I wrote this birth story for a writer’s contest in a magazine. The topic was : Describe the best day of your life. And I did. But there were many days leading up to that day that were the worst days of my life. To revisit such an overwhelming moment in my life was much more emotional than I anticipated. My poor son, T. During breaks from writing this, I would find him minding his own business and interrupt him with a slew of hugs and kisses. He was not particularly impressed, and I left him alone, understanding his annoyance but feeling unfulfilled. How could I possibly express how much I adore him and how grateful I am that he overcame the odds against him? I’ve come to the conclusion that I will never show my gratitude enough. So I peck away at it everyday, smothering him with sappy displays of affection whenever I can corner him.
But I should go and post this now. My wonderful 5 year old T. is jumping up and down on my Aunt’s pristine white couch and yelling “Beach beach beach!!!”. Vacation time (otherwise known as time spent away from the computer) beckons. My wonderful boy. He is perfect, and fine, and I thank my lucky stars every day for his health and well-being.
During the nine months leading up to the birth of a woman’s first child, one would assume that the most wonderful moment of her life would happen the day her child was born. Of course, May 26th is the day we hoop and holler and celebrate my son’s birthday. And like every other mother on her child’s birthday, I sniffle and take pictures and wonder where my baby has gone. But my most life changing moment occurred eleven days after my first son was born. June 5th to be exact. That day, a day which still makes my heart skip a gleeful beat, was the day we were allowed to bring our baby boy home from the neonatal intensive care unit.
I had a fairly routine pregnancy after a fairly easy try at getting pregnant. As my belly grew, so did the stacks of pregnancy magazines and the number of bought-on-a-whim-because-it-was-so-darn-cute onesies. I experienced the miracle of hearing my child’s heartbeat patter away for the first time. I watched him tumble about during an ultrasound. He was healthy, he was growing well, he had ten fingers and ten toes. There was absolutely no reason to think there should be any cause for concern on the day of his birth.
On the evening of May 24th, weary and resigned, I hauled my then 60 pounds heavier bulk to bed. I gather the fist shaking towards heaven and demands for labor were heard; I awoke a few hours later with wet sheets and the full realization my baby was on his way. With a rush of adrenaline, my husband and I giddily made that middle of the night dash for the hospital. It was finally happening; we were going to meet our first born son.
Looking back, I often explain that the stars just weren’t aligned right that day. My son’s birth trauma resulted from a number of smaller factors which eventually culminated into one ill-fated outcome. The first possible factor may have had something to do with the weather. You see, it was raining outside. Pouring in fact, dumping huge cats and dogs like I’d never seen. Apparently there were two low pressure systems swirling over the state of Massachusetts. “Yup, I should’ve known” one nurse clucked next to me. “Low pressure systems bring babies”. And sure enough, that maternity wing suddenly filled to capacity with women in labor. It was also Memorial Day. Was the hospital fully staffed? It was hard to tell. Nurses and doctors, distracted and impossibly busy, scurried about. Women in various rooms hollered out and my disorganized labor pattern stumbled and hiccupped along.
As the day wore on and other mothers had their babies, I did not. The Doctor informed me that a c-section at 6pm was probably in the cards. My heart stopped, as if a c-section was the worst possible outcome. I looked to the nurses besides me. “Don’t worry, hon.” one whispered, “We’ll get you there. We’ll keep the Doctor distracted and see if this baby comes on his own”. She indeed stayed distracted and another star aligned itself. Sure enough, 6pm came and went.
To progress my labor, the nurses encouraged me to roll on my side. However, at one point, the heart monitor slowed and became erratic. Then it steadied itself. But those stars were lining right up, and my son’s fate was being determined in those very moments.
By 10pm, against expectations, I was fully dilated. And pushing! “What a head of hair!” the nurse declared. Oh, she could see him! Another nurse casually placed a blue cap on the warmer – he should be here at any moment…
And that’s about when fate showed its hand. That’s when they saw the meconium in the fluid. That’s when I spiked a fever. That’s when his heart rate plummeted and remained unchanged. That’s when the smiles stopped, the whispers started, nurses began to run around, papers were madly signed, my bed and I were unhooked and I was rushed into the O.R.
My son was born at 12:20am on May 26thby c-section. The final star slid into place – his cord was found partially wrapped around his neck. He was not breathing. They started CPR in the O.R. and whisked him away to the nursery where he was intubated. As I laid in the recovery room, I was given uneasy words of comfort and a haphazardly taken Polaroid picture of my son. My baby. He was not well. And so, around 2am, my boy was evacuated to Boston’s Children’s Hospital across town. My baby, who I had only seen briefly in passing, covered in tubes and monitors while the paramedics rolled him into the elevator, was not well at all.
The next morning, pediatric doctors said the words “Hypoxic-Ischemic Encephalopathy”. In layman’s terms, our baby had been deprived of oxygen for too long during delivery. And then the seizures started. His brain was wounded and it was reacting. We had to wait another week or more for the final prognosis. Under the enormous weight of this information, I was finally wheeled over to meet my child. There he lay. My son. His arms and legs drawn up to his side (“that’s a result of high muscle tone due to brain injury”) and he was completely still (“the anti-seizure medications will keep him deeply sedated for sometime”). I wanted to hold him. Very gingerly, three nurses transferred him and his accompanying tubes to my arms. He didn’t move. I stared at him. What had happened? I had a sudden desperate urge to ask the doctors if they could put him back inside. He was fine there. Nothing was wrong until they took him out. Just put him back! But I didn’t say a word. I cried some, though. My tears fell onto his face. And he still didn’t move.
Over the next eleven days, my husband and I spent every waking hour in that NICU. We learned about each tube, monitor, medication and testing procedure. We took an infant CPR class (breaking into frantic giggles as the instructor demanded that we yell “Baby! Wake Up!” to our plastic dolls). We began the process of signing up for early intervention and other services we might qualify for. Words like “Cerebral Palsy” were carefully mentioned – they were preparing us. Doctors, medical students and nurses shuffled about, nodding their heads, taking notes, and moving on. And the NICU, like some subdued casino, melted day and night together with its blinking lights and beeping sounds. It hissed and hummed and carried on, while fates were determined by the roll of the dice for each child that occupied bed after bed after bed.
On the morning of June 4th, I stared down at my beautiful son. By the grace of God, he was no longer intubated. In fact, he was in my arms, nursing. Move aside Einstein, my son had figured out how to suck and swallow. No doubt about it, he was brilliant. But I stared at him, concerned, rocking, waiting for another shoe to drop.
That morning, we had a round table meeting where test results and my son’s prognosis would finally be shared. My father and aunt were there, acting as our voices, while we sat in our own emotional stupors. Call it denial, but I was secretly hopeful. He was alert and moving in my arms, he was nursing, and he just felt well.
I don’t remember much about that meeting except for one important moment. Bow-tied and stern, the head neurologist began rambling various technical terms – but the nurse besides him started to smile. Was this good news? And then, Dr. Bow-tie looked up and said, “We do not use the word ‘extraordinary’ around here very often, but that is how I would describe your son’s recovery. His MRI only shows signs of ‘normal’ birth trauma now. He is free to be discharged.”
Call the mayor, call the newspapers, stop traffic, declare a holiday, gather a “rolling rally” parade and have the Boston Pops strike up a celebratory concerto. My son had recovered! The paperwork began while the nurses whispered; smiling about miracles. Our boy was going home the next day.
June 5thwas the day. The doctors did their rounds, final checks were made, prescriptions were written and we readied his car seat. And do you know what else? Our son was watching it all go on around him. I distinctly remember him following my husband’s bright red Red Sox hat move across the room and back. Our son really had recovered.
Later that morning, we gleefully fled the hospital grounds with our precious cargo unplugged from the NICU and on his way home. What had we gotten away with? At any moment I expected a call to return him, a mistake had been made, he needed more care. But I am not sure we could have turned around. Like high stakes thieves, we knew we had miraculously snatched our baby from a life of potential disability and struggle. Yup, thieves we were, a regular Bonnie and Clyde, laughing madly at the bullet we had just dodged. It was the most wonderful, exhilarating moment in our lives. So, finally, the stars had moved on and re-aligned themselves, designating something hopeful. Down I-95 we sped, where promising destinies were finally awaiting all three of us.