During the length of time that the girls were in the NICU, I did my best to keep a journal of milestones, feedings, thoughts, prayer requests, etc. I knew that one day I would want to go back and reflect on our time spent in Chapel Hill. In the moment, I imagined that one day I would want to share my experience with another NICU mom. After compiling my thoughts and reflecting on our experience, these are five lessons that I learned in that locked-unit known as the Newborn Critical Care Center.
1. Like a Boy Scout, Always Be Prepared.
NICU life is not necessarily something you can prepare for mentally, physically, or emotionally. You can try, we did. Andrew and I were at least fortunate enough to attempt at preparing ourselves for what was to come. I was high-risk for the majority of our pregnancy, and we were told early on to have no expectations. My heart breaks for the parents who are not preparing themselves, and BAM! Something goes wrong…the baby comes too early… and you are in the NICU… for good. If you are high-risk and will most likely endure a NICU journey, become familiar with the NICU at the hospital in which you will deliver. Also, research your local hospital. For example, we planned to be at Rex Hospital for our delivery/ NICU stay. It wasn’t until the day I went in for a routine ultrasound that we realized I would have to be bedridden at UNC-Chapel Hill due to the different level of NICU at UNC. The doctors were taking the safe route by sending me to Chapel Hill in case I delivered prior to 32 weeks. The NICU at UNC has the equipment and sufficient resources to care for a micro-preemie, and Rex NICU is only adequate for a baby born closer to 32+ weeks. Prior to delivery, Andrew and I toured the NICU at UNC. It was very sobering. It made us realize that everyday we were able to bake the girls was a tremendous gift. It allowed us to realize that what we were about to face would be one of the hardest challenges either of us have ever had to endure. It helped prepare us for what it would be like when we saw the girls for the first time. I would definitely encourage you to tour the NICU, labor and delivery, etc. It is definitely worthwhile!
2. You are THEIR Voice.
The likelihood that the girls would deliver unexpectedly was high. While in the recovery room and in a highly medicated stupor, the first thing I remember was asking Mama what had happened. Everything happened so fast. It wasn’t until later that the realization hit: I do not know anything about premature babies. Sure, we had toured the NICU, met with neonatalogists, read the Preemies book, but hand-zone what did I really know? How do you change a diaper among all the tubes and wires? How do you hold a 3 lb. baby? What are all these terms being used? What are the rules in the NICU? A pump? What in the world is a pump and how do I use it? How do I check on my babies? What are the steps we have to take to get them home? PDA? What the heck is that? You mean, I need to know the conversion from grams to pounds? Who can be in the NICU? When can we put clothes on them?
Needless to say, I had a lot of questions. Like any new parent, we were (and still are) just as clueless and confused as anyone else. These nurses and doctors are so used to that!! Don’t be afraid to ask any questions whatsoever! Also, due to the simple fact that the medical professionals knew way more than I did I was always afraid to question, why are we doing that? Why aren’t we doing this? After a while, that timid nature went out the window! Remember: you are the parent. These are your babies! You aren’t the first parent to ever question what they are doing and how they are doing it. They understand and are happy to help you understand as well!
3. Where Did Normal Go?
Ninety-eight days. Throughout our time in the NICU, many people would ask me what I did all day, what a typical day looked like in the NICU, etc. The answer: there is no such thing as a typical day in the NICU. I simply took it day by day. I never knew what to expect when I made that morning phone call to the girls’ nurse (fun fact: I still have the NICU in my favorites four months later, and occasionally call it by accident from time to time!) When you are surrounded by a team of doctors, nurses, monitors, alarms, heart murmurs, eye scans, head scans, echo-cardiograms, feeding tubes, blood transfusions, the sound of Bubble CPAP, TPN, and ventilators, you tend to forget what normal is like. For example, it was the middle of December and we decided to take a day and do some Christmas shopping for our families on Andrew’s day off. The girls had been having an amazing week! They were settling into incubators, continuing to maintain good body temperature, and even being weened off of Bubble CPAP! We had both been every day, and decided we’d be okay to only go see the girls for a little while so we could spend some time together. When we walked in to Pod D, we saw Leah lying on a warmer bed and receiving a blood transfusion. Over the course of the morning, she started showing signs that she was fighting an infection. A team of doctors came to run a series of tests, and needless to say no presents were purchased that day. We had so many ups and downs of trying to get the girls’ home that it felt like it would never, ever happen. I feel that this was the biggest lesson I learned: let go of my plans, let God work in His timing, and take it one day at a time. In the NICU, I was very appreciative for how interactive the nurses allowed me to be with the girls. We would snuggle and do Kangaroo Care, I would change their diapers, bottle feed, take their temperature, and we would read storybooks and sing songs. Four months later, there are still some things I actually miss about being in Chapel Hill. One of them? My trips to the cafeteria to get Mac ‘n’ Cheese, a Peanut Butter cookie, and watch Cedric the Entertainer on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in the lunch hour. It’s the simply things that thrilled me to no end during those days!
4. Thanksgiving Turkey and Christmas Trees.
As I look back on our NICU journey, spending the Holiday season in the hospital was bittersweet. It was really hard to celebrate Thanksgiving in a completely different way, and wake up Christmas morning without my babies at home. While it was not easy, I had to remember that this was also our first Thanksgiving and Christmas as husband and wife. SO, I tried to make things as normal as I could by making this season special in a different way. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve will never go by that I don’t think of our time in the NICU. Why do I love NICU nurses so good? Because they make Thanksgiving and Christmas crafts to treasure. They allow crazy mothers like myself to bring in a Christmas tree to decorate my children’s bed spots. They make Christmas photo shoots happen among tubes and wires. They schedule Santa Claus to visit (and make sure he’s completely germ free nonetheless!) They take Holiday pictures and drink sparkling grape juice with you on New Year’s Eve. They have the heart to make this time special as they can for you. No matter what time of the year that you are in the NICU, make the most of it! We knew when the girls were born at 29 weeks, that UNC- Chapel Hill would be our second home for a while. So, in order to make the most of our time we adjusted our life to a new “normal”. Even if that consisted of tiny foot print crafts, incubator and hospital crib decorations, a new found love for cafeteria Mac ‘n’ Cheese, and an excitement for a peppermint mocha like you wouldn’t believe. It worked and helped us survive three long months!
5. “Did I ever ask you for some ME time, Cora?” – Madea
This lesson made me think of that scene from Madea Goes to Jail, right before Madea takes the “Big” and the “K” off the K-Mart. This was probably the hardest lesson for me to learn! I felt a terrible guilt any time that I was not with the girls. I had to learn that taking time away was something I needed to do for myself, for my husband, and essentially for the girls. The Mama doesn’t need to be stressing, y’all! It’s perfectly okay to take some, “me” time. Trust me, it is hard to come by after you all get home! Andrew and I had only been married for three months when the girls were born. We tried really hard to stay positive and lean on one another through such a trying journey, and one outlook that helped us was seeing that time as a gift to one another. While the girls were in the NICU, we didn’t want it to divide our marriage. We were very intentional about spending time with one another outside of the NICU and taking a “breather” from time to time. On most days, Andrew would meet me at the hospital after work. We always made sure to leave the hospital together, and we treated ourselves by going somewhere to eat afterwards. The last thing I wanted to do when we got home was cook, and it gave us the opportunity to talk to one another and unwind. Honestly, I don’t even think I went to the grocery store for a big trip until the girls came home. Three months! I know, terrible. The only thing in our house was milk, bottled water, and ingredients for lactation cookies… my poor, poor husband. There were many people that gave us restaurant gift cards during this time and that was unbelievably helpful!! (Andrew was very appreciative!)
While it was helpful to stay positive and have time together, I never gave myself a mental break. I knew going into our journey at Chapel Hill that the road was going to be long and hard. When the girls were born, I immediately masked my fear and wore strength. I knew I had to be strong for my daughters and my husband. A word of advice for other NICU Mom’s? You don’t have to be strong all the time! Since the majority of our NICU journey was during the Holiday season, I kept myself way too busy to make time to break down. At the very end of our journey and in the slow days it took to bring the girls home, my emotions were coming to a breaking point. Did I give myself time? No. I kept on truckin’ as I hurriedly put together a nursery and bought every hand sanitizer and Lysol can at Target. So, when did they all come out? During an episode of Law and Order: SVU. Three weeks after we brought the girls home. Out of no where. It was the episode where Elliot’s wife, Kathy, gets into a car accident with Olivia and she goes into labor. I LOST IT LIKE A MAD WOMAN. The girls were in their cribs, Andrew was fixing bottles, and I was doing the hideous ugly cry in the chair. I probably cried, and cried hard for a solid hour. During an episode of Law and Order, nonetheless. That’s what did it.
My advice? Take time for yourself to reflect on the process. Don’t let it all build up! It’s unbelievably hard. Every time I had to leave the girls and walk in the door without them was hard. Every time I walked into their nursery and they weren’t there, I got tears in my eyes. When I was three hours away from them on Christmas morning, my heart was breaking. I’ve been there, and I’ve learned. I had been so strong, and when we finally came home I thought to myself, “I did it! Without breaking down! I’m good!” No. Somewhere, it is buried. Someday, it will come out. Take you some “me” time, Mama. Just don’t take the “Big” and the “K” off the K-Mart when you do. We all know some days in the NICU make you want to…
I hope these lessons from one NICU Mom to another were helpful! If you have any further questions or concerns, please feel free to comment below. You can also reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org!