The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit – a clinical cocoon of a womb for babies born too soon or too hard. For some families, it is a beautiful place. A site of unmatched miracles and grace. For others, it is a heartbreaking place. A place of pain and unconscionable loss. For all, it is a place that houses love and fear and absolute out of control situations and emotions. It is a place both holy and hellish, where innocence is taken to either heal or to die. It is a hellish ride through the holiest of holies.
The first time I entered the NICU to see my twin boys, I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. Didn’t know what I’d see. Had no idea how I’d feel once I did see them. Suffice it to say, the experience was overwhelming. I vomited. Partly from the anesthesia after-effects, but largely due to the emotions that surged through me. A storm surge of terror coupled with love. My boys were so tiny, so fragile. There were tubes and monitors and beeping machines everywhere.
After that initial chaos, I calmed down. I collected myself. It was then I registered my surroundings. Everything was hushed and dimly lit and deceptively serene, considering the delicate nature of the patients and their varied conditions. But definitely hushed and dimly lit.
It felt like a church. But holier.
Holier because it was full to bursting with innocence. Six rooms, called pods, full to bursting with pure, unblemished innocence. Innocence in birthday suits, tanning under lights, innocence bundled up to the eyeballs like cotton-swaddled ninjas, Innocence helmeted in CPAP masks and Velcro. Innocence with solitary, glowing pulse ox ruby slippers – and parents promising “There’s no place like home… there’s no place like home…so let’s get there.”
Now we were unbelievably fortunate. Our boys were born at 34 weeks 5 days. Preemies, yes. With battles, yes. But their battles were a far-cry from the wars that were being waged around them by their 24, 25, 26 week counterparts. Preemies crippled and broken and fragile and fierce.
Preemies fight hard. Famously so. They never cease to amaze the doctors and nurses and their parents. They are bony and brittle, but Lord have mercy, how they fight. They have butterfly wings for skin; they are thin and veined; there is tape pulling at their newness and needles piercing their perfection. Their surface is marred to save their soul. And goodness, how that soul fights.
Saving innocent souls. So not like church, after all.
But then, like church, the NICU is full to bursting with prayer. Prayer of all kinds. Prayer, well-practiced and well-formed, or haltingly hesitant. Prayer, desperately flung like a Hail Mary, last ditch effort to bargain for what feels like the impossible. But with God and love and miracles made all-the-more-routine through modern medicine, those Hail Mary’s are caught more than they’re dropped. All types of prayer form on the lips of preemie parents. We were no exception. We prayed, often. For our sons and for all of those preemies around them.
There are miracles in the NICU every day. More than one a day, 365 days a year. Against seemingly insurmountable odds. These smallest of warriors fight. They are so much stronger than their parents. The parents crack. We cry, we rant, we bargain and beg and rage and plead and cave. But these wee ones… they fight. Hard. And often – quite often – most often – 98-percent-of-the-time often — they win. So there are many, many, many miracles in the NICU.
And there is communion in the NICU. Hunger and thirst satisfied on a physical, spiritual, and emotional level. Flesh made perfect through the transformative powers of maternal biochemistry. Doctors and nurses encourage preemie moms to breastfeed — because in the NICU, breast milk is not just nutrition; it is medicine. With this most perfect food comes antibodies, anti-inflammatories, and other nutrients (like fatty acids, digestible proteins and stem cells) that can help power these infants through the gauntlet of bacteria and viruses that lay in wait. A mother’s body responds to any hostile environment around her infant, and adjusts her milk accordingly.
Breastfeeding my boys helped transform not just them, but me.The roller coaster of hormones and emotions that always comes with the postpartum experience was a hundred times harder and rougher with the NICU included in the mix. I was an absolute mess. I was stressed and depressed and fatigued. But the skin-to-skin bonding I felt through nursing helped ease my anxiety and exhaustion. Nursing my boys calmed my core and centered my soul solely on them: the smell of their skin, the tickle of their breath, the warmth of their weight. Their most perfect food was my most perfect therapy.
And Mike got in on the skin-to-skin communion, too, through kangaroo care. Watching him wrap his wide, warm arms around our tiny guys, seeing them snuggled safe against his chest, I saw him change. I saw his hard edges soften; his tough-guy exterior melt away. He was instantly putty in their pouty-lipped presence.
The NICU is a hellish place. It is hard and draining and demanding. It left Mike and me feeling defeated 90% of the time our boys were there. It was a place that tested our endurance and our strength — and fortunate for our family, we were only there for 6 days for one boy and 9 days for the second. What we went through was nothing compared to what some preemies and their parents go through. NICUs are hellish places full of unfathomable hurdles. But 98% of the time, they become miraculous places full of undeniable grace.
But what NICUs are most full of is babies — very, very special babies. Babies who fight like the dickens for their chance at life. This month, the March of Dimes campaign reminds our family of that distant battle we once waged and prompts us to give what we can to help current and future little ones — and the medical professionals who look after them– bring that miracle percentage up to 100%.If you can, won’t you please consider giving, too?
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