The healthiest baby in the NICU

As I mentioned once before, Asher had to go to the NICU for about 12 hours after he was born. However, he was born at 4:23 pm, and didn’t go to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) until about midnight that evening. Nothing about labor/delivery/postpartum/newborn nursing has been familiar to me since college; nevertheless, I feel fairly confident in saying that this was an unusual amount of time between delivery and NICU admission.

See, Asher was pretty tiny when he was born–he only weighed 5 pounds, 2 ounces. He was born at just over 37 weeks, so while he was still technically premature, he really should have been bigger than that, thus earning himself the label “Small for Gestational Age”. SGA babies have their blood sugar checked shortly after delivery, and his was too low. I can’t remember now what the number was, but it was low enough that the nursing staff was a bit concerned (and not for the first time; I found out after the fact that his heart rate had gotten so low while I was delivering him that the neonatal resuscitation team had been called–they apparently rushed into the room at the moment he was born, heard his enthusiastic cry, then turned around and went back upstairs without me ever seeing them). So, they tried to get Asher to nurse, but probably as a result of the low blood sugar, he was too sleepy to be bothered with that much effort. To my dismay, they then whisked him off to the newborn nursery to give him formula to try and sweeten him up a bit (see what I did there?).

This was the very first photo I ever took of Asher. Look how big the newborn diaper was on him!

It worked. They wheeled me to the nursery a short time later for some much needed cuddles (much needed for me, he was too full and sleepy to care), and after re-checking his blood sugar we were sent to my postpartum room to get acquainted. This was going swimmingly, until a few hours later when my nurse came in to check his blood sugar again…and it was too low. I remembered enough from nursing school to know that wasn’t good news, because by then he should have been able to adequately maintain his own levels. It was quickly decided that he needed to go upstairs to the NICU for closer observation and possibly IV fluids. And then, for the second time in his life, my newborn baby was taken away from me.

I’m making that sound really dramatic, but at that moment it felt like my whole world was ending. I’d delivered him, had him taken away, gotten him back, then had him taken again, and I was a bit of a wreck about the whole thing (plus this had all happened a month before we expected him to even be born, and I was still in shock about that fact alone). When I was taken up to see him a while later, his nurse was giving him a bottle AGAIN, and that was the moment I knew he might never be able to breastfeed (and sadly, I was right). I remember that the Nurse Practitioner who was on call in the NICU that night was very pretty, and I’m sure she was compassionate, informative and reassuring, but I don’t actually know because I was crying too hard to hear anything she said.

As it turned out, Asher was the healthiest baby in the NICU for the entirety of his (mercifully short) stay. His blood sugar never dropped again, he never needed an IV, the NICU staff found me a hospital-issued breast pump and Dave and I got to give him his bottles of breastmilk every 3 hours, and Asher and I were discharged from the hospital together–something that wouldn’t have happened if he had needed any true NICU-level intervention. As an intensive care nurse myself, I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve had a patient in the exact same situation as Asher–really not sick enough to need an ICU nurse, but just a bit too iffy for the floor staff (who have much higher nurse to patient ratios) to feel safe keeping him on their unit. With hindsight being 20/20, it was pretty obvious that he hadn’t needed the NICU at all–but everyone was just trying to keep him safe.

But whether he needed to be there or not, he still went to the NICU. I still had to spend the first night of his life away from him, and only fell asleep because I was too tired to cry any more.

I don’t consider myself a “NICU mom”, because I would never dare to appropriate the anguish of a mother who can’t even freely touch her fragile baby inside an isolette. I never wondered if I would get to bring Asher home, only when. Nevertheless, that first night of his life was heartbreaking and terrifying for me.

As I tried to process through everything that had happened when Asher was born, I found myself in this bizarre gray zone of not being a NICU mom, but not being a non-NICU mom, either. I finally realized that, regardless of how not-sick my baby had been, I needed to give myself permission to grieve the loss of what I had expected for those first few hours of motherhood. Losing that time with Asher, and ultimately losing the ability to breastfeed him, are sad realities that I have had to accept as part of the story of my motherhood. The fact that other people had harder situations doesn’t undo the hardness of my own.

Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying that comparison is the thief of joy, but I think that comparison can be the thief of mourning, too. Sometimes the hard work of grief needs to happen in order to reassess and reassemble ourselves, then move forward into the new world we now face. Not doing that work because of someone else’s tragedy only serves to hamper our own progress.

I found a great deal of freedom from the weight of Asher’s NICU ordeal when I decided that it was okay to be hurt by painful things, full stop. It makes me no less compassionate for another person’s story just because I have chosen to acknowledge the low points in my own; if anything, I hope and pray that it will make me more so.

Is there pain or sadness that you’ve pushed to the periphery of your life because you know someone else had it harder, or because it could have been worse? If so, I’d like to humbly encourage you to pull it back to center long enough to identify, examine and assimilate it. Doing so may require great courage, but I truly believe it will be worth it…because I believe that weight will be easier to bear when you’re done.

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