beats per minute down to 80. As previously instructed, I sat her upright and gently patted her on the back. She dropped down to the 70s. I patted harder. 60s. I’m now officially panicked. A nurse hurriedly arrives at my side and jostles Blake with such force that it startles even me. Still 60s. More jostling. I felt paralyzed by the moment, helpless to change the situation and feeling as though it was spiraling out of control. It was hands down the scariest minute of my life, and I’ve looked down the barrel of a shotgun before. Thankfully, after an inordinate amount of prompting, Blake’s heart rate returned to normal. But I hadn’t.
I’m not sure what happened during that period of time, but I walked out of the hospital that day irreparably marred and sank into a deep depression later that night. I didn’t go in to the hospital the following day or the day after, and when I finally attempted to that Thursday, I had the first panic attack I’ve ever experienced and was sent running out of the NICU in tears. Friday then saw another notable absence, and when I attempted to go on Saturday, I started feeling the telltale signs of a panic attack while in the parking garage and ultimately sent my husband on without me, while I wept in the car.
On Sunday, I resolved to go again. We hadn’t had skin-to-skin time in six days, and I was feeling impossibly guilty over depriving my daughter of that crucial human interaction. So when my heart started to race during the walk to the NICU, I ignored it. When I started to sweat in the elevator up to the 4th floor, I wiped my brow and kept moving. And when I walked in to the Intensive Care Unit, alarms sounding all around me, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and walked to my daughter’s bedside. The visit wasn’t what you’d call pleasant. In the midst of a panic attack, I had started to feel nauseous, but not wanting the nurses to think I was sick and, therefore, not allow me to hold my child, I tried to hide the fact that waves of nausea were hitting me like a ton of bricks. So I plastered a fake smile on my face and proceeded to throw up in my mouth, swallowing it so as not to alert those around me to my ailment. One hour, three bradycardias, and a substantial amount of vomit later, I’d emerge from the NICU emotionally wrecked. And when we got a phone call later that day, letting us know that my daughter was in need of a blood transfusion, I found myself slipping further and further into the depths of despair.
My pity party was officially in full swing when I spoke to my husband on the phone Tuesday afternoon. Now practicing medical malpractice defense, he was on his way to a deposition concerning the events surrounding a recent stillbirth. And that’s when I was offered a sobering reminder: There are so many mothers who don’t get to bring their baby home…and not because of an extended stay in order to ensure their health, but because their baby left this world far, far too soon.
A few minutes prior to that phone call, my mother-in-law had alerted me to the fact that we were out of formula. And when she asked me if I could run to the store to pick up more, I had stood there pathetically stuttering, unsure of how to respond. How was I to explain that a mere trip to Target was more than I could handle? That being in public and having to pretend that my world wasn’t crashing down around me required more energy than I could spare? Luckily, she could see the fear in my eyes and had quickly given me a reprieve, offering to go to the store instead. Thank God.
Meanwhile, I had run to the Tag & Title place, so that I could pick up my husband’s new plate and registration. On my way home is when I had spoken to him, these sudden realizations now swirling around in my head. No, I might not currently be the luckiest person in the world, but with an incredible husband and two living children, I was still pretty damn lucky. Yes, the rapid heart rate decelerations were morbidly scary, but at least Blake had a heart rate that could drop. And yes, the O2 desaturations were terrifying, but at least Blake had breaths that could slow. While my situation was far from ideal, at least I had an ongoing situation, instead of one that ended in the delivery room.
After a quick chat and a long goodbye, my husband hung up the phone. And I drove past the entrance to my community and straight to Target.
After all, in spite of everything, at least I still had a baby to buy formula for.