In PART ONE Heather gave birth to Madeline eleven weeks and a day premature. Things, despite our fears, seemed to be going well as Maddie was taken to the NICU…
Once I left Maddie behind in the NICU I looked into the waiting room and saw Maddie’s entourage – my parents, Heather’s parents, Heather’s aunts and uncles, Heather’s brother Kyle, her cousin Leah, even some of Heather and my friends. I smiled and strolled through the swinging door.
“She’s doing well!” I announced. “Three pounds one ounce!”
Not one person so much as looked at me. I stared at them in shock as they continued to chat away like I was invisible. After a second I cleared me throat and repeated, “She’s, uh, doing well…” Only then did someone say, “Oh, Mike!” It turns out that because I was clad in my face mask and scrubs, everyone assumed I was a doctor…a fact which pleased my mother to no end. Before too long everyone had surrounded me and was offering congratulations. The camera with Maddie’s first photos was passed around for all to see before Kyle took it and snapped a photo of me doing my best doctor pose (yes, my mom ordered a copy of it of Snapfish).
After a few minutes I went back to check on Heather who was still being worked on by the doctors. Before too long she was wheeled into recovery and a curtain was pulled around us for privacy. I showed Heather the photos of Maddie before telling her who was in the waiting room, and she seemed in good spirits. I then brought her parents, Kirk and Linda, back to see her and they celebrated Maddie’s arrival together.
Soon the nurse told us that we could move our things from Heather’s old room into her new one in post partum, so I went off to transfer our stuff. Luckily for me Leah and Kyle offered to do the job instead, so, after greeting Heather’s old friends and neighbors, Tara, Erin, and their Mom, Sheila, and after making a call to a couple of my friends with the news, I went back to be with Heather.
By this time the clock was ticking closer to six-thirty every minute, and, as Heather was given ice chips and medication to deal with the pain of her C-section, I could hardly contain my excitement about going back to see Maddie. Finally, it was time, so I left Heather and practically skipped down to the hall to the NICU.
Upon pushing through the doors of the NICU my heart sank. The basinet I last saw Maddie in was now surrounded by a host of doctors and nurses, and Maddie’s color, which had been a healthy pink, was now grey. Most disturbingly, she had been placed on a high powered respirator that gave her five hundred breaths a minute, and as a result her little chest vibrated violently. A doctor, upon becoming aware of my presence, came over and told me that Maddie had taken a turn for the worse and was having great difficulty breathing. Furthermore, x-rays indicated that she appeared to have some serious heart issues as well. The doctor then suggested we continue this conversation with Heather.
As I trailed behind the doctor en route to Heather in recovery, I felt like a fool for being so blindsided by all of this. Sure, Maddie had cried like a normal baby upon being born, and yes, the nurses had acted casual when I’d left the NICU like she was a normal baby, but I should have known better than to let myself believe she was a normal baby. Heather and I had been warned many, many times that premature babies like Maddie were in great danger even if they hadn’t had very low amniotic fluid, which Maddie had. I flashed back to our doctor warning us around 21 weeks that we should consider terminating the pregnancy because there was a great possibility that even if Maddie made it to viability (the earliest possible time a baby can be delivered and have a chance of survival), she would be very sick and very well might not make it. Heather and I decided then that we could not terminate the pregnancy even if it meant we might have to go through the hell of losing a baby, but I couldn’t help but wonder now if that was exactly what we were about to go through.
I pulled back the curtain in recovery to see Heather and Linda chatting away with happy expressions, and I felt sick knowing what the doctor was about to tell them. For the next few minutes the doctor spoke about Maddie’s situation, and this time she added that they were considering transferring her to the UCLA Medical Center because Maddie’s needs were beyond what they could care for at our present hospital.
Once the doctor left the mood in the room was very somber. Heather and I asked her Dad if he could go to the waiting room and tell everyone what was going on, and thankfully he agreed. We wanted everyone to know that we greatly appreciated their coming, but that in light of what was going on it was probably best that they go home.
The minutes that followed seemed interminable. We sat mostly in silence, scared and worried. Before too long the silence was broken by a hospital bed being wheeled into the room. It came to rest mere feet away from us on the other side of a curtain. Soon the cooing of a baby was heard, which was quickly followed by jubilant voices saying things like “He’s so beautiful!” and “Look at those little feet!” As laughter and the flashing of cameras echoed throughout the room from behind the curtain, I asked Heather’s nurse how soon Heather could be moved to her private room in post partum. The nurse said it wouldn’t be for at least another forty minutes, so Heather, her mother, and myself sat there in silence listening to this family celebrate the birth of their healthy baby.
Kirk soon came back in to tell me that my parents wanted to talk to me, so I went out to the waiting room. Upon seeing them I immediately broke down. My parents hugged me, and I did my best to compose myself and explain what was happening. They tried to be encouraging, but they were clearly worried. Other families we didn’t know were in the waiting room as well, and, as we discussed the details of Maddie’s situation, you could see people, one by one, stop their conversations and listen in with sad expressions.
I returned to Heather and learned that it had been decided Maddie would indeed be taken to the UCLA Medical Center so that she could be put on Nitrous Oxide, a powerful gas that would help her breathe. While we, of course, wanted Maddie to go wherever she had go to in order to get the best treatment, the one concern was for Heather. She had yet to see Maddie other than for that fleeting moment after she was born, and if Maddie was transferred Heather wouldn’t see her until she was released from her present hospital three days later. Heather’s nurse said that sometimes babies are taken to their mother’s room in post partum for a visit before being transported to another hospital, but UCLA’s transport specialist, who had arrived with a stack of legal papers for me to sign, vetoed that idea in light of Maddie’s condition. What we could do, however, was park Heather’s bed outside of the NICU so that she could get a quick glimpse of Maddie before she left St. Johns.
Heather was told, once her bed had been safely placed outside the NICU, that Madeline should be leaving the NICU in less than five minutes. Linda, Kirk, Kyle, Leah, and I joined Heather in waiting for Maddie to appear, and for some reason I felt like we were a group of paparazzi waiting for a celebrity to appear.
“Maddie! Over here! Maddie! Who are you wearing?”
Perhaps like a celebrity, however, Maddie kept us waiting. After ten minutes she still had not appeared, and a nurse eventually came out to tell us that it would be a little longer. We nodded and waited some more only to have the nurse re-appear again and tell us that the transport team was having trouble getting Maddie stable enough to leave the NICU.
The main problem in transporting Maddie, it turns out, was that the transport respirator only gave one hundred breaths per minute, and at that point it was taking the maximum setting of five hundred breaths per minute on this hospital’s most powerful respirator to keep Maddie alive. Whenever they would attempt to switch Maddie to the one hundred breaths per minute respirator Maddie’s vital numbers would plummet. We later spoke with a man who was on the transport team, and he told us that after about forty-five minutes everyone on the team sort of looked up and shared a frightened look that said, “How the hell are we ever going to do this?” What they ended up doing was hand-pumping Maddie’s lungs which, for some reason, worked.
Finally, an hour and fifteen minutes after we were told she would appear, the doors of the NICU were thrown open and four men pushed Maddie’s isolette past us. The lead man wore a vest that had “SECURITY” written on it and made sure no one got in their way as a man behind him frantically squeezed a pump connected to Maddie. Maddie looked impossibly tiny and oh so fragile as she disappeared through the swinging doors toward the ambulance.
Heather and I had decided earlier that I would follow the baby to UCLA while she, of course, had to stay behind to recover. Splitting up was hardly ideal, but we agreed that the most important thing was for one of us to be with Maddie, so I kissed Heather goodbye and headed off with my parents.
To be continued in PART THREE when Maddie is transfered to the UCLA NICU and faces her biggest challenges yet.