My NICU Story: From Pregnancy to Birth and Beyond

Pregnancy is a wonderful, yet uncertain, thing. When we find out about our pregnancies, some of us are happier than others. Breaking the good news to our significant others and families is, for most of us, a joy. We go through what is supposed to be a full 38-40 week time span of growing, nurturing, and awaiting a precious, beautiful, healthy baby. Sometimes though, life takes unexpected twists and turns and throws us for a loop. In my case, nothing in my pregnancy went according to plan. Not a single thing I had written in my well thought out, well written birth plan went according to plan. It seemed as though God had a much different plan for my baby, my pregnancy, and for me.

The Morning Everything Changed

The clock read 4:30 AM as I woke up, almost certain I had finally peed myself for the very first time during this pregnancy. Even though I had already had 4 previous pregnancies in the past,
I had never officially peed myself up until this point. I swung my legs over the side of my bed, and made my way to the bathroom – achy body in full effect. At 33 weeks, I had sure felt as though I was much further along. On the way to the bathroom, I felt a rather large trickle of ‘pee’ stream down my leg. How could my bladder be so full that I’d be peeing myself, when I had only used the bathroom an hour earlier?

Once I got to the bathroom, pulled down my sweatpants, and sat down, I realized at that moment that something was very, very wrong. A huge gush of fluid emerged from my vagina, and I hadn’t even tried to pee yet. I also smelled something strange that I had never smelled before. “Oh my God,” I remember saying out loud as soon as it hit me, “My water broke!” I ran to my bedroom as fast as my pregnant legs could carry me, and I was screaming, “Richi! Richi, wake up!” My husband shot up in bed, asking, “What’s wrong?” I explained that my water had broken, and I made my way to the hospital. Unfortunately for me, my husband had to stay home with our other children, so I was on my own.

It took me no more than 10 minutes to arrive at the hospital, and I was frantic and panicking the entire way. All I could think was the worst. I knew from things I had read in the past that babies born at 33 weeks would stand a fighting chance, but that couldn’t possibly be what was going to happen to me. No way. This was something that could just fix itself, or that they could give me some sort of medicine for. At least, I had hoped. Or – at the very best – I’d just become completely incontinent and really did pee myself. This would be the only time in history I’d ever have wanted to pee myself.

I was immediately brought up to the Labor and Delivery floor. The nurses did some quick vitals, entered my information into their computer, ran over my health history and then took a sample of the fluid that had been consistently leaking out in large gushes at this point. The initial test was inconclusive, as the blue shade the nitrile strip they tested the fluid on wasn’t bright blue enough. From there, they brought in a brand new test they had, in which they swabbed the fluid with a large q-tip – the same kind that’s used to do a throat culture – and then placed it into a vial and sealed it. They sent it off to the lab to be tested, and the process would take about 45 minutes. As I laid in that hospital bed, I was feverishly texting my husband, keeping him up to date every step of the way.

When the test results came back, my nurse came in and informed me that it was, in fact, amniotic fluid. I would have to be admitted to the hospital, and kept until I delivered my baby. She also told me that I was now considered high risk, and also informed me that because of the gestational age of the baby, I would need to be transferred to the children’s hospital about an hour away, as they were equipped to handle 33 week babies in their Level 3 NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), whereas my local hospital only had a Level 2 SCU (Special Care Nursery). My head was spinning at this point. What were we going to do with the kids? My husband works a very demanding job, over an hour away, and is also a boss- he needs to be there! Missing one single day of work is detrimental to his job, and his paycheck. How could I stay in the hospital on bedrest for so long? How could I be an hour and some change away from my family? And most of all, was my baby going to be okay? I remember feeling the tears form in the corners of my eyes, and then they clouded my vision completely. I began bawling like a little child. I felt helpless. I prayed. Then, I explained everything to my husband. Not having the slightest idea how, I told him we would work everything out and that everything was going to be okay.

An hour later, an ambulance transfer was ready and waiting to bring me over to the children’s hospital. They helped me onto a stretcher, and with encouragement from lots of the nurses hearing “Good luck, sweetie!” from numerous nurses, I was quickly whisked through the halls and ushered into the elevator. Minutes later, I would be loaded into the back of the ambulance, locked in place, and off to the place I’d call home for the next week.

I was wheeled through the halls of the magnificent children’s hospital, complete with glass elevators, a grand piano and piano player filling the visitors’ and patients ears with beautiful music. I was nervous, scared, and uncertain as to what was going to happen next.

I was finally brought up to the labor and delivery floor, where I would spend the next 24 hours receiving medications to keep contractions at bay – which had begun soon after my water had broken – and fluids to help replenish what I was losing from the amniotic sac. Also, the doctor wanted to monitor me for further contractions, and have me right there on the labor and delivery floor just in case anything were to happen.

Later that day, my husband made his way in after dropping the kids off with his dad, and spent the night with me. They brought a NICU team member into the room to talk to us about what was going to happen, including NICU protocol, and answered any questions we had. She was extremely helpful and courteous, and made us feel a lot better about what would be the outcome for the baby. She told us what we could expect our son to have to experience at his gestational age, and although it was extremely scary, it was very helpful.

The next day, I was brought to my new long term room which was on the next floor down once everything had been stabilized. My water was continuously leaking still, but it was also replenishing itself as I was drinking like a fish, plus receiving fluids via IV. This room was the place I would lay in wait for the next 8 days. The room was small, but I had the room to myself so I didn’t mind. The only thing I hated was the shower. It was so tiny, I would bump my elbows on the wall when washing myself and my body would be touching the shower curtain simultaneously.

I was constantly on medication – a Magnesium Sulfate drip, to be exact – for the first 48 hours, along with something known as Lactated Ringers, which was like Gatorade in an IV, commonly given to women before a C-Section – but I would be having a vaginal birth, as far as I could help it, so the stuff was pointless to me. They had also placed me on Clindamycin, an antibiotic, to keep infection away due to my water being broken. I was then started on Azithromycin, 1,000 mg per dose – and that stuff was pure misery. It gave me the absolute worst stomach-ache ever. There were other medications administered via IV and in pill form, but in all honesty, I can’t for the life of me remember them all. I had been given steroid injections to mature his lungs as well.

Every other morning, I would have an ultrasound to measure fluid levels. The doctor was also tracking the positioning and size of the baby, who was head down – that is, all the way up until delivery day.

The Birth – Not As I Intended

On February 16th, 2016, I woke up at around 5 AM and made my way to the bathroom to pee. When I looked down at the pad I was instructed to wear and check often, for blood or other discolorations – I saw a dark gren color covering the entire pad. I knew immediately what that meant. My baby had passed meconium in the water. I was hysterical, because I knew that was an emergency situation. I immediately buzzed for the nurse, who came in, checked, and confirmed what I already knew. There was also a lot of meconium present inside of the toilet. She immediately phoned my doctor, who came in and told me they were going to send me up for a c-section that very day.

A C-section? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My biggest fear was coming true. I was terrified of surgery.

Had my water just stayed broken, I could have stayed put in the hospital all the way up until my due date, baby still safe inside. But being that the presence of meconium was now a reality, there wasn’t much time to waste. If the baby were to aspirate the meconium, he could end up with pneumonia and life threatening health issues. The doctors developed a game plan and informed the NICU to be expecting our baby boy.

That night, at 7:30 PM, I was brought back to surgery. It was, without a doubt, the scariest, most painful thing I have ever had to go through physically. It was also extremely nerve wrecking and really exacerbated my anxiety issues. Nothing, however, could prepare me for the pain of having my baby boy ripped from my body, whisked away to another part of the hospital – the NICU, no less, and kept from me until the next morning, when I could go see him.

He was born as healthy as could be expected at 8:15 PM, weighing 5 lb, 5 oz. He was in a transverse lie, which means he was laying sideways, which was another reason why I had to have a c-section. The doctor had to go in and do something known as a version – where they turn the baby vertical for birth. In doing so, my babys arms, legs, back and chest had bruises all over the place immediately following his birth. The surgical assitant showed him to me quickly and I touched his face, and my husband snapped a picture, and he was immediately brought to the next room where the NICU team, consisting of nurses and respiratory therapists, awaited him. They began working on him right away. My husband, bless his heart, was a emotional wreck. He just watched his wife sliced open on the surgical table, nearly dying from lack of respiration. The concoction of surgical medications – from the spinal, to the anxiety medication they administered to me – was too much for my body to handle, and my lungs and heart began giving up. My respirations slowed dramatically. Luckily, an injection which they gave me allowed me to begin breathing properly within minutes, and I was okay in the end.

I asked him to please go with the baby, and he reluctantly left my side and followed the NICU team to the Level 3 room. I was completely out of it, however, the surgery team was nice enough to bring me by the baby before wheeling me to my room. At this point, I was even more out of it than I had been during surgery. They had started a morphine drip on me, and after seeing my sweet baby boy all attached to wires, monitors and laying in an isolette, I passed out. The only things I vividly remembered were his beautiful full head of hair, his dark eyes, his perfect little body, and the wires. There were so many wires.

All night, I was hitting that morphine button as often as I woke up. My husband didn’t sleep a wink. Every time I woke up, he was standing there, watching me, like a perfect guardian angel. Making sure I was breathing. Making sure I didn’t die.

NICU Life

The next morning, I forced myselfout of that bed. It hurt so incredibly bad. Nobody could have prepared me for how much pain I was going to be in. The doctor had told me, no matter what, walking around would speed the healing process immensely, and so that’s exactly what I began doing. I walked around as much as I possibly could. I had cut myself off of the morphine drip and asked that it be removed that morning. I’m not, and never have been, one for pain medication. Yes, I was in pain, but I was also planning on pumping and breastfeeding my baby, so I didn’t want to pass this medication on to him through my breast milk. From that moment, I took no time to relax since having my surgery. I literally had absolutely no downtime. Looking back, I wish I had relaxed more, because my body needed it.

All I wanted to do was get upstairs to see my baby. That’s all that was on my mind. It was a primal urge, something nobody could have held me back from at that moment. He needed his mama. He was all alone up there without me. He was probably scared, sad, wondering where he was, missing the safe, warm confines of his former home. The home he grew in, kicked in, slept in and ate in. I missed feeling him move and kick within me. It made me so sad that he was taken from me so soon. I wasn’t ready for my pregnancy to end. I just wasn’t ready for it to be over yet.

I had transport come and bring me upstairs in a wheelchair. When I got to the NICU doors, I was buzzed in after giving my name. When I was wheeled over to my baby boy, so many emotions overcame me. As soon as I saw his face, I cried. I asked if I could open the side panel on his isolette, and touch his hand. The nurse said I could. As soon as I reached my hand in, I felt the warmth from the heater that was keeping his body warm where he was too little to. He wrapped his tiny hand around my finger, and I was overcome by love. Seeing my sweet baby boy laying in this bed, connected to all of these wires, which I learned were known as leads, breathing tubes inside his nose, a tube down his throat, an IV in his foot, and tape all over his face keeping these wires in place – it was completely overwhelming.

A little while later, I was able to hold my baby for the first time. The nurse had to ensure he had a warm hat on, and he was triple wrapped in swaddling blankets. He was the length of a term baby, almost, at 17 inches, but the width of his body due to not having enough baby fat as of yet was about that of a 12″ sub sandwich even when he was wrapped up. He had the most perfect shaped head I had ever seen, and it was about the size of a baseball. He was tiny. Perfect, but absolutely tiny. I had never been afraid to hold a newborn before, but I realized how terrified I was to hold him initially. He was so fragile and frail. I didn’t want to hurt him. I was able to hold him for about 10 minutes, snuggling him, smelling him, holding him against my chest. I was so at peace for those few minutes. I was so happy to have my baby boy in my arms – and he seemed extremely content being back with his mama again.

Throughout the next three days, I got to spend most of the day and night with him by his bedside. Even when I wasn’t able to hold him, I was there with him. I would open the side panel of his isolette and talk to him so that he could hear my voice. I snuggled with him as much as possible. I pumped every single bit of colostrum I had to provide him with for his feeding tube, even when there was barely nothing to give. I pumped every two hours, all day and all night for the full month he was in the hospital. Even the smallest amounts of colostrum were useful, though, as they did his oral care with it. It only took me 3 days before my milk fully came in, and it was at that point the NICU no longer needed to feed him formula. I could now provide him with my own milk, just as I inteded from the start. I was so proud of me!

Every single day that went by, I watched my brave, strong boy become even more strong. I had never seen a baby fight so hard before. Then again, I had never experienced NICU life before, either. It’s a scary feeling, sitting there, watching, waiting. Hearing the sounds of monitors beeping around the room, hearing bradycardia and apnea alarms sounding off, seeing the flashing lights that came along with them. Watching the reaspiratory techs walking around the room, checking on each of the babies breathing to ensure all were safe. The nurses sitting at their computers, clacking away on the keyboards in front of them as they entered each baby’s last feed, the amount they ate, the medications administered, and noting any and all health related concerns for when the doctor made his next set of rounds. Each time I would hear a monitor sound off, my heart would stop – even when it wasn’t my baby. Seeing such small, precious lives at the mercy of these nurses was pretty incredible.

I shed a lot of tears within the walls of that room. I spent many, many hours in the rocking chair next to my baby’s bedside. I pumped countless ounces of milk for my son whilst sitting next to him. I sang to him there. Prayed for him there. Talked to many nurses, and learned so much. I kept a NICU journal, documenting important milestoes which my baby seemed to be making daily. From being on a bubble CPAP machine, to him being taken off the CPAP and put onto room air, from being taken off warmth support because he could finally regulate his own temperature, to the feeding tube being removed, and him being able to drink breastmilk from a bottle, I was there and experienced all of it each step of the way. I wrote it all down in his journal. The hardest part was leaving him at the end of each and every day. Driving over a hour away from him, not having him with me, was so incredibly hard for me to bear. I would sit and have emotional breakdowns when I wasn’t by his side. I cried the entire ride home, and couldn’t function very well away from him. I could barely eat. I could barely sleep. My husband and I were a literal mess while going through this. But, we did it – we got through it together. We coped by spending as much time as possible with the baby – for me, that meant every day, all day, until it was time to get the kids from school. For my husband, that meant stopping in after work as he was able, and spending the whole weekend there with him alongside me. I would call each night, and even in the middle of the night, to check in on him and speak with his nurse for the evening – just to feel a bit closer to him, and maybe even hear him crying in the background – even though that would always break my heart.

After three and a half weeks, we were informed he was doing so well that he could be moved to the Level 2 room. We were given the option to have him transported to the hospital closest to us, which I had gone to originally, to stay in the Level 2 SCN until he was ready to come home. We discussed it amongst ourselves, and then we both had myriad questions for the doctor and nurses. We decided to go ahead with the transfer when it was all said and done. We were sad because we weren’t going to see his nurses, the ones we had become so close with anymore – but happy because our boy was doing well enough to be moved that much closer to home. Before we left the children’s hospital, we were approached by the supervisor of the NICU unit. She introduced herself to us and extended a gift to me – a beautiful necklace which she made herself. There was a sterling silver ball chain, and a small baggie of colorful hand painted, beautiful beads representing each and every milestone our baby had made it to, and each medical issue he suffered from. There was also a small turtle charm, which represented our beautiful baby boy and his slow journey through the NICU. I cried so much, because it was so heartfelt and such a beautiful gift. When he was to be discharged from the Level 2 SCN at the hospital close to home, he was to get his discharge bead – a pearl.

When he was transferred, he thrived and did so well that the nurses almost didn’t understand why he was there in the first place. The only thing that was holding him back from going home was the fact that he was having bradycardia, or heart rate drops, quite frequently. This coincided with apnea episodes. It’s exceptionally scary to see the bradycardia monitor go off, knowing his heart rate should be between 120 and 160, and his was dipping down into the 60’s at times. For every brady episode, there was an additional 48 hours added onto his SCU stay. It was extremely frustrating when he would go two or three days without a single incident, and then all of a sudden one would occur. These bradycardia episodes were attributed to the fact that he was born prematurely. Eventually, he would come to outgrow these events.

Every day he got a little stronger. Every day he ate a bit more, and gained a more weight. He was a joy for all who got to work with him. The nurses loved his calm, peaceful demeanor, and loved watching him sleep as he loved to make faces and smile in his sleep. He also made soft, sweet noises, as if sighing in relief with each exhalation. My baby boy had already touched so many lives and made so many people smile. I was so proud of everything he had gone through, and how well he was doing. From the start, he made me so proud to be his mama.

A week and a half later, after hearing conflicting things from the different NICU doctors who were interchangeably on call every day, and after he passed his car seat test, he was give the okay to go home – as long as he was on an apnea monitor. My husband and I – and our other children – were elated. We had to take an ifant CPR course with the NICU, and undergo video training as well. From there, I was traied by a respiratory therapist on the apnea monitor he was to be sent home on. This monitor was so much different from the ones I had been used to seeing him on and dealing with in the hospital. This was a whole new thing to learn and deal with. It was stressful, for sure. But I practiced hooking him up to the monitor with the special leads, and the lead belt, and practiced using the on/off/reset buttons and learning what each individual light meant. I passed the RT’s ‘test’ of sorts, and felt a lot more comfortable once everything was said and done.

After having his newborn pictures done – even though he was a month old – our discharge papers were drawn up. This would be the day he got to come home. Before we strapped him into his carseat to take his first official ride in my husband’s brand new truck back to our home, where we had eagerly awaited his arrival for what seemed like forever, his nurse approached me and gave me a small baggie with his discharge pearl inside.

Our NICU journey was difficult to deal with, but in retrospect, we are so incredibly thankful to these special nurses who helped to save the life of our baby boy. Without them, who knows if he even would have survived? We feel as though these ladies were our sons guardian angels while he was inside the NICU. They looked after him day after day, ensuring his safety – especially when we couldn’t be there to do so ourselves. As hard of a journey as it was, we learned a lot, we grew a lot as parents, and we gained a new appreciation for our child – and for the NICU itself. We had never gone through such a hardship with any of our children. The nights and days seemed to meld together, and it felt like forever that our baby was in the care of the hospital, when selfishly, we wanted him home right away.

Now that he’s home, and healthy, and still on a monitor at almost 3 months old, I spend every waking minute with him. I never want to set him down – even when he’s sleeping. He has such a special place in my heart, and I couldn’t be happier to be his mama. What a precious, special gift. My little turtle made it through the NICU journey – and home into my arms.

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