Christopher, 24 x 24!

Naïve pregnant me, traveling to Alaska one week before you were born

Twenty-four years ago this morning, your life began with a huge question, percentages, and dire predictions:

The question, posed to us by my obstetrician after I went into premature labor and she saw that the membranes had been ruptured and you were breech and tiny: 

"You have a choice. You could deliver naturally and the baby would die, or you can deliver by emergency c-section and the baby would have a 50 percent chance of survival...and any future babies would need to be delivered by c-section."

I didn't even wait for your dad's opinion. I immediately said I'd have the surgery. 50 percent or nothing? No hesitation. (Later I would learn Dr. Weaver was surprised I made that choice...I'm sure she thought you would die.)

The medical team sprung into action, transporting me by ambulance to Legacy Emanuel. Your dad followed behind the ambulance, and I didn't see him again until I woke up in the recovery room. He told me you were alive, you were a boy, and you were tiny: one pound, six ounces and eleven inches long. But very much alive.

They wheeled me into the NICU on a stretcher to see your tiny, glistening, red, and rapidly vibrating body. You were hooked up to a high-frequency ventilator that made you shake. It was terrifying, but I was so relieved you were alive. I didn't know one thing about having a premature baby. I had no idea of the terrain or the dangers. I have always preferred hope to despair, so I clung to that hope.

...until the next day, when one of the neonatologists came to see me in my hospital room and give me more dire percentages:

"The next two days are critical. There's a 50 percent chance he could die, and if he lives, he has a 50 percent chance of major disabilities." 

After surviving the first set of odds, now you were faced with two more. Looking back, now I realize that all the doctors must have thought I was completely naïve. 

Well, you showed them all. 

Here are some of the vivid memories that rise to the top of my mind during this birthday remembrance:

  • Learning you were the sickest, smallest baby in the NICU for at least a month until two more 24-weekers were born

  • Remembering the devastating moment we had to leave the hospital without you for the first time

  • Being absolutely glued to the monitor and watching your oxygen saturation and other numbers

  • Washing our hands thoroughly and never forgetting, even now, that smell of hospital soap

  • Being surrounded by so many flower bouquets in my hospital room and later at home, realizing many people sent flowers because they didn't think you would survive, and being grateful for the first actual baby gift!

  • Singing to you, every single day, and making a tape of us singing that the nurses could play when we were not there 

  • Sitting by your bedside, writing in our journal

  • Making a poster and buying a balloon for your isolette to celebrate each week of your survival

  • Insisting to the NICU staff that we be able to read your medical chart, which we did every day (back then, this was not typically done)

  • Making strong bonds with some of the nurses and learning that your favorite nurses requested to be assigned to your care

  • Pumping huge quantities of breast milk several times a day, and that first day about a week in when you started receiving my breast milk in tiny drops through a nasogastric tube (through your nose) the time, visiting and breast pumping felt like the only things we could do to help...

  • Feeling terrified when you had your first surgery, on your heart, when you were still less than two pounds...

  • Coming in one morning to hear your nurse say "What are they saying about that hernia?" and learning you'd have to have another surgery (you'd have three total before you were five pounds)

  • Watching you so gradually grow and gain weight, because you were using all of your energy just to stay alive

  • Coming in one morning to learn that our favorite night nurse, Lorraine had dressed you in clothing for the first time and taken a photo of you

  • Seeing one of the nurse practitioners, Alyce, kiss your forehead one day after you'd survived a bad few days and realizing she was your first kiss...I'd been too terrified to kiss you!

  • Holding you for the first time when you were five weeks old, and then after that, doing kangaroo care (skin to skin) with you

  • Recalling the worst two days in the NICU for me, when you had kidney damage, cerebral edema, and low flow to the brain and the neonatologist called a care conference to tell us you'd be horribly brain damaged for life and that we needed to discuss quality of life

  • Seeing "Normal Head Gettel" next to your bedside the next day, and learning you had a "normal" head ultrasound and would survive another crisis

  • Going off the ventilator shortly after that crisis and seeing your beautiful face for the first time!

  • Going back on the ventilator again because preemies' journeys are roller coasters!

  • Being called into the NICU a few weeks later because you had a serious infection and seeing a team of 10 people gathered around your bedside trying to save your life...your dad's most fearful day

  • Coming into the NICU one day to learn that one of my least-favorite nurses had given you your first bath, even though she knew what time we were coming in to see you

  • Giving you "your first bath" again the next day, arranged by your favorite nurses who realized how important this first ritual was to us

  • Moving to Level 2, where we had less nursing care and took more responsibility for your care

  • Watching other babies and families we'd come to know, including the two younger 24-weekers, go home before us

  • Oh, the excruciating eye exams, when they would stretch your eyeballs out with this tiny device to examine the progression of your retinopathy of prematurity disease! 

  • Battling with the neonatologist, supported by our new pediatrician Dr. Bengtson, to be able to take you home before Christmas 

  • Spending the night in the room off the NICU ("rooming in") to practice taking care of you

  • Taking you home, finally, after 117 days, with a five-foot-tall oxygen tank and a ton of medications, and you hooked up to an apnea monitor, laptop computer (for a medical study), and oxygen

  • Being able to hold you AS MUCH AS WE WANTED without having to ask permission!
  • Being terrified you would stop breathing in the middle of the night, even though you were connected to the apnea monitor

  • Celebrating your first Christmas at home with us!
  • Making everyone wash their hands vigorously when they came to visit and being terrified you would get sick because we knew an older preemie who went home, got respiratory synctitial virus (RSV), and did not survive

  • Taking you for walks, connected to a portable oxygen tank
  • Feeling incredible freedom after you went off oxygen and the laptop computer study, and we could take you anywhere in the house without being connected to anything!

  • Getting vomited over, several times a day, when you developed serious reflux
  • Learning from a neurosurgeon that you had a rare arteriovenous malformation in your brain and he advised brain surgery or you could have a stroke, and asking if we could wait six months and repeat the MRI just to make sure
  • Deciding not to share this news with people because we wanted them to be hopeful

  • Repeating that MRI six months later and learning the arteriovenous malformation was gone! Yet again, you defied the odds...and I realized how valuable my instincts were!

  • Feeding you lots of avocado and food with oil to make you gain weight and fearing the dreaded "failure to thrive" because it hurt you to eat and you threw up so much

  • Taking you out in public (to church) for the first time on Mother's Day, six months after you came home, and you and I both crying that afternoon because you didn't want to eat anything (your poor tummy hurt) and I was terrified you were not gaining enough weight!

  • Planning a glorious baptism celebration of your life, attended by "Christopher's angels," many of our beloved nurses
  • Attending your godparents' wedding soon after, my sister Nadine and her wonderful husband David

  • Celebrating your first birthday with a big party in Laurelhurst Park and taking you to the zoo for the first time

  • Feeling always and ever grateful that your dad and I were completely united through the biggest challenge of our lives, and seeing our marriage grow stronger as a result
I remember far more details of first year of life than those of your brothers, mostly because your milestones were so significant and long awaited. 

Even though you were a complicated, high-tech baby and most long-term NICU babies have difficulties adjusting when they go home, you had the sweetest, most easy-going disposition imaginable. 

Even though you had cerebral edema and low flow to the brain (similar to a stroke), you did not suffer from a brain bleed. 

Even though you had to be admitted to the hospital with serious scary pneumonia and RSV one year after leaving the NICU, once again you were able to come home for Christmas (photo below). 

Even though you had some developmental delays as a small child, you learned to read early and you escaped so many of the invisible issues preemies often face. 

Even though you didn't talk until you were three years old, once you started talking we realized how smart you were. 

Even though you developed epilepsy in third grade and freaked us out with a grand mal seizure, you grew out of it as an adolescent. 

Even though I would never wish the NICU experience on ANYONE, through the experience we learned to value life and miracles and we also made some of the best friends of our lives in other NICU parents.

From birth, you have adored music and are a walking musical encyclopedia. You are the most forgiving person I know, filled with a capacity for kindness and compassion that cannot be measured. You cherish your family and friends and you love life. I've always believed that preemies have a wisdom beyond their years, as if you've known since birth that life is precious and not to be taken for granted. 

I'm so proud of you for earning your college degree and finding someone wonderful to share your life with. I am eternally grateful to be your mom, that you've taught me more about life and miracles than anyone else, and for doing everything in your power to survive and thrive. My constant prayer and mantra for you as a tiny baby was "GROW." You've continued to grow as a person, becoming a wise, loving, enthusiastic, hard-working, funny, and engaged young man. 

At your grad party with two of your NICU nurses

(Black and white photos by Kendra Joy Photography)

Happy 24 to my 24-weeker and miracle boy. Thanks for making me a mom and teaching me this important lesson:

I love you so much, will always be my hero!


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