“I’m just going to take a seat.”
If you are in the medical field, never make these the first words a patient hears out of your mouth. Especially if the patient is a new parent.
I tend to be a bit anxious about most things that I encounter on a daily basis (okay, okay… extremely anxious about all things). Yet, the day that my son was born, I like to think I kept things together relatively well.
The hospital admitted us at midnight on March 16th. I thought that our son would be arriving shortly when we got into our room.
I was wrong.
My wife lasted about 5 hours before she got an epidural. Meanwhile, I fumbled around trying to be helpful but feeling completely helpless. I will forever be in awe of my wife’s strength and toughness throughout the birth of our son.
We knew when my wife’s water broke that there was meconium in the uterus. This can cause complication at birth if the baby inhales it. The nurse admitting us explained that we would have Neonatal Intensive-Care Unit nurses present when the baby was born as a precaution. This news was simultaneously unsettling and comforting, somehow.
After a long day of waiting for contractions to progress, the time came for my wife to start pushing.
“Do you feel ready to push?” the nurse asks.
“I can try.”
This is happening.
It’s an odd feeling. This human, that I have felt kicking through my wife’s stomach is just going to show up. It is this person that I love eternally and, yet, I am completely indifferent to.
It’s like only seeing pictures of the ocean. It is just the big blue parts on the map until you stand on the sandy shores and realize how vast it truly is. You can understand that it is salt water but, salt water takes on a new meaning when you have tasted it while swimming in the waves so long they desiccate your lips. You can see the waves of the ocean but, you cannot appreciate their unyielding power until you have swum in them.
For nine months, my wife swam in the ocean. Feeling every kick and hiccup over the course of the day.
I just looked at pictures trying to imagine what it would truly be like.
As we approached the big moment, I noticed on the monitor that my eyes had been glued to all day that our son’s heart rate would drop at each push. The doctor’s mood shifted as she became more concentrated on the task of bringing our son into the world.
Finally, with an assist from a vacuum, I saw my son pulled into the world.
In one, quick motion the doctor cut the umbilical cord and handed him to an awaiting NICU nurse.
I was supposed to cut the co… He isn’t breathing.
This is not what I had envisioned for my son’s first moments. The nurses take him to the bassinet warmer.
My son is a blue/grey color. I focus on the nurses faces trying to get a sense of what is happening.
“Come on buddy, you can do it” one of them coos.
“Let it out, come on…” says another.
They lift his hands and let go. They fall limp at his sides.
Please cry, please, cry.
“What is happening?” my wife asks muffled through an oxygen mask.
“I… everything thing is fine… they are…”
I scan the room, looking for answers when I make eye contact with a nurse who notices the panic on my face. She approaches with a smile and some of the kindest eyes I have ever seen. As she makes her way over, I hear the greatest sound I have ever heard in my entire life (well, maybe it is a tie for the greatest sound with the entire Hamilton soundtrack which was playing while he was born). My son is crying. Weak but crying none the less.
“They are working to suction his airway to help him breathe,” says the nurse, “he is crying now, which is a great sign but we will want to get him down to the NICU as soon as possible.”
I’m a dad. She is talking to me.
“Do you want to get a camera ready? We are going to bring him over to mom.”
I grab my camera and get ready.
In the birthing classes that we took a couple months ago, they took a great deal of time to talk about the “Golden Hour.” The hour immediately following the birth when the baby gets skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeds for the first time. This beautiful time that we would get to spend with the new addition to our family.
We will not get that. We will get, roughly, thirty seconds.
“Okay, we need to take him now. Dad, you can come with if you’d like.”
I look to my wife as she nods at me.
I jog down the hall after the nurses into the dimly lit NICU with incubators full of tiny babies. They weigh him.
“Nine pounds, three ounces.”
My wife is a hero.
I watch my son’s chest rapidly expand and retract as the nurses work to stick leads on his body and secure a CPAP machine across his face. The nurses let me know that he is doing fine but his respiratory rate is about double what they want it to be. They are concerned with the possibility of infection because of the meconium and want to start antibiotics. They tell me now would be a good time to go give my wife an update.
I head back to our room and tell my wife what I know. After I give her the update, I bring my mother-in-law down to the NICU to see the baby.
His breathing has slowed down a bit but he is still working hard to breath. This is my first chance to touch him and talk to him. He follows me with his eyes.
I am not a stranger. He knows who I am. I fall in love.
A nurse, with a stern looking face, comes to talk to me. She tells me that they have sent blood cultures to the lab to check for infection but they need to start the antibiotics. They are having a hard time getting a vein so the need to go through his belly button. She tells me that I shouldn’t be here for that. I agree. She tells me that she will come to our room with an update in about five minutes.
I am sitting in the chair next to my wife’s hospital bed. Anxious because five minutes has turned into twenty. There is a quick knock as the door opens and the nurse practitioner enters the room.
“I’m just going to take a seat.”
She slowly walks across the room to the couch, sits, and lets out a sigh.
“We don’t always get to know why babies aren’t born healthy and happy. Obviously, you both could see that Jude was not doing well from the get-go…”
“He had a lot of trouble breathing right away and he just wasn’t responding the way that we like new babies to respond. We got him on the CPAP as soon as we could….”
My son is dead. I was just with him. He was alive and alert. Now he is dead.
“We sent blood cultures down to the lab to test for infection but, sometimes we just don’t get to know why babies aren’t healthy and happy when they are born. We did consider airlifting him to another hospital but we decided against that. Now, this isn’t due to anything that you did wrong during the pregnancy and it isn’t anything that the doctor or nurses did wrong during the birth.”
(This is completely true)
She pauses. My heart is beating so hard, I fear that I am going to faint.
I can’t cry. I can’t react. I need to take care of my wife. I get to cry later. I don’t get to cry now. Now I need to take care of my wife.
“With all that being said… your son is fine.”
You fucking bitch. What is wrong with you?
She continues on talking but I hear none of it. I want her to leave. I want her out of our room.
“No.” My wife and I say simultaneously.
As she leaves, we both break down into tears. It is awful.
“Did you think he was dead?” my wife asks.
“I knew he was dead” I say.
Shortly after, we move to our postpartum room. This is my wife’s first chance to see our son since the thirty seconds that he spent on her chest.
He has stabilized. His respiratory rate is slowing and he is in good shape despite what the grim reaper of a nurse lead us to believe.
I want to be clear, I do not think that the nurse that convinced me that my son was dead is a bad nurse. I believe she did a great job taking care of my son in the first minutes of his life. I also believe that she was careless (or maybe she is a sadist that took pleasure in seeing our faces turn white) in the way that she approached the situation and that is something that I cannot forgive.
The rest of our hospital stay was amazing. I could not have asked for my son to have more attentive and competent nurses at his side around the clock.
Less than 48 hours later, we were in our car on our way home. Sleet pelted the windshield as we drove toward our new life filled with all kinds of days.
Full of happiness and optimism (and a lot of fear), I drove my family home being sure to go no faster than five miles an hour under the speed limit. On our way to creating great memories and stories. While our first scary story faded in the rear view mirror along with the nurse and her terrible bedside manner.