Sunday, March 2, 2008

Trauma, trauma everywhere

Hey all, Z. was born at 2:02 am on March 2, 2005. Seventy-five hours.

I'm gonna write youall a cheery "Now we are three" birthday party kind of post, but you'll have to come back for it tomorrow.

That day, her very first birthday, was the worst day of my life and A.'s, so far. The celebration, the amazement of her arrival, the jubilant end of the long labor nightmare, that sense that we had arrived at the far shore and could triumphantly collapse in its safety: that all lasted 20 minutes, until Z. passed out at my breast while her footprints were being taken.

After they took her from me, after they resuscitated her, after I had reached my hand into the isolette to say goodbye, after they wheeled her from the room and I didn't know where in the hospital the NICU was, after the door closed behind her, what I thought was: "so much for that pregnancy."* Not even "so much for that baby," because I hadn't held her long enough for her to seem real to me, really outside me.

For the first five days of her life, Z. was attached to machines and sedated to the point that initially her eyes rolled back in her head. This was all because of the misdiagnosis (seizure) that was offered to explain her agonal breathing. The breathing trouble was clearly was life-threatening, but it just as clearly ended with no lingering effects. A partially obstructed airway was what she actually had, and a correct diagnosis would have meant no need for a level 3 NICU. But a seizure diagnosis did mean a level 3 NICU, and that meant Z. left the hospital where I birthed her, and seven hours before the earliest moment I was permitted to release myself.

NICUs save lives, I'm totally clear on that, but my baby's life and health were never in danger while she was in a NICU. Maybe that's why I'm also totally clear that NICU's are in the business of separating you from your child and they believe it's for your child's own good, so they set out to convince you of the same thing at the moment when you are least confident of your ability to parent or your identity as a parent, if this is your first pregnancy, and your body is yearning, physically aching to be with your baby.** It is a godawful way to begin parenting. The hospital has your child, and the hospital decides the hoops that must be jumped before your child is given back to you, and the hospital doesn't always tell you what those hoops are, and the hospital reserves the right to change the hoops without bothering to tell you they've been changed until days later, and the nurses call you "Mom" like that word means you're four years old.

I frequently make the Freudian slips "when Z. died," or "Z.'s death" when I am talking about something that happened at Z.'s birth. That was what it felt like. Being home with my wrecked body and my wrecked emotions and no baby and no real idea when I would have the baby, leaving the hospital without her day after day, she began to recede from me just the way she vanished from me when the isolette left the labor and delivery room. I was sort of stupefied that relatives were celebrating this event that felt like a trainwreck to us.

My best friend was my hospital grade breast pump, and I sort of mean that non-ironically. Pumping gave me a way to feel like I was connected to Z, even when she wasn't being permitted to drink it yet. It was something I could do as a mom when we weren't with the baby, it organized my hours and my days, it was measurable. I could see I was getting better at the lactating thing, at least, and I could even control it to some extent, with fenugreek tea and massage to get my let-down going, though the pressure to keep up with hospital feeding protocols during the three days Z. was transitioning to breastmilk threatened my sanity more than anything but the initial separation.

When the nurse said "Mom? There's a problem with your breastmilk," moments before the protocol was set to start and Z. was going to have my milk for the first time, you can imagine how hard I hit the roof. When it was all untangled, it turned out that some other baby's urine tested positive for marijuana, but that baby's sample was labeled with Z.'s name. (The clincher in our favor? That urine sample didn't test positive for barbiturates. Which it should have. If it were Z.'s.)

I wouldn't say that moved me from disintegration to ferocity, because I was still plenty disintegrated, but it at least let me understand that I could dredge up another response to the circumstances. And the circumstances permitted more responses: once she was fully on breastmilk, the wires and electrodes started disappearing. We started asking the doctor and PA who knew us best what it was the staff was looking for to feel comfortable releasing Z. to us. While the answers still shifted around some, they all focused on X or Y staying the same as the barbiturate left her bloodstream.

But really the answer lay elsewhere, because in the end, the unit, which had been half-empty when Z. was admitted, started to fill up again, and someone saw no reason for a normal, sedated baby to be there when there were quads and twins arriving on the same day. Z. left the hospital at one week old with clinical levels of phenobarbitol still in her system, a drug that had last been given to her five hours after her birth.

My mother returned to stay with us Z.'s first days home, and when the baby cried in the night, the next morning she told us what a relief it was to hear it. And it was.

*At the time I had that thought, the pregnancy wasn't, in fact, over, because the placenta was still inside me. After 75 hours my labor shut down prematurely. You know how in childbirth class they tell you that your body's adrenaline can stop or slow labor? Well, even with the Pitocin drip in my arm opened all the way up, I wasn't having another contraction. While we waited to hear word about Z. from the NICU, my midwife extracted the placenta manually.

Beats twiddling your thumbs.

**Which is not a particular yearning that you get back when the kid turns three. Alas.


Jody said...

I'm so sorry, S.


[Elba was released because I had a temper tantrum in a crowded room.]

jo(e) said...


kathy a. said...


elswhere said...


susan said...

Thinking of you: (0)

E. said...

It's awful that Z.'s birthday has to be experienced as also, in some sense, a death. Love you.

(un)relaxeddad said...

That's a very difficult testimony to read. I can't begin to imagine how horrendous that whole situation must have been.

Superlagirl said...


Furrow said...

Happy birthday to Z. May each passing year weaken the pain of those horrifying first days.

Co said...

My dad commit suicide on April Fool's Day, of all days. I'm sure he wasn't paying attention to what day it was. But it was a hard anniversary for me for many years, partially because it's a day that can't go by without someone playing a silly prank or doing something to remind me of what fricking day it is. And I used to think, "Yeah, I think I've been shocked and surprised enough for a lifetime of April Fool's Days. You can just leave me alone, please."

I have been able to take that day back, however. The first year I did that, I ran a race called the Backwards Mile (you run a full mile backwards and try not to fall over) and then had brunch with a friend afterward. That friend did not know that it was the anniversary of my dad's death, so it was nice to sit there and chit-chat and eat omelettes while knowing that the person across from me had no idea that I was trying to start a new tradition of making good memories on a difficult day.

I know the trauma surrounding Z's birth is not something you can ever forget. But maybe, as more and more years go by and you watch Z. enjoy celebrating her birthday, you will be able to build good associations and memories for that day, too.


S. said...

Thanks, all, for reading and, oh, witnessing, I guess.

Welcome, Superlagirl! I hope you come again when I'm a little cheerier, too.

Jody, you know this better than anyone else I've talked to about it. NICUs should be on the leading edge of understanding what newborns need, which is to be in a family, not a plastic bin, and they just don't get it.

S. said...

Co, I put my response to your comment on the main page. But the hugs are gratefully accepted and returned.

Uccellina said...

I had my twins the day after you wrote this post, and they languished in NICU for two weeks until I threatened to sign them out AMA. The next day, surprise surprise, my son was pronounced fit to go home, and my daughter the day after that.

S. said...

Uccellina, I gather you found me via Phantom. Welcome, and I am so sorry you're part of this maternal fraternity.

I totally had the fantasy of throwing that fit, but what stopped me was the terror of getting stuck with the bill by our insurance company if they had an excuse to deny us. Z.'s bed alone, never mind a single test, cost more than A.'s take-home pay for that year and I wasn't employed (she's a public school teacher.)