Mason's Days in the NICU: Part I
September is NICU Awareness Month
Here we are, a little over a year later, and it's still difficult for me to write or talk about Mason's time in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) without tearing up, but I think that sharing his story is important. While Mason was in an incubator for the first week of life, B and I found it helpful to meet other NICU babies' parents and families and learn about their experiences. This month is about honoring the families who have/had a baby warrior in the NICU, and all NICU healthcare professionals. While each of our babies is/was fighting a different battle, we continue to support one another no matter what.
Mason was born on a beautiful sunny afternoon at 1:41PM on Saturday, August 3rd, 2019. As I briefly shared his short moment in my arms in The First Cry, the delivery went fine, but something was clearly wrong as his legs and arms turned purple, and soon enough, Mason was taken away in an incubator. Let's start from there...
After I was settled into the bed in my recovery room, our immediate family and close friends came in to congratulate me, the new mama and B, the new dad. Not too long afterward, a doctor entered and asked to speak to Mason's parents privately, which I remember feeling weird about because it was the first time someone asked to talk with us..."Mason's parents." After our family and friends quickly left the room, the doctor said that Mason had been admitted into the NICU because his lungs weren't developed, and then she started talking about the machines supporting him. I looked at B, who's always much better at absorbing new (and in this case, shocking) information. I couldn't hear anything coming out of the doctor's mouth after that. You know when something sudden or catastrophic happens in a movie, and from the character's point of view, everything is blurry or distorted, and the sound is either silenced or muffled? That's what happened to me. I just focused on B's face while he was focused on the doctor speaking. As soon as the doctor walked out, B looked at me, and I just started to sob. I asked B what Mason needed, and things escalated quickly because my fast-talking turned into screaming.
Did he need blood? Take mine.
Did he need lungs? Take mine.
Did he need anything from me? Take me instead.
Whatever Mason needs, if I can provide it, take it.
B held me and was trying his best to calm me down. I remember he asked me what to tell the family. I said everyone had to leave, but I needed my mom to stay. As he walked out to give everyone the update, I continued to sob into my hands, and then I felt someone press gently on my chest. Then someone's hands grabbed my face. I looked up and saw my mom. She was speaking very slowly, "Sarah. I'm here, it's mom, look at me. OK. Breathe Sweet-Pea, just breathe..." Eventually, I slowed down my breathing, I slowed down my crying, but the tears kept streaming out. Of course, my hormones were on a different level. I just had a baby. But my heart hurt in a way I never knew existed.
Between hand expressing my colostrum out for Mason, pumping, eating, trying to rest, trying to walk to the bathroom, trying to go to the bathroom with my girl* so recently stitched up from Mason's birth a few hours prior - I don't know how much time passed. While I was a wreck and a half, B kept everything together. He ran the tubes of my colostrum and bottles of breast milk to Mason's NICU nurses. He helped me walk to and from anywhere that I needed to go. He refilled my peri bottles and made sure I always had those magical mesh postpartum underwear and pads at the ready. He helped me shower as in - I stood in the shower, crying as he carefully washed me - and changed my hospital gowns. He spent hours with Mason in the NICU while I rested in my recovery room. He wouldn't sleep at night until I was as comfortable as could be in my bed. He set alarms for when I had to pump, would set me up with the pump machine, and sit with me while I pumped throughout the nights. He brought my meal orders to the desk and made sure I was fed first before having anything to eat himself. In summary: B's the MVP.
Sometime that evening (yup, we're still on August 3rd), B asked me if I was ready to see Mason in the NICU. Within a few minutes, a nurse and B helped me into a wheelchair, and we were on our way. Upon entering the NICU for the very first time, everything was so calm and clean. After B and I washed/scrubbed our hands and arms, he wheeled me down the NICU hall. Each station had its aquatic life theme, and as we passed by each station, I glanced at the babies in their incubators from afar. We walked a bit further down to "Dolphin #2," and I saw Mason in his incubator. I wanted to jump out of my wheelchair, but B kept his hand on my shoulder (he knows me well...we both know that could've been a minor set-back in my recovery).
B introduced me to Mason's nurse, Donna. She kindly helped me into the chair next to Mason's incubator. She looked over at B and said that he could change Mason's diaper again if he'd like to. Again? - I soon learned that B had changed Mason's diaper a couple of times that day (with Donna's supervision). I was so happy and so proud of him. I watched him change our son's diaper with pride and the utmost caution. I think I held my breath while he did it, too. Donna asked if I wanted to hold Mason (YES!), and then she placed him in my arms, carefully moving and readjusting all of his cords and tubes so he could rest as comfortably and safely in my arms.
I told Mason that I missed him so much and loved him so much more than he'll ever know. I told him that I was so sorry. And I was terribly sorry that his lungs weren't ready yet and that I would trade places with him without a thought. I asked him all of the things that he and his dad talked about while I was resting. I kept whispering to him that I'm his mama. I didn't want Mason to ever sense that his mama and daddy weren't there for him. I don't know how long we were in the NICU that night. I remember Donna saying, "Mommy and Daddy, you should try to rest. I'm watching over Mason, I've got him. He's a strong boy." Saying goodnight and leaving Mason was tough, but I had full faith in Donna. I cried as I was wheeled away back to my recovery room.
The next day we spent with Mason. I pumped next to him, talked and sang to him, napped in the chair next to his incubator, and told him about his family and friends who were cheering him on. B and I kept staring at him, ensuring that he'd be out of the NICU soon. I only went back to my recovery room to either use the bathroom, eat, or sleep for the night. My nurses would be sure to catch me while I was in my room to make sure that I had a meal and took my medications. I'm so thankful for them making sure that I was getting my strength back, too.
I was fortunate to stay 2 full nights at the hospital. I had a vaginal birth, and my recovery was apparently going fine, so I was discharged in the early evening on Day 3 (August 5th). B packed and brought everything back to our apartment so that all I would have to do is walk out of the hospital. Our family also took the car seat to the apartment the day before because there was no need to have it in the hospital. After my discharge, we went to the NICU to let Mason know that we'd be back soon.
After leaving the NICU, I remember standing in the elevator with a bunch of people, but I felt empty and alone. As we walked through the busy lobby, I felt a huge ball in my throat, and my heart felt as if it kept on sinking deeper. I was in physical pain and sore from the birth, but it meant nothing to me; my emotional pain was much more intense. As soon as I stepped outside, I let it all out. It was "Sarah's Sob-Fest Part II." I didn't care how disheveled I looked. I didn't care if anyone was looking at me. I didn't care if anyone was pointing at me. I was literally hovering over with my hands on my hips in front of the hospital entrance, sobbing; I just wanted to be back inside with Mason. Leaving the hospital without my baby was the worst pain in my heart and soul that I have ever felt. And when I revisit this moment, I can still feel that pain.
B had a car come to the front of the hospital, and as we got into the car, he told the driver, "She had our baby over the weekend, but the baby isn't ready to come home just yet." The driver nodded and lowered the back windows down, and I cried all the way home. At some point in between tears, I apologized to the driver and asked for my hysterical state to not affect B's rating as a customer. B and the driver laughed...So I guess that gave me a little hope that I was still me in there, somewhere.
We reached our apartment, and B had to take Harvey out for a walk. Our family was able to stay at our apartment to watch and care for Harvey, but he'd been alone most of my discharge day. I walked into our bedroom, and next to our bed was the bassinet. Only, it was empty. Hit that reset button, lady, because it was time for "Sarah's Sob-Fest Part III." Can she cry harder? Yes. Can she scream and cry at the same time? Yes. Did she probably concern some of the neighbors? Most likely, yes. I was holding onto the sides of Mason's bassinet, borderline vomiting from crying so hard. When B returned to the apartment with Harvey, he remained calm and held me gently. He said, "OK, mama. We've got to prepare for Mason's homecoming. We've got this."
My tears subsided; I splashed some cold water on my face and started sterilizing bottles. We had all of the things for Mason (bottles and parts, diapers, bath stuff, clothing, toys, books, etc.), but the only item completely set-up was the bassinet. We thought we had more time to do all of this, but Mason was 2 weeks early. While we were setting things up in the apartment, we talked about how we would handle Mason's NICU stay. We created a schedule in which B would go to the hospital first thing in the morning. Meanwhile, I could sleep, eat, pump, prep any baby stuff for Mason, and head over to the NICU by 11:00AM. We'd be at the NICU all day and night, except for B going back to our apartment to walk/feed Harvey.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post. I know parts are rather heavy on the heart, but I wanted to be as transparent as possible. For me, this is about staying true to the someday room and to you, the reader. The fact of the matter is that having a baby in the NICU is terrifying, heartbreaking, and in our case, triumphant. We cannot thank the nurses, doctors, and the NICU community for their expertise, nurturing, and support.
Mason's Days in the NICU: Part II coming soon...