A Tribe Called Motherhood: My Time at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

Almost three years ago I experienced a level of fear I hadn’t known was possible. The 82 days following July 26, 2015 were the hardest of my life. This is the birthday of my baby boy, who was born at 26 weeks 1 day gestation—three months too soon. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Why did this happen to me? To him? I’ll never have the answers. My premature baby boy was considered a micro preemie because he was born prior to 27 weeks gestation. This is my story.

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Pain arose in my stomach the day before. I convinced myself it was gas. I went on with my day, dealing with bouts of pain, sometimes keeled over because it hurt so much. I went to bed early that night only to toss and turn in pain. When I awoke early Sunday morning, I used the bathroom and saw bright red on the tissue below. Thank God I stayed the night at my mom’s house in Brooklyn that weekend instead of at home alone in New Jersey. We got dressed and went to Methodist Hospital, the place my son was to be born in late October.

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The pains were contractions. Doctors hooked me up to machines and gave me medicine to help my son’s underdeveloped lungs. So much was happening in the delivery room: An incubator was brought in, a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit team walked me through what would happen once the baby came, papers had to be signed, my obstetrician arrived, all while I cried out that I didn’t want a premature baby. “It’s too soon,” I cried to Dr. Henry. He calmly said, “it is time, he can’t wait.”

At 4:40PM my nameless son plopped out of me still snuggled in his amniotic sac, weighing in at 1 lb 15 oz, just an inch longer than a ruler. He let out a small scream before going silent. The staff worked on him and he was rushed away. I didn’t get to look at him or touch him.

After being stitched up, taken to a recovery room, eating and resting for a while, I was finally able to see Baby Boy Woods. He didn’t have a name because I hadn’t decided on it yet. I thought I had plenty of time. Two days later we named him Jair Messiah. When sitting with Jair, there were moments of shame, guilt, depression, and dark thoughts about how life would be if he didn’t make it. What would I do? I scanned his section of the NICU and saw babies who rarely had anyone show up to see them, some with one parent, and some with both mom and dad.

“He didn’t have a name because I hadn’t decided on it yet. I thought I had plenty of time.”

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Bonding
Photo courtesy of Amma Woods

For 82 days, Jair’s father never stepped foot in the hospital. He was afraid. He said he couldn’t handle seeing him so small and hooked up to machines like that. To this day I am angry at him for that selfish choice.

How did I survive life as a NICU mom without losing my mind? I knew I had to survive this if I wanted Jair to thrive and make it out of there. My tiny baby could feel my energy when I sat next to his incubator and spoke to him. I resolved to only let him hear and feel happy thoughts. Moments when I felt tears welling in my eyes for whatever reason, I would excuse myself and go into the bathroom. Once done, I’d come back, place my personals in a Ziploc bag, scrub my hands clean and reenter feeling refreshed and ready to start over again.

Close family and friends came to see Jair during that first difficult week. I longed to hold him—something most mom’s do immediately after giving birth.

Jair could not be held because he was intubated and that was a rule. Exactly a week after being born, I was finally given permission to hold my baby boy. They switched him from intubation to being on a mechanical ventilator. That first week, I spoke only to family and close friends. To the right and left of us were premature babies who were born at 34 and 36 weeks. Both weighed more than 5 pounds and, in some ways, I envied them and their parents. Why would they put my miniature baby in between these giants? This isn’t fair.

“Exactly a week after being born, I was finally given permission to hold my baby boy.”

Two weeks after giving birth, I returned to work on a modified schedule. It included hospital visits before, during, and after work, often through the wee hours of the morning. Parents, students, and colleagues often asked how Jair was and my response was “he’s a warrior and he’s fighting a good fight,” never giving many details. About two and a half weeks in, I mistakenly made eye contact with the mom diagonally across from me and she smiled. I smiled back although I didn’t really want to. I felt guilty around her. She was always at the NICU when I arrived and when I left. The father also came from time to time…Why her and not me?

Mom & Son
Photo courtesy of Amma Woods

This woman spoke to all the nurses. She was too friendly, if you ask me. I didn’t want friends! Amid a jealous line of thought one day, someone’s voice cut in to ask—“how’s your little one doing?” It was this woman, of course. I gave her my generic response and she agreed that Jair was a fighter. She began to tell me how well he was doing based on observations during her visits. I softened. I felt freer than I had since the day we entered the NICU. I felt relief once able to truly express myself to someone who knew firsthand what it felt like. We both knew what it feels like to plan for everything to go right and have no say when things go wrong.

And so, this exchange that I didn’t want to have, which I actively avoided for almost three weeks, developed into something special: a friendship. 

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I learned that Hilary gave birth to a baby girl at 27 weeks gestation due to preeclampsia. I shared that I had a normal pregnancy until the day I felt pain. It was determined that I had a placental abruption although doctors couldn’t determine what caused it to happen. There was a respect that I had for my friend, who had been there 5.5 weeks prior to me. She taught me that there is value in being vulnerable and letting people in, that building a network of peers when dealing with such a traumatic experience is necessary!

We began to talk regularly about how her baby girl was doing as well as Jair. She introduced me to other mothers she spoke to. I eventually began engaging with the other mothers in our room, who shared their struggles and whatever obstacles their babies had to overcome.

Trust was established. Phone numbers were exchanged for contact outside of the hospital. The breast pumping room became a sanctuary for us to take a few minutes away from our babies, sit in our curtained areas while pumping and talking about producing enough milk to keep up with our tiny, growing babies’ demand, healthy strategies to increase milk supply, health scares such as baby fighting an infection or needing a blood transfusion, baby graduating to CPAP and then going back on a ventilator, best spots in the neighborhood for a quick meal, friendly and gentle nurses versus the not so friendly, milestones our babies were hitting based on their individual needs and timeline—this is what we discussed on a regular basis.

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Photo courtesy of Amma Woods

As time progressed, conversations became more intimate and concluded with an occasional hug and vows of support for one another. It gave me peace to know that I had a community of people who experienced the same pain and fear that I had but were also able to help me see the light shining at the end of the tunnel. We were NICU mamas who inadvertently developed a bond, helping us all get through our most difficult time. We were listening ears, shoulders to cry on, up lifters, and texting buddies.

As some began to leave and take their babies home, I knew there was hope for Jair no matter what challenges he faced. Watching moms come in, say their final farewells and take baby home was always cause for celebration. Sometimes, it led to internal jealousy about when my turn would come. In September 2015, my first and closest friend texted me that she would be taking her princess home the next day. I called and congratulated her, hung up the phone and cried both happy tears and tears of sadness. I would be the last one in our group left behind. I would miss Hilary’s words of wisdom and love! Our room was filled with new babies and families, most of whom did not stay for long because they were premature by a few weeks and required minimal care.

“We were NICU mamas who inadvertently developed a bond, helping us all get through our most difficult time.”

Hilary and I vowed that when we departed from the unit and went our separate ways we would always stay connected and raise our babies as friends. They would grow up knowing their stories of strength and resilience. We would tell them the story of how they once resided together as babies. After leaving the unit, Hilary and I both checked on each other and sent pictures of our growing babies. We talked from time to time about Iona’s progress at home, milestones Jair hit while in the hospital, and we both asked and answered each other’s questions.

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As Jair’s time for departure approached in October 2015, Hilary and I talked about pediatricians. She found a great one who was a former NICU doctor. I immediately called the office, and so our kids also share the same great doctor. We find great joy in sharing reports with each other on the progress our babies (now toddlers) have made over time.

To this day, we meet periodically for sing along classes, play dates at home, water sprinklers and ice cream, brunch dates and talking therapy. We have both learned a lot from each other and shared memorable moments throughout the years. As my friend prepares to relocate to Vermont this July, we have already arranged for us to visit them later in the summer.

I am so grateful for the eye contact made on that lonely day which morphed into a lifelong friendship for both myself and my son.

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Photo courtesy of Amma Woods

On October 16, 2015, Jair’s final day at the NICU, a mom was wheeled in to finally meet the baby she birthed at 26 weeks gestation; she had an empty look in her eye as she stared at her tiny baby nestled in his incubator. She locked eyes with me, I smiled and walked over. I introduced myself and allowed her to meet my miracle baby who was born at 26 weeks. I assured her that God works miracles, even though the journey would be filled with bumps. I shared how NICU mamas helped keep me sane and grounded and encouraged her to be receptive to developing an internal support system. We said a prayer and I wished her well. I hope she found peace on her journey at the NICU.

Life as a NICU mama has forever changed me. It made me stronger and greater!★

 

Jair's 2nd birthday.jpgAmma Woods is a Program Manager with the Department of Youth and Community Development. She’s fulfilling her passion of providing support and guidance to youth programs across the New York City area. She plans to return to the non-profit sector to have greater impact and a closer connection to program development. She lives in New York City, and is a single mom to her two-year-old son.

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