The experience will be forever burned into my heart and soul. It was incredibly painful, scary, and difficult. Having a NICU baby is something that no parent can plan for. No parent is prepared.
These words are hard to write.
But it would be harder not to write them, knowing that I can help someone else going through something similarly heart-wrenching.
Some of you may have a baby in the NICU right now. Others might not have a NICU baby, or any babies for that matter, but may be going through some rough spots in life.
This message is for you too.
This is for everyone.
I remember clearly the phone call from my nearly 33-week pregnant wife on that mild late October afternoon.
Her blood pressure was rising, just slightly, and she needed to have some tests done at the hospital. Nothing too scary but she was pretty upset, knowing that our son’s birth kept us in the hospital for nearly a week due to similar issues. She said I was fine to stay at the office and go to my class that night but I knew better.
I headed straight for her.
Three uneventful days passed with only slight raises in her blood pressure. Doctor’s visits, seeing the Maternal Fetal Medicine doctor, and other cautionary measures were taken. But we couldn’t go home.
Friday night her blood pressure continued to rise and the doctor said it was time to have the baby. They reassured us that babies this far along are usually very healthy.
Yet who couldn’t help but be afraid?
Just a few hours later, around 10:00 pm, our sweet little daughter was born via emergency c-section.
I waited for the usual newborn screams as that is often the hardest part for these little ones. When they came I was very relieved.
Little did I know the rollercoaster was only beginning.
That night she was stable and doing well with not too many tubes and attachments. Yet it was enough to bring tears to our eyes and hearts as we saw her. The next day was more of the same, routine tests and some good news about her breathing improvements, among other progress.
Then Sunday came.
Bilirubin lights (no blankets, limited holding), additional antibiotics because some swelling was noticed (a possible sign of infection), and she was back on the breathing assistance.
I was devastated.
I had my hopes up on Saturday and then they were shattered.
I knew it wasn’t that serious. Yet after all we’d already been through it was too much. I was very emotional most of the day but mostly kept it to myself. Something inside me knew that my sweet little girl would be okay but I was consumed by worry and fear.
Eventually I let the natural feelings of grief and pain flow without resistance.
Then I remembered what I’d recently read from Dr. Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism, a psychological principle my wife mentioned I should study when I was experiencing suffocating depression just months previous. It had helped with the depression, so I thought why not try with this.
There are three “automatic thought” patterns that we experience whenever anything difficult happens in life that lead to feelings of pessimism and depression:
- Permanence (life will always be this difficult, or this will be permanent)
- Pervasiveness (everything about my life is falling apart, nothing is good)
- Personality (it’s all my fault, I am a terrible person)
If you pause to look at whatever you are going through right now, you may notice your thoughts trending in these directions. I learned that this was the core of my depressive thoughts.
It was also the core of what was driving the pain and fear of losing my sweet little girl.
So I wrote in my journal about the converse of the negative automatic thoughts I was experiencing as I let the feelings of pain and disappointment flow naturally.
- Permanence- My daughter will not be here forever. This nightmare willend.
- Pervasiveness- I have a beautiful life with many aspects to it. This does not mean that I cannot succeed in work, spirituality, physical health, or any other effort. Even if I did need to hold back from working on those goals for a time.
- Personality- This was not my fault! I did nothing to deserve this and it has nothing to do with my character.
These principles and acknowledging them through writing did not make the pain and grief and suffering disappear immediately.
But it all got better from there.
I also happened (not by chance, I firmly believe) to be reading another book at the time called QBQ! The Question Behind the Question. In the book, John G. Miller explains that whenever something goes wrong in life our most common reaction is to ask why:
What did I do to deserve this?
We can instead ask the what or how questions:
What can I do to improve the situation?
How can I make this better?
Which allow us to begin the path out of our difficult situation much sooner and much more easily.
The one caveat that I add, with experience now, is that self-compassion must be added as we ask these questions. It is imperative that we let ourselves feel the feelings associated with loss, grief, and pain, asking the what and how questions when we’re ready.
So I began to ask myself and my wife the what and how questions, when we were ready, after we were out of the hospital and visiting our daughter still there. Leaving the hospital without a baby is hard, but when we knew that it would not be permanent it became significantly easier. We asked many questions and learned everything that would help our daughter make it home both healthy and quickly.
Over the next couple of weeks, our little girl improved rapidly.
She took to eating a bottle very quickly.
She ate more than double what she normally was eating in one sitting only a few days after starting on the bottle.
She amazed everybody with her fierce diligence to learn to eat and grow.
And in just a little over two weeks (long weeks for us) she surprised everyone and was able to come home.
We brought our daughter out of the hospital that day.
But we also brought resilience.