I will never forget the first time I went to the NICU to visit my son. I had only been there once before. I got to follow the doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioner from the operating room into the unit to see what Jude weighed (2 pounds, 8.2 ounces) before being sent back to my wife, leaving him behind for all sorts of tests and procedures. That was all a blur, so my visit that evening was a big deal for me.
As Nicole’s nurse led me into the restricted area, I was stopped at the door by one of the NICU nurses. She said something to the effect of, “Dad needs to learn the rules.” I quickly figured out that entering the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is no trivial event. I was redirected to a side room where she instructed me to remove my wedding ring, scrub my hands and arms to my elbows with a special prepackaged sponge (for two whole minutes!), then dry off and apply surgical grade sanitizer to the scrubbed skin before I could enter the room to see Jude. It would become a normal ritual for me, but that day it was kind of overwhelming.
Of course, the whole day had been pretty overwhelming. Nicole was admitted three days prior when an ultrasound revealed some troubling information about the pregnancy. By the time we got her to the hospital, her amniotic fluid level was dangerously low. Jude’s frequent movements were no longer cushioned by the fluid, so they often placed him on the umbilical cord, causing his heart rate to plummet over and over again. That trend continued for those three days, and each time it happened the nurse would come in to reposition Nicole to correct the problem. By day three, repositioning no longer did the trick, so Nicole’s doctor decided to give up on trying to keep Jude in the womb for a few more weeks.
I was at home when Nicole texted me to say that things were getting worse. I had gone there with my little brother (who had come to town to visit that weekend) to get a few items and to let the dog out. She texted me because they had put an oxygen mask on her, making a phone call impossible. I knew that meant the situation was serious, so we rushed back. By the time I got to her, there were no less than 4 people in the room working. They informed us that the doctor was coming (it was her off day) to deliver the baby. Before I could even process that bit of information, they brought me a mask, cap, shoe covers, and a very stylish white jump suit to put on over my clothes. In no time, we were in surgery. It was January 23; 10 weeks earlier than Jude’s due date of March 29.
Everything was happening so fast that I didn’t even have normal responses to things. I am usually pretty squeamish, but when the nurse anesthetist told me, “Look! The baby is coming!”, I peeked over the curtain to see my son being pulled from what I can only describe as the largest incision in the history of surgery. But I did not feel the least bit nauseous. It all happened so fast that I didn’t even have time to think about how unsettling it all should have been. They allowed me to go see Jude and gave me an update on what they knew at the time. We took him to see Nicole just long enough to snap our first family picture, and then it was off to the NICU.
The next few hours were less dramatic. Nicole’s anesthesia mostly wore off after a while and we sat in her room waiting for updates on Jude’s condition. Knowing that he probably had Down syndrome (a diagnosis that was confirmed a few days later), we were relieved to learn that his echocardiogram had shown no heart defects (a common issue for people with DS). I don’t know how many times we were updated, but none of the news we received that day was particularly bad. It was a somewhat calming end to the rollercoaster that the rest of the day had been. Even so, not getting to see our son for hours was pretty stressful in its own way. I hadn’t seen him since about 4pm, and it wasn’t until close to 9pm that I finally got the ok to head over to the NICU.
After scrubbing in, I walked through the doorway into the main room of the unit. As I approached his isolette, I felt a combination of excitement and concern. The isolette was much bigger and more intimidating than I had anticipated. I remember feeling sad as I thought about how little babies shouldn’t have to be found in such circumstances. The stress that I was already feeling was now being compounded by that sadness. Just as I was starting to get overwhelmed again, I was greeted by a kind face.
Jude’s nurse that first night was Monique. She could probably sense by the look on my face and my overall demeanor that I was not in the best place emotionally. I don’t remember a lot of the details about that day. I don’t remember who all was in the room for the delivery. I don’t remember what I was wearing. I don’t remember how long I was in the NICU for that first visit. But I do remember the kindness that I was shown from Jude’s nurse. She took the time to explain to me what the various lines, wires, and tubes that were connected to my son meant. She showed me how to handle Jude through the arm holes on the sides of the isolette. She explained to me what preemie babies like and don’t like when it comes to how they are touched. She was reassuring, helpful, and encouraging. I doubt she remembers much about that day, but I will always be thankful for her presence there.
Her kindness was by no means unique. Each time we entered the NICU (at least twice each day for 44 days), we were greeted by competent and caring nurses who encouraged us during some of the most difficult days of our lives. It was never easy leaving Jude, but the love that these ladies showed our son made it much more bearable. When the time came for Jude to be discharged, I remember experiencing a bittersweet feeling as we left his first home and caretakers. I did not realize until that day just how thankful I was for that place. God was so good to us in allowing our family to experience His provision in the NICU. We do not miss leaving him there, but to this day we do miss going there. Those wonderful people will always mean so much to us.
I will never forget the first time I went to the NICU to visit my son. It was the first time I felt at peace with Jude’s situation. I have Monique to thank for that. I will also never forget the many other times that I walked through that door. Each time I was able to cope with what turned out to be a pretty lengthy stay in the hospital. I have a lot of other nurses to thank for that (and a couple of doctors, nurse practitioners, and receptionists). We thank God for the NICU and each of the special people who serve there. NICU staff, we will never forget all that you did for Jude and for us. Thank you all.