Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Post-traumatic stress: returning to the NICU

Today Christopher entered the NICU for the first time since he left there 13-1/2 years ago. And I cried.

His life and our family are being featured in a video for a fundraising lunch for the Legacy Emanuel Children's Hospital. Several weeks ago, the film crew interviewed me and Mike in our living room and filmed Chris at a music event one Saturday morning.

Today we returned to the hospital, the place where it all started:

I came on my own from work, and as soon as I left the parking lot and started walking toward the hospital, memories flooded my brain as the distinct smell of hops in the air infiltrated my senses. Did I recall the two subsequent childbirth experiences at Emanuel, one nearly 7 years ago and one 3-1/2 years ago? Vaguely. Did I recall the tragic night we were called to the hospital to sit with dear friends who had just lost their 4-1/2-year-old angel who suffered from a heart defect? Yes. Did I remember all the Family Advisory Board and Precious Beginnings meetings we attended at the hospital, or the pizza nights we've hosted there for current NICU families? No. But what really slammed into me was the 117 long days and nights we spent parking our cars and entering the hospital once or twice every day.

The other family being featured in the video has two surviving triplets who are 16 months old (12 months adjusted). One of the girls was only 360 grams! (Chris was 610 grams in 1996, and at the time, he was on the very edge of viability. He was the smallest baby around. In 1996, survival for a 360-gram baby was unthinkable.) The girls' sister lived for 90 days before she died. Somehow, even though the experience was much more fresh in these parents' minds and experience, and they lost a child in the NICU, they were able to appear on film with some of the nurses who took care of their daughters.

The NICU looks much different these days than when we lived there. Each patient area has a curtain that can be pulled around it to give families privacy. Each spot is labeled with an animal and a number. Amazingly, today the spot was vacant where Christopher lived for his entire stay on Level 3 (this in itself was a miracle--it was a common occurrence for parents to arrive and panic when they saw their baby missing from the usual space). We walked over to the empty spot, followed by the film crew, so I could show Chris where we waited by his bedside and how we studied the monitors for hours. I choked up. One of the nurses who was there in the resuscitation room with Chris (and who we know well through our volunteer work with Precious Beginnings) told him about how she spent a lot of time taking care of Mike, who was scared stiff about both his new baby and his wife.

Later we went into the beautiful children's garden (also not there 13 years ago) and the film crew interviewed Chris about himself and how he felt returning to the NICU. He seemed completely at ease in front of the camera.

The fundraising luncheon where the video will be shown will raise money for the new children's hospital. The new NICU will feature vastly more privacy for the babies and their families.

So much has changed--in the NICU and in our lives--in the past 13 years. But the smell of the hospital soap, the Emanuel atrium where we took lunch breaks, and the painful memories are still fresh. The only thing that saddens me about a friendlier, improved NICU in the new children's hospital is that we won't be able to visit the old NICU to remind ourselves of how lucky we all are.


  1. This post brings tears to my eyes too. Wonderful writing.

  2. Wow. That was beautifully written. Very powerful. I only hope our video can convey the same message as well. Thank you for letting us into your lives. We're privileged.