The NICU at Massachusetts General Hospital is amazing. We were set up in a private room. Miles had his own incubator bed thing and the nurses wheeled in a little newborn crib thing for Duncan. (They wrote a sign for it and everything. It said “My brother Dunkin’s bed.” We made no complaint about the spelling.)
In the beginning he was on heavy antibiotics and was visited by X-ray technicians every few hours and by surgeons lurking in the shadows waiting to be called into action should the antibiotics fail. If required, they would go in and cut out a section of dead colon. He hoped fiercely that they would not be required. We willed the surgeons away with our stares like a person wills away vampires with a cross.
While Miles worked to get better, we visited whenever we could find someone to stay at home with Verity. My parents stayed in a dorm room in the boarding house for a couple of weeks and we would pack – because of course we were moving to another boarding house – and whenever we could, we would take Duncan and go to the NICU. Ian’s mom would also come when she could, after work, during the whole of her only vacation, and on the weekends to help. We couldn’t hold Miles, but we could try to arrange his wires and we could change his diaper and put it aside for weighing. I would pump as often as possible so that when he was able to eat he would have a smorgasbord awaiting him. Well, there was only one thing on the menu, but it would be the perfect food. We had a little cushioned bench by the window, next to the sink where we could wash out the pump parts. We also stored labels and containers for the milk in the cupboards. It often seemed that Duncan would sense when I was about to pump because he would wake up demanding to be fed.
At one point, listening to Miles’ heart, they noticed a murmur. An ultrasound showed he had a hole between the two atrial quadrants in his heart, called an ASD. This is usual in new babies, and generally closes quickly. In addition, he had another defect in his heart, called VSD, which is a hole between the two ventrical quadrants. This is not as common, but his was small so they just listened and recommended follow-ups with a pediatric cardiologist.
They had to put him under anesthesia so they could install a central line down by his groin. This would keep them from having to change his IV so often. You see, an IV can only hold out for so long before the vein gives out and they have to prick him again. The first line didn’t take, so they had to try again in the other side. He still has little white scars on the insides of his thighs as a reminder of his first anesthesia and how sick he was.
Honestly, there wasn’t much we could do for Miles at first, except listen to the updates from the doctors and nurses, will the surgeons away, and listen to the beeps, alarms, and other ambient NICU noises. (I used to joke that they should include a CD of NICU noise with the discharge materials so that the babies would feel more at home after transitioning.) Although we might have felt useless, we still felt the need to be there every day, so we would go at all hours of the day and night – whenever we could get away – and just hang out near him, in the room, Duncan often sleeping as well.
We brought along an iPad for watching Downton Abbey and an occasional movie while we sat in the room with our new babies nearby. Sometimes we would get hungry – I was allowed a meal as a nursing mother, but at the best times we would stroll down to the cafeteria to partake of the amazing salad bar down there. (Seriously, if you ever have occasion to be at MGH: salad bar. So many options. So many wonderful greens, purples, reds, oranges, seeds, dressings, proteins… so good. And, of course, at the end of the salad bar were the desserts. Because why not, right?) We weren’t allowed to eat in the room with Miles so we ate in the little family lobby that was always showing one of three things: an infomercial for the Insanity workout videos, an infomercial for some cleaning product, or, when we were super lucky, episodes of Wipeout.
For some reason, Wipeout was the perfect relief from the stressors of NICU life. Let me describe Wipeout to you, in case you are uninitiated: People of all levels of athletic ability run through a ridiculous and near-impossible obstacle course, mostly made of inflatables, where they get very muddy and wet and fall down a lot. The falls are spectacular and it’s dumb and it was perfect.
Meanwhile, Miles slept. A lot. His little body fought hard. I don’t know if I have ever fought so hard for anything in my life. And he was just over three pounds and a few weeks old. And at a few weeks old, he was still behind, having been forced to deal with a bad placenta and umbilical cord in utero. In essence, I had two babies who were conceived together, who shared a uterus, and who were born on the same day, but one was a full-term baby and one was a preemie.
He fought so hard the surgeons stopped having to come around every few hours – the antibiotics were – slowly – doing their job. After a week of waiting we were finally allowed to hold him. I was so scared, he was still so fragile, but when I finally got him on my chest I never wanted to go anywhere or do anything else ever again. He was so small, frail, and sick, but he was also just so perfect.
There were times when holding him wasn’t so blissful, however, as it was still another nine days until he was able to even attempt eating, so when he was hungry and snuggling so close to food, he would get quite upset. His little cry was so small and desperate and hungry and heartbreaking. He was receiving IV nutrients, but that’s not the same as filling your belly.
When we finally did get to feed him for the first time in the NICU, it was only 3 cc’s. There was no bottle – they put it into a nipple only and it took a real long time to get it all into his little body – he just didn’t know how to do it. But he was able to slowly increase the amount over time. We would have to hold him up right next to our ear to burp him, because otherwise we couldn’t hear his tiny little burps. His burps, like many other things, have improved a great deal since then.
Somewhere in there, Ian and I managed to move us into a new apartment on campus… This was something we could not have done without the incredible community that we lived in. The Operations crew would finish whatever they were working on or just come by for a box or two when they were on our side of campus. Local students, colleagues, family, and friends would pop by and take care of whatever odd job was needed at the time. People came out of the woodwork and showed up with food. It was amazing and we will never forget it.
Finally, he started looking good enough to transfer to a special care nursery. We had a tour of the facility at MGH, but were also told that, if Emerson had space, we could transfer back there. We told them that was what we wanted, if it was possible. They began making arrangements. They took his central line out. Silently rejoicing, Ian and I left the hospital for the night.
The next day we visited again, ready for the discussion about transferring him back near home. When we walked in, we saw that he had a new IV.. We were told to sit down and the doctor came in to talk with us. “The nurse noticed he wasn’t behaving like himself,” he said. “He has developed a fever and we need to run some tests to determine the cause.” We sat up straighter, listening harder, as though our will could fix it, or figure it out, or at least cause the doctor to suddenly understand what was causing the fever.
They inserted a catheter to collect a urine sample. “We are hoping it’s a urinary tract infection (UTI).” They took more blood, which showed elevated white blood cells (a sign of infection) and anemia (which had persisted from the beginning and would continue to persist, but that’s for another post, I think). They needed to send blood and urine to culture as well, which can take days to develop. Additionally, they said they needed to check his spinal fluid. This meant doing a lumbar puncture, or “spinal tap,” which is where they insert a tiny needle in between the vertebrae in the lower back to collect a sample of fluid and the drummer dies.
Protip: Do not ever agree to stay in the room at a teaching hospital where a doctor-in-training is about to do his or her first delicate procedure on your offspring. Especially with a curtain closed where you can only listen to the continued encouragements of “no, you’re doing great” and “sometimes that happens,” punctuated by the confused weak cries of your tiny baby. Elect instead to partake of the aforementioned salad bar. Or Wipeout in the lounge. Or walk the streets of Boston looking for the cookie truck. Or go pluck out your eyelashes one by one… Or anything really… If you happen to be a doctor in training or a teaching doctor – Ask the parents to leave. Tell them it’s hospital policy, even if it’s not, because I assure you, you do not want them to listen, even if things are going well.
Miles’ spinal tap went well, but as you may have guessed, it didn’t seem like it was going well from our side of the curtain. From behind the curtain it seemed like it was going to eleven. And although that’s what you may want in an amplifier, it’s not good for spinal stuff in a three pound baby.
While we waited for the test results to come back, Miles was given a new broad-scope antibiotic. We learned that it was, indeed, a UTI, which brought in another specialist, a pediatric urologist, who also talked with us briefly about Miles’ hypospadias, which would eventually need surgery or surgeries.
They couldn’t re-install the central line, so they had to use an IV, which they kept having to move because his little veins couldn’t take it. One day we walked in to an IV on his forehead. That was alarming, but apparently there was a really great vein up there. Fortunately, it was the last vein they had to use, and after another week or so he was well and able to be transferred back to Emerson where he could practice eating and growing until he was healthy and plump enough to come home. With relief, we filled out all the paperwork and cuddled wee Miles – I was even able to nurse him, hold him and Duncan together, and even try nursing them together! Things were finally looking up.