When life in the NICU becomes the norm
As I drive through the parking garage, I head straight for the fourth floor, because that is where I know I’ll find parking, and I realized that this has become yet another norm of my daily routine. A daily routine that is far from the norm for most parents.
We are now well into our sixth week of life in the NICU; going on nine weeks since our lives were turned up side down and the hospital became a second home for us. It has gotten to the point where I know many of the hospital staff, from nurses and doctors, to housekeeping and food service workers. The guys who work the booth in the garage seem to recognize our car and van when we approach. I know where the vending machines and bathrooms are on several of the floors and I could probably walk the route from the garage to the two different NICUs blindfolded (I do so most days half asleep). I know which days are the busiest (usually Mondays) and which days are the quietest (Sundays are like a ghost town). I know the hours of the coffee shops and cafés and have seen the daily specials rotate through their line up several times (the raviolis are good, but they don’t give you enough for the price). Many people at the hospital know me too, not my name, but by face. They smile or say hi as we pass in the halls, some even stop to ask how the baby or my other boys are. It is clear that I spend a lot of time here.
My days usually consist of visits for several hours during the morning until mid afternoon, at least six days a week. During the work week, I’m usually to the hospital by 9:30 or 10:00 (every once in awhile I’m so exhausted that I can’t get out of bed and come a little later). I’m usually in my son’s room for rounds. I’m there for one to two feeds a day, skip lunch so I can be with him, and then grab an ice tea for the ride home, which can be a long one if I don’t leave before 3:00 since traffic in the area starts that early. On weekends, I often come in a little later so that my husband and I can try to catch up on some sleep by taking turns going back to bed in the morning. On weekends I don’t have to worry about getting out before a certain time because of traffic or my kids coming home from school, so I have a little more flexibility. For the most part, I try to plan my visits around school schedules and NICU feelings so I can be with my kids as much as possible.
What I do during my visits to the NICU has changed with time. At first I would just come and sit near the isolet, watching my son breath with the help of machines, occasionally touching his tiny body through a porthole. I just wanted to be near him, in the same room as him. After a week or so, I was finally able to hold him for small amounts of time. I would take great joy in any small motherly activity that I was able to do, like change an occasional diaper through the porthole. I savored the small amount of time I was able to hold him close to me, skin to skin. Eventually some of the tubes and leads were taken out and he was transferred to an open air crib in which I could touch him in and pick him up out of without as much fuss. I went from waiting for a nurse to come in and help me with all the motherly activities I was able to do, to mothering on my own.
These days, I come in, wash my hands, check his current weight on the board, and go about my business. Lately he has been propped on his belly, bare bottom in the air, being sunned under a light due to a very sore bum thanks to the human milk fortifier that they add to his regular breast milk. When he isn’t in this position though, I help myself to my baby. I check his body temperature, change his diaper, wrap him in blankets, and move cords so I can hold him. When it is time for feedings, I just go a head and start if I’m going to try to breast feed him, knowing he will only take a few milliliters and that it is mostly just practice for him. I’m a pro with the breast shield and positioning, holding him just right so that he will relax his jaw enough to allow the nipple in. On days that I’m going to practice bottle feeding, I get everything set up before the nurse comes in to mix up the milk. When she does come in, I know what questions to ask, both professionally about my baby and socially, about her day off or family. I know the best positions to hold him in to bottle feed, how many sucks he takes before he needs a breath, when he needs to burp, and how to get him to. I also know when he has had enough and it is time to finish the feed through his tube. I sit with him, skin to skin, allowing him to sleep comfortably for the rest of the feed. When the feed is done and the machine begins to ding, I know how to turn it off and disconnect him from it.
I know the names of his nurses and doctors, the names of the machines and procedures, what each ding means and which cords to check when they sound, which supplements he is on, and where to find any extra supplies I might need while I am there. These things have all just become a part of my everyday routine, a part of my norm. These things are all just part of life in the NICU. A life I’m ready to be done with.