Not at one point during my entire pregnancy did I ever give one thought to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. For me, it was simply a term I’d occasionally hear on Grey’s Anatomy or Chicago Med. Our doctors never mentioned it. I didn’t really know anyone who had delivered babies who had to stay in the NICU. Of course, I’d read about premature babies and high risk twin pregnancies that had resulted in very long NICU stays. Still, I never really thought that it was something that could happen to us… famous last words, right? I was healthy, 29 years old and felt good after the first trimester (other than the bulging belly). Something like that wouldn’t happen to me, right?
Wrong. Big, fat wrong. We were introduced to the NICU at about 2 am on February 2nd. We were buzzed in through two sets of doors and had to be given our NICU hospital access bracelets to be able to see our babies. We learned the rules- 1. No one is allowed in the NICU without a parent so Geoff or I had to be with every visitor. 2. Calstat is your best friend- lather up before you even look at the NICU. 3. No eating in the NICU. 4. Ask any and all questions that you have.
Initially, the NICU was terrifying. It was filled with tiny humans fighting for their life with each breath. It was so warm in there that I felt like you instantly felt groggy as soon as you stepped foot in there. It was loud with alarms going off all the time, as babies stopped breathing or had a heart rate drop. It was a place I don’t think you are meant to feel comfortable because things could go two ways and you didn’t know which way your kids were going to go- heading up to heaven or witnessing a miracle.
Each day that passed, I became a bit more comfortable in the NICU. You forget about all the wires stuck in your baby. You forget that most newborns eat from your breast or a bottle- not an orange tube stuck in their nose. You forget most babies can breathe on their own without a tube in their nose. You don’t even hear the alarms and beeps going on in all the rooms from all the monitors attached to these tiny humans. You forget what a typical baby should look like (I still see 7lb newborns and think they look enormous!)
The NICU is a place where you feel like time stands still. I’d typically show up each day around 1pm (after I worked an 8-hour day from 5am) and before I knew it, it was 8pm. It felt almost like a job- I’d show up, prep to go in, visit with each baby. We’d talk to them and tell them about our day, our house, our animals and all the people that couldn’t wait to meet them. Grace’s care times were always 2pm and 5pm so I’d undress her, take her temperature, change her diaper, move her probes, and help the nurse to hook up her breast milk (which was fed through an NG tube). Once Grace was all set, I’d pump and clean all the pumping parts. At 3pm and 6pm, Cole had his care times. I would do the same process for him- undress him, take his temperature, change his diaper, move his probes and help the nurse with his milk for the NG tube. I would typically do skin to skin with Cole during his feed and keep him out of the isolette until 4:45pm. This was the most relaxing part of the day. At that point, the nurse would help me put him back and we’d do Grace’s 5pm care time. At this point, Geoff had usually arrived and he would do skin to skin with Grace from 5-6:30. During that time, I would pump at least one more time, clean all the pumping parts and handle Cole’s 6pm care time. This was the schedule, day after day. It became routine. It became normal. It was status quo in a place where, in reality, nothing is typical.
For me, because I started to feel like this was normal, I also became angry and jealous. Most people get to hold their baby right after they are born. Most people get these adorable pictures of their newborn baby on the day they are born. They get their first family shot in the recovery room, minutes after delivering their baby, with a sweaty, proud mom and a beaming father. Most people get to feed their own baby. Most people get to hold their baby with clothes on, instead of only having the option of putting the baby on their skin because they can’t regulate their own body temperature. Most people get to dress their baby in cute clothes. Most people get to take their baby home a few days after delivery. Most people get to make decisions for their babies, where we had to volley our decisions over to a team of capable nurses, doctors and therapists. We got none of this and I was sad, angry and jealous. There was a huge part of me that hated every pregnant woman I knew at this time who got to do this the “normal way.” There is also still a huge part of me that still struggles with this, which is totally normal. For those of you out there in a similar boat, I completely understand your anger and frustration but please try to find peace in that you are not alone. I felt alone for months but I am with you and I understand.
The saving grace of the NICU are the staff. I loved every Nurse, Doctor, Surgeon, Respiratory Therapist, Occupational Therapist, Social Worker, Lactation Consultant, Receptionist and Cleaner. Everyone was always so kind to us and listened to our endless questions. As first time parents of 28 week premature twins, we had more questions that you can comprehend. We didn’t know how to change a diaper, how to feed our babies, how to move them, how to comfort them… the teams taught us everything we know. They taught us how premature babies do not simply turn into regular babies when they leave the NICU- it is a very, very long road. Now, I feel so comfortable talking with other moms who are in the NICU and giving them advice that helped us in those early days (hence this blog, right?) We were blank slates and I think specifically the nurses and occupational therapists worked wonders on us and our families.
These people became our friends. They helped us take pictures of our babies or record videos in the NICU. They would create little arts and crafts of the baby's feet and hand prints. They were the shining light in such a dark and numb time for us. They made us feel like this truly was normal because it was their normal. They saw babies that were in a much worse situation than ours and they let us feel how lucky we were. Maybe we didn’t get to do everything the “normal” way but we were so lucky. We had twins at 28 weeks that only spent three weeks in the NICU. They were strong, determined fighters that we loved with every ounce of ourselves and the staff loved them too.
When we “graduated” from the NICU, I cried like a baby. The nurses in the Special Care Nursery that day probably thought I was totally insane. I was just devastated, even though this was great progress for the twins, that we were not in the comfort of the NICU anymore. It was filled with new people, new space, a new hospital floor but as we would find out, fewer regulations. Maybe we’d get to act like parents sooner than we thought?