The baby blanket — flashbacks from the NICU

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It was not supposed to be like this, I thought to myself as I entered the three story cement underground car park. This pregnancy was supposed to be OK. Emily had been slightly early, but Alexandra had come into this world without a hitch. I had even given away my preemie clothes.

There were no spaces in the dimly lit car park — not unusual at this time in the morning when the staff was changing over. I spotted a heavy set dark haired woman in a blue uniform, probably a nurse just getting off her shift. She pointed to a small red Honda ahead and I raised my hand in thanks, though I didn’t feel thankful.

All I had felt since last Tuesday was a heavy shadow following me that wouldn’t go away no matter how hard I tried, like the time I had impulsively taken a pair of ruby red Barbie shoes from my best friend when I was eight. I knew it was wrong, and when my mother found out, she grabbed my hand and marched me next door and made me apologise in front of my friend and her mother.

I pulled into the spot and started to get out of the car, then remembered the blanket and turned round to get it. Head down, I made my way to the lift on autopilot.

“Sorry,” the words popped out without thinking. In my haste I had nearly ran into a heavily pregnant woman on my mission. “I didn’t see you,” I said trying not to stare at her tummy, which looked as if a basket ball were neatly tucked beneath.

“No worries,” she said, putting a hand on her bump, the annoying way that heavily pregnant woman do. She was wearing a brightly coloured cotton floral “Stage 3” dress from the Gap. I had seen the same one on the web, and had ordered it, thinking it would look nice for Easter. It was still hanging in the closet, tags on.

We both got into the lift and I pressed the button for the 2nd floor, which housed the baby ward.  On the left was the wing for mothers who had their babies tucked neatly next to them in a cot or suckling on their breast, I could just see their husbands coming to take the new family home, hands full of flower arrangements and a pink mylar ballon imprinted with “It’s a girl, while the mother eagerly waited with the infant in a cute outfit she had received as a gift from a baby shower. On the right was the NICU.

“Are you visiting a newborn?” the heavily pregnant woman asked brightly. “That’s a cute blanket,” she carried on without wanting an answer making polite conversation, her eyes on the bundle in my hands, “Handmade, is it?”

I stared at her blankly, then I remembered what I was holding. “Yes, my mother made it for my daughter.”

“You’re so lucky,” the pregnant woman droned, her hand still protective on her bump. “My mother can’t knit. I wish she could, those handknit blankets are so expensive…”

Thankfully the lift stopped and I nodded goodbye and walked the 10 steps to the entrance of the Neo Intensive Care Unit. I stopped to read the memo on the door, though I had read it every day the past week.

The Center for Disease Control has informed us that RSV season has officially started. Visitors to the NICU will be limited to immediate family only.

RSV, I have learned, is a particularly brutal virus. It is also very common. Though its symptoms are similar to a common cold, it is more serious for premature infants, starting as a runny nose, but then quickly turning into breathing problems in infants whose lungs are not yet fully developed.

I caught the eye of the receptionist, and she buzzed the door. I paused slightly, took a deep breath and opened the door. I entered a sort of holding room, a small room partitioned off from the ward by a large glass pane. I washed my hands with the surgical soap in a large double chrome sink, and then  squirt the antibacterial wash into my hands. As I rubbed the cool liquid between my fingers, it evaporated, as if by magic, reassuring me that any lurking bacteria would be stopped dead in its tracks.

The lights in the NICU are always bright, no matter what time of the day. Proper lighting is needed in case of a procedure. I was not sure how the babies could sleep, the ward sounding more like a video arcade, with simultaneous muted conversations mingled with the constant beeping of monitor alarms.

Looking down the long row of isolettes, I could see a sea of multi-coloured baby blankets draped over the incubators to shield the babies from the harsh lights and the noisy room. Kept at 97F, the babies wear nothing but diapers and a cross-tie T-shirt inside, carefully chosen because the spider web of wires can easily slip through.

A few of the babies bizarrely looked like they were sunbathing, wearing what looked like sunglasses with IVF lights blaring from three sides.  These babies had jaundice. Their little livers not working properly, their red blood cells breaking down and the resulting billiribin not leaving their gut, leaving their skin slightly yellow. I know this because yesterday Hannah was under the lamps with a billiribin score of 16.

I squeezed the nobby knit blanket in my hands and my eyes stopped where Hannah was yesterday.

I could feel my stomach in my throat.

The baby there was under a heat lamp but it was not my dark-haired Hannah.

Photo credit: hummmlan

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23 Comments

  1. 05/05/2012 / 18:44

    Brilliant post, ive also unfortunatley gone through it 4 times and understand comlpetley how you felt x

  2. 17/01/2012 / 08:55

    Thank you for linking up. Nothing can describe the panic when your baby is not where you left it. I walked into our Intensive Care room and Joseph was nothere, I thought the worst, my husband and I just teared up, and there he was next door, the next level down.

  3. 19/02/2010 / 17:07

    This is a really interesting posting. I found it very moving. I really admire you. I find it difficult to imagine.

  4. 17/12/2009 / 00:57

    Thank you for sharing a very real, painful, but descriptive post. You took me to that place, a place I cannot even imagine, that brought tears to my eyes as I think of my own experiences in those first moments of my daughter’s life.
    The blanket part really resonated. Amazing how these small tokens grow to mean so much…
    Thank you.

  5. Hayley
    17/09/2009 / 08:00

    My little boy was on NICU and I can fully understand everything you have said especially about the ward with mothers and their babies together.
    Best regards

  6. 02/02/2009 / 11:07

    I can absolutely relate to this post. Both my pregnancies ended at 30 wks due to pre-eclampsia. One (there were many others unfortunately) of the worst moments was when we walked into her room to find the cardiac moniter showing a flat line – within seconds we discovered a nurse hadn’t switched it back on after she changed the pads. It was nearly 14yrs ago and I remember every detail. She still sleeps with her toy rabbit that started off bigger than her!

  7. 08/01/2009 / 13:20

    Susanna, it’s funny the flash backs you have; I still get cold sweats when I hear beeps that remind me of SATS machines. My twin boys were born at 28 weeks and were moved frequently, with exactly the accompanying sensations you describe. One of our boys died in NICU, so on one of those occasions there really was no incubator, there really was no baby there. I have written a short piece about NICU in my (very new!) blog; perhaps you’d like to read it sometime.

  8. 13/12/2008 / 10:27

    Thanks for all your comments of support here. Those that have spent time in the NICU know it’s not fun. Stay tuned, working on part two…

  9. 02/12/2008 / 21:29

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I had 3 premature babies, so this was very emotional for me to read.

  10. 02/12/2008 / 16:53

    What a beautiful post and I could never imagine. Bless you for your strength!

  11. 28/11/2008 / 08:26

    Its a lovely post , i have been there with the NICU and there is nothing fun about it – we went through it twice once when my daughter was born then again with her in the summer. I remember going in when she was a baby and they had moved her, for a moment i though all my nightmares had came true.
    Its hard to truly put it behind you

  12. 26/11/2008 / 02:23

    Makes me feel blessed for my birth experiences. My cousin’s baby was born at 32 weeks and I remember them going everywhere with him hooked up to machines. He is now a bulky 6th grade football player. When he was born he was smaller than the football.

  13. 26/11/2008 / 02:21

    Makes me feel blessed for my birth experiences. My cousin’s baby was born at 32 weeks and I remember them going everywhere with him hooked up to machines. He is now a bulky 6th grade football player. When he was born he was smaller than the football.

  14. 24/11/2008 / 17:09

    Blimey. When my 5 year old was born they told me that they would have to whisk him straight off and I almost vomited on the spot. (He was fine, and they didn’t.) I can’t even imagine this trial.

  15. 24/11/2008 / 14:20

    My Littleboy 2 was also in the NICU so this brought back lots of memories. He was in special care rather than intensive care only there for a week as he was 35 weeks, but all the other ones there were so tiny and my heart went out to the parents who had come in, three times a day, week after week to feed their babies and be with them. They also moved Littleboy 2 once, and I definitely felt sick when I walked in and he wasn’t there – because I had witnessed several babes move back from special care to intensive, looking really quite ill.
    It’s an incredibly stressful experience, and I would be very happy never to enter one again in my life. But the people who work in those places are generally fantastic.

  16. 23/11/2008 / 23:58

    I just can’t imagine…

  17. 23/11/2008 / 20:57

    I really admire you and salute your greatness and if I were in place of you I could never have been able to do this and I seriously like to hug you and I am totally stunned by what you have faced

  18. 23/11/2008 / 19:49

    What an accurate, well written post about the emotional journey of a mom with a preemie. Although one of my babies was born at 36 weeks, I didn’t get to experience first hand the NICU experience until last year. A close friend of mine had a baby born at 24 weeks gestation weighing 1lb 10 oz. I had made the visit with her to the NICU. In doing so, I had the opportunity to see a miracle first hand. Thanks to her 100 days in the NICU, she has already celebrated her first birthday last week! All indications are that she will lead a completely normal life! Thanks for sharing!

  19. 23/11/2008 / 18:44

    They moved my son 4 times in 2 weeks. After the last moved, I pitched the worlds biggest fit. That every time he was moved after that, they called to ask permission.

  20. 23/11/2008 / 17:46

    I’ve never had to go through any of this and I just read this 3 times. You are so strong and I admire you and really want to hug you!

  21. 23/11/2008 / 15:30

    That was one of the hardest visits to the NICU for me – they had moved my son and noone bothered to tell me, so when I walked in to his “spot” and he was not there the feelings that flooded over me were intense. The next hardest day was the day he came home – sounds weird I know, but he was safe in the NICU what if something happened at home and we could not get him help in time. I cried alot the night before he was discharged. Thankfully, no such thing ever happened. We learned to go and do everything with that blasted apnea monitor – even went to Disneyland.
    Thanks for sharing, I know it must have been hard, but what you experienced was so real. It makes me remember my own little guy and now I must go squeeze him 🙂