Mason's Days in the NICU: Part III
September is NICU Awareness Month
As I sit and write about this time in my family's life, a weight comes back on my chest. It is wild that something that happened over a year ago can still have such an immediate effect on me. I still feel the sadness and guilt. I can still feel the panic from one of his monitors beeping faster and a nurse quickly coming over to make sure Mason's alright. I'm not quite sure if these feelings will ever go away. Yet, I've slowly learned that what's important is to not dwell on this experience but rather appreciate it. I look at Mason as the healthy toddler he is today. I hear him babbling and laughing. I see him walking on his own agenda and bouncing to music. And that weight gets a bit lighter and lighter.
You can read Mason's Days in the NICU Part: I here.
I left off in Mason's Days in the NICU Part: II with me crying happy tears. The doctors and nurses had started Mason on a trial to see if and how long he could maintain his oxygen levels without support. Thankfully, his jaundice had gone away, so we were able to mentally check that off our list. But we watched Mason even closer now that he was off the air support. We were informed that if he maintained his levels, he would likely be discharged in the next day or two. There were a few times throughout the day that Mason needed the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. It was disheartening to have him taken out of my arms and hooked back up to the tubes. I'd whisper into his incubator - You must be so tired, my little-little. It's OK. You can try again later. We're here for you.
It was difficult to walk away from Mason that day, even just to go to the bathroom. I'd feel a pain rising in me on my walk back to his incubator. I couldn't walk as fast as I normally would because I was still recovering, and those damn stitches - ugh! I was frustrated. I had these horrible thoughts, which clearly did not help at all.
What if I came back to his station, and they were trying to revive him?
What if I wasn't there in time?
What if we get a phone call with bad news?
WHAT IF? WHAT IF? WHAT IF?
With each return to his incubator, I sighed with grateful relief. When B and I got home that night, I couldn't sleep. I'm a heavy sleeper, but I was nervous that I'd miss a phone call. B was absolutely exhausted, and I didn't want to disturb or worry him, so I quietly kept checking my phone and making sure the ringer was on the highest volume. I contemplated going back to the hospital and staying overnight next to Mason, but I reminded myself that the nurses were there and trusted them completely.
Besides B and the healthcare professionals, who did I turn to about Mason's condition? I found support among our fellow NICU parents right in the lobby. I'd touched upon this previously (in Part: II), but I wanted to go further into what the NICU community did for us. Hearing another parent say, "Yeah, we went through that a few days ago with our baby..." or, "We had a similar fear with our little one..." grounded me. The level of empathy from one NICU parent to another is indescribable. We'd so comfortably share our birth stories and NICU experiences as if we've known each other for years. These stories were often exchanged in separate parts because one person would finish up a meal and want to get back to their baby. And there weren't any hard feelings if someone had to abruptly end a conversation and walk back into the NICU. There weren't any hard feelings if someone simply did not want to talk at all. No matter what, we're cheering each other on throughout each baby's milestone, big and small. We're a shoulder to lean on, a nod of comfort, a no-judgment zone, and a reminder that while each baby's case is different, we're not alone in the process. As one baby graduates from the NICU, we'd celebrate and give the family a happy send-off. It gave us even more hope for the beautiful day that our baby graduates, too. No matter if a baby is in the NICU for 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, or more, the NICU community's bond and support are unbreakable.
There was a couple who had twins in the NICU. We'd chat about how we're preparing our homes, how much stuff newborns need, where our families are coming from to visit the babies, etc. On this particular day (August 8th), I noticed that the twins' mama was moving quickly between the lobby, locker area (for parents/family), and the NICU as if she had a to-do list...and from the looks of it, mama was getting things done. Later that day, while walking towards the lobby from Mason's station, their dad walked by with a double stroller, 2 car seats installed. I gasped and smiled. He had a BIG smile and said, "The boys are coming home today!". After congratulating him, I went on my way to the lobby with so much excitement to update B. We decided to eat lunch together and wait for the family of four to leave, so we could give them a proper happy-grad (x2) send-off. I'll never forget their faces walking out of the NICU with both of their boys — pure happiness. And of course, I was teary-eyed seeing this beautiful moment for their family. Their mama and I hugged, and before leaving the lobby, their dad turned to us and said, "Tell Mason we're still cheering for him!" and I knew in my heart that it was sincere.
That's the NICU community.
Returning to Mason's station, it was nice to see him without all of the tubes hooked up to his little body. He had been off the CPAP machine (the previous night when I couldn't sleep) and maintained his oxygen and heart rate levels. I apologized to Mason for being away for longer than usual and told him that his buddies had just graduated. Not too long after, a doctor came over to discuss things that needed to be conquered before Mason could be discharged, most likely the following day. "MOST LIKELY" + "DISCHARGED"; I was ecstatic. The doctor went over the list: CPAP machine completely removed from Mason's station, hearing tests, final checks on his weight, heart-rate, etc. The CPAP machine was removed, and Mason was officially moved from an incubator to a bassinet. I didn't have to put my arm through or speak to Mason through the hole of an incubator. Now, when I leaned over him, there wasn't anything between us, not a transparent cover, nothing. I could swaddle him without having to open and close the incubator. There weren't any tubes or wires around his face to workaround anymore. Mason looked the way the other babies were back in the Maternity Unit's nursery. The bassinet that would be wheeled into the new mama's room returned to the nursery for more family and friends to see and wave, and brought back to mama's side for her to freely pick-up, swaddle, feed, etc. I never had that initial moment with Mason, and I remember thinking, So this is what it would've been like.
The next day was Friday, August 9th. We went to the NICU together early that morning because my nerves were getting to me about Mason "most likely" getting discharged. I was thrilled to see Nurse Donna upon our arrival. Whether it was great news that Mason was coming home or notice that he'd have to stay longer, I was hoping Donna would be there. She'd become family to us, and she'll always be a family member in our hearts. Well, Donna had a big smile on her face, and I can still hear her saying, "Good morning Mommy and Daddy!" Within a few minutes, a doctor came over and confirmed that Mason was getting discharged. He just needed his hearing test that morning. *cue happy tears* I knew B was on another level of relief and happiness because he had this beaming smile and was totally speechless at that moment (this is rare). He picked up Mason, and we told him how proud we were of him, our little warrior. Donna was a few feet away at a computer. I walked over and tapped her on the shoulder. As soon as she turned around, I embraced her. "See, he's OK, Mommy!" - Of course, Donna would say the perfect thing at that moment while I'm trying to compute words in my brain to begin thanking her. And eventually, I did blubber out the words of thanks and how we couldn't have reached this point without her and the whole NICU team. There will never be enough words for how much NICU nurses and all NICU healthcare professionals mean to our family. We are forever grateful.
Mason passed his hearing test, was tucked safely into his car seat, and that afternoon at 12:23PM, he graduated the NICU. People in the lobby, both familiar and new, clapped as we were leaving. Walking out of the hospital with our healthy baby boy was all we ever wanted since his birth. We finally had our pure happiness with us. We had Mason.
To the reader: Thank you so much for taking the time to read about our NICU experience! Whether you are a NICU parent or know someone who had a baby warrior in this unit, I hope you've learned about the incredible work and manner of the NICU team and the gained a new perspective from yours truly. As we reach the end of September, I hope to continue raising awareness about the NICU's babies, families, and healthcare professionals.