They laid her atop my chest immediately following the final push, and the midwife ceremoniously handed the scissors to my husband so he could sever the cord that had bound her to me. “Hello Lily,” I whispered. She cried feebly, and I cradled her close, kissing the top of her head and reveling in the raw and beautiful glory of the moment. The perfection of divine creation lay in my arms, and my heart soared at the incredibly sanctity of it all … this tangible nearness of heaven wrapped in the form of our newborn baby girl.
Within minutes though, these soaring emotions gave way to a difficult reality. Her skin was tinged blue, and she didn’t seem to be transitioning to life outside the womb as quickly as she should. Though she was crying, her cries were weak. The nurses took her from me and began rubbing her vigorously. My husband stood by her side … watching, praying. Please yell, I silently pleaded. Her cries strengthened, and her skin tinged pink as oxygen surged through her tiny body. The midwife tended me, and my husband wore a path between our daughter and my side.
Lily continued to slowly improve, but her pulse ox was low, indicating some respiratory distress. The nurses called NICU and my heart sunk. We’d been through this before; two of our daughters had been sent to the NICU after birth for brief observation due to respiratory issues, but I’d hoped and prayed we might avoid it this time. It was beginning to look like that wouldn’t be the case.
The NICU nurses arrived and began monitoring Lily’s vitals. My husband walked over, his face drawn. “They’re going to take her to NICU,” he said. I was heartsick; I wanted her cradled in my arms, not wheeled down the hall. “We’ve been through this before,” he reminded me. “She’ll be ok.” His words rung true, but logic doesn’t register with the longing of a mother’s heart.
“Go with her,” I urged him. “I’m fine here.” He walked off, following the tiny bassinet as it carried our little girl who had only moments before been tucked tightly inside. With the nurse keeping me company, I awaited his return and relaxed when I heard his footsteps echo outside the door. “How is she?” I asked. His face was solemn. “They’re admitting her,” he said. I don’t remember if I cried at his words; what I do know is I felt the caverns of a yawning emptiness grow.
Lily was still showing signs of respiratory distress, and the NICU nurses weren’t sure why. Although two of our daughters had shown similar respiratory issues after birth, theirs had remedied within a few hours on their own. This, however, was different. After the nurse finished with me, they transferred me to postpartum, and my husband quickly wheeled me to the NICU unit. He informed me that Lily was on oxygen and had a feeding tube, since it would be difficult for her to nurse. He navigated the maze-like hallways and then pushed me into her room; though it pulsed with light and the incessant rhythm of beeping monitors, it was hushed and sacred.
Lily slept soundly in her bassinet, supported by oxygen and a tiny feeding tube. At 9 pounds, 9 ounces, she was the biggest baby in the room. Her attending nurse came over to introduce herself and then gently told me that I couldn’t hold her just yet because they didn’t want to disturb her tubes. My heart lurched. This was not how I had envisioned this birth, but God had been so faithful; I would trust Him in this too. We stayed by her bassinet for more than an hour before we decided to try to get some rest. At this point it was nearing dawn. We returned to our room and fitfully tried to sleep for a few hours before waking and going straight back to NICU. This pattern of NICU – postparturm – NICU was one we would come to know well.
Later that morning, the hospital pediatrician made his rounds. He stopped by our room to introduce himself and talk about Lily. It was during that visit we learned that an X-ray had revealed that Lily had a small puncture in one of her lungs that was making it difficult to for her to breathe. As his gentle, patient words poured forth, I worked to catch my own breath and a number of worst-case scenarios and panicked questions passed through my mind. Would she need surgery? How long would she need to stay here? What does this mean for her future?
Her pediatrician graciously explained that the condition, officially called a pneumothorax, is when a bit of air escapes from the lung and gets trapped between the chest wall and the outer tissue of the lungs. Typically the condition heals on its own within a matter of days, and the body reabsorbs the air. Occasionally, babies may need to have the air released by needle aspiration. I was simultaneously shattered and relieved. The diagnosis was frightening, but her pediatrician seemed confidant that Lily’s lung would likely heal on it’s own. Only time could tell.
We returned to the NICU, this time getting to hold Lily, and my heart folded around her as my arms enclosed her. I could have never anticipated this turn of events, but I trusted God would heal her.
My mom arrived a bit later, bringing our younger preschool-aged girls. Having to explain to them that Lily wasn’t in our room shattered my heart again. Our two-year-old wasn’t allowed in the NICU, but my husband brought our four-year-old in to meet her. Shortly after we returned to our room, I pulled the two-year-old into my bed and wrapped my arms around her. Physically and emotionally spent, she and I both fell asleep.
Little by little, Lily seemed to be improving. Later that day, my mom brought all four kids to the hospital, and our oldest two walked reverently into the NICU and met their baby sister for the first time.
The hours passed slowly, and my husband and I made ourselves a permanent fixture by Lily’s bassinet. On Tuesday (just over 24 hours after her birth but what felt like days), the midwife gave me the option of being discharged or staying another day. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Lily, and I was feeling confident that she would be released to go home with me on Wednesday, so I requested to stay one more day.
Later that afternoon, Lily’s pediatrician stopped to inform us that she was progressing slowly, but well. My heart soared. He then asked if we were being discharged on Wednesday. When I replied yes, he very gently said, “I don’t think she’ll be going home with you.”
In that moment, I literally crumbled, and every facade of strength fell away. I couldn’t go home and leave my baby here. Though Lily was right where she needed to be at the time, the thought of walking out of that hospital with empty arms was agonizing.
To get Lily home, we had to get her off oxygen and the feeding tube, so that became the goal and our prayer. We’d shared Lily’s situation with close friends and family, and we felt buoyed by their prayers. The first time I nursed her, she had a difficult time, but the second time she latched immediately. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Meanwhile, we had to figure out a plan of action if I happened to be discharged before Lily. I needed to be available around the clock to nurse her, so going home wasn’t feasible. Thankfully, our NICU nurse suggested a room-in option that is reserved for low-risk NICU patients who are nearing discharge. Availability wasn’t guaranteed, but she assured me she would look into it.
As Wednesday dawned, I felt hopeful. If Lily had a bit longer to stay, there was a good chance we’d be staying with her. That same day, Lily stretched and yanked out her feeding tube. Since she was nursing well, the nurse agreed to leave it out. I was ecstatic; we were making progress! That afternoon, Lily’s NICU nurse confirmed that she was progressing well and they would indeed be moving her to Special Care. It was news worthy of a celebration! We wouldn’t be going home just yet, but we would be allowed to room-in with her!
I was officially discharged that evening, and my husband immediately moved us into Lily’s Special Care wing. They brought Lily up, still hooked up to a heart rate, pulse-ox, and respirations monitor but completely free of both the feeding and oxygen tubes. I could hardly wait to pull her out of her bassinet and sit and rock her in the privacy of our own room for the first time.
Pleased with Lily’s progress, the pediatrician discharged her on Thursday. The feeling of the warm sun on my face as we exited the hospital, with Lily wrapped snug in my arms is forever etched in my mind. We called ahead to let my mom know we were coming home but asked her not to tell the kids. It was a sweet surprise indeed when we opened the door and finally come home as a family of 7.
A FEW NOTES: Three months later, Lily is thriving, and her pediatrician has assured us that although a pneumothoraxrax can reoccur, the chance of that happening is exceptionally low. I pray that her experience of it is nothing more than part of her birth story. According to my research and conversations with pediatricians, no one really knows why a spontaneous infant pneumothorax occurs in an otherwise healthy infant. In fast deliveries like Lily’s, it is believed that the force of the initial breath causes an air sac to burst. If you have questions or you’d like more information about our experience, feel free to leave a comment.
Looking back, I realize Lily’s NICU stay was short and hers was a relatively low-risk condition (especially compared to other high-risk babies), but it was extremely difficult while we were in the midst of it. The experience gave me a new sense of respect and empathy for anyone who has ever had a child in the NICU, and it made me ever grateful for the tender work that NICU staff employees do day in and day out.
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