Where do babies come from?
Updated: Aug 14, 2021
Three months ago, I’m not sure I could have told you what the acronym NICU represented. In a short time, I’ve learned not only the definition of NICU- Neonatal (newborn) Intensive Care Unit, but have spent many hours in its quarantined walls; standing next to the incubator, walking the halls, or sitting in the recliner. I’ve experienced holding my newborn baby on my chest while she was wired and tied to the machines and monitors designed to help her grow healthy enough to come home.
It was ten long days, but in the end I walked away with a deep respect for the wise and patient team of doctors and nurses who not only took care of my daughter, but did so with great kindness, attentiveness and constant communication with me, the mama. And what I saw in that room made me curious about the world of NICU life, nursing, and premature babies.
I stepped into a NICU for the first time after Shiloh’s precious birthmother delivered her via c-section. The nurses dressed me in a bunny suit and I sat with Ashley, holding her hand as the team pulled Shiloh safely into this world at 6:06pm.
Instead of hearing the typical newborn cry, I heard a gurgle.
They led me behind two nurses who pushed the cart with a plastic basket on top for Shiloh, transporting her through a pair of double doors into the NICU. One nurse held a balloon contraption over her mouth while the other steadied the cart.
We got to the NICU, and the crowd thickened in Bed 9. I counted seven or eight bunny suits and scrubs of doctors and nurses all huddled around and evaluating the well-being of my little girl with clear heads and steady hands. I watched. They strung cords, hooked wires, called out numbers, checked the monitor, listened to the incessant beeping. Their hands; gloved and careful; their eyes, shifting from monitor to baby, monitor to baby, monitor to doctor to baby. Their words; indecipherable to me, the bystander with no medical training.
Because things were happening fast and there was a blur of activity, one nurse tried to guide me away while they worked to stabilize Shiloh.
“Come on, let’s get you to the waiting room.” She gently reached for my elbow.
I resisted, pulling away and keeping my eyes on center stage.
“No, I’d like to stay if that’s okay.”
She respected my wishes and hung back while someone brought me a chair. I kept my mouth shut and stayed out of the way, knowing that anything I said might get me kicked out.
It took a few minutes, but I knew things were calming down when the nurses left one by one and the room was quiet, except for the beeping monitors. The only ones left were the doctor who was about to insert an umbilical line, and his nurse.
She was an older lady who had clearly been on the floor for decades. She wore stylish nurse shoes with thick rubber soles, decorative scrubs, and kept scissors in her pocket used to snip my extra long hospital band while we were talking.
Helen had curly graying hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her shift began at 7pm assisting Dr. Lopez in what he prepared to do. She helped tie his gown, adjusted his glasses when he murmured a request, answered ‘Yes Doctor’ to everything he said, set out his tools and opened up all the disposal hospital packages sealed in white plastic. She scurried around like a mouse on a mission, knowing her way around the NICU room, opening drawers and predicting his every need.
Helen was the first person I met on the floor who embodied a peaceful, controlled presence in the middle of a dangerous and scary place: a hospital floor devoted to the smallest, most vulnerable humans. Her blood was thick with confidence, and I trusted her immediately.
A few minutes after the doctor stopped working on the baby, I asked to see her and walked over to get a good look at my daughter Shiloh Elise. Her name was written on the board along with the nurse’s name, her date of birth 5/22/21 and birth weight; 4 lbs, 15 ounces. Also listed were goals for the day, and my phone number, which I asked them to write up there. It was neatly written in black dry erase marker next to the phrase, ‘Mommy Kim’.
Shiloh was tiny, bloated, lips protruded like a tired girl. Liquid pooled at her eyes from the ointment they put on all newborns. A little white diaper folded underneath her swollen belly button, thick and wound-looking. The umbilical line swirled from her belly out to the side, and cords and wires came from every direction. There was some blood on the pillow, and yellow chunky substance smeared next to her arm.
She was all laid out, hands outstretched. Her peach fuzz hair dark and curly, her skin beautifully dark and eyes shut to the world. The intubation in her mouth was held up like a bridge around her face. It was white and thick and clunky and looked awfully uncomfortable. They had wrapped her little hand with a white cloth keeping an IV intact with so much tape it looked like a broken arm in a cast.
My sweet girl was lying naked in a tiny, enclosed bed; warm and womb-like to help her feel most comfortable. It looked foreign to me, but it was what she needed. At that moment, I had to let go of control and trust that the hospital would take good care of her. Even though the cords and wires surrounded her at first, I had to imagine her without them, free and clothed in my arms.
The next morning during rounds, I asked the staff how long the baby would stay. They shifted their weight and looked around at each other before saying, “We tell the parents the baby’s due date. If the baby is ready earlier, then that is good news.”
The skin around my eyes tightened, and I tried not to look like the news wasn’t a terminal illness diagnosis.
“Due date? That’s one month. You think she will have to stay for a month?”
I couldn’t believe it.
“There’s no way to know for sure, but our goal is to get her home by due date.” The doctor stayed firm, but I could tell in her voice that it was hard to break the news like that to parents.
All I could do was put my hand in the incubator and hold Shiloh’s finger, hoping and praying for the best. I had seen incubators from a distance, but during our ten-day stay, my understanding grew of the world in which she knew first.
Incubators came to America in a strange way. A man named Martin Couney brought the invention to the United States in the early 1900s, but the hospitals took awhile to catch up. For many years, Couney was the only one doing anything to help save premature babies. His exhibition on Coney Island took the weakest of the weak babies born and displayed them for the general public with a price of admission as 25 cents. The banner to attract guests displayed an enticing phrase: All the World Loves a Baby.
He wasn’t doing this for profit because the funds he raised went toward saving the babies’ lives. Babies came to him from local hospitals and families who couldn’t care for them. The families paid nothing for their child to be taken care of in Couney’s facility. He compensated the nursing staff and wet nurses to take care of the babies around the clock. Affection was encouraged, so the nurses spent time hugging and kissing the little ones as they dozed in dreamworld.
His legacy is astounding. He is credited for saving 6500 babies in his 50 year career. The incubators gave little ones a fighting chance. With the dedicated care of the staff, 85% of babies in his care survived. Survivors have met up to gush their gratitude for the man who cared about them when no one else in the medical profession could do anything to care for their tiny bodies.*
Finally, the first NICU opened in Connecticut in 1965, and modern science took it from there, building care from crude beginnings to the 1990s where even micro-premies (weighing less than one pound, 12 ounces at birth or before 26 weeks gestation) might be saved.
Shiloh’s visit in the NICU was unimpressive to her nurses as a late pre-term baby (35 weeks) with no significant health issues after her first night in the NICU. She was big compared to others, strong, and deemed a “feeder-grower” very early on in her stay, even though she was less than five pounds. They removed the tubes and monitors one by one, and the focus for each day nurse assigned was to feed her and grow her. Slowly, Shiloh took feedings by mouth instead of the tiny orange tube through her nose, and as she progressed, we knew it was only a matter of time before she would be riding in our backseat on the way home.
Not all families are so lucky. In Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon by Kelley French and Thomas French, a micro-preemie born at 23 weeks gestation spent many months in the NICU, freaking her parents out with every infection and issue that arose in her frail body. She fought for her life while her parents read her Harry Potter, dressed her in handmade clothes, and sang to her. She is now a growing girl with a mind of her own and the feistiness that has stayed with her since those early days in a manufactured bed devoid of natural sunlight and a fresh breeze across her face.
The morning I got the call from the hospital with good news, I was standing in the bread aisle at the grocery store shopping with my mom who came to meet the baby. Tears sprang up in my eyes as the nurse said, “You get to take your little bambino home tomorrow.” I was thrilled that our time in the NICU was finally over. No more hour-long drives to visit. No more masks. No more cords as I held her, no more evening phone calls to check on my baby girl.
She was coming home.
In the end, as we packed our bags full of bottles, disposable nipples, hospital hats and a special NICU graduate onesie, I looked back at Bed 9 with gratitude for everyone who handled my little girl. Every nurse and doctor who scrubbed their hands and arms before feeding her gently and slowly. All the computer monitoring, note keeping, phone calling, and fact-checking they did to keep Shiloh on track.
They did their job in such a way that I trusted the nurse who called me and said she was ready to go home. They paved the way to make me a successful parent of a very small child. The education they gave us helped give me confidence that we would be okay.
When June 22nd came around, I looked down at my one month old and whispered, “Happy due date!” We had already formed our life around her in the almost three weeks we had her home, and though she slept through most of it, we hoped she could feel the love surrounding her. Every day was an effort to feed her, even waking her up at night every three hours to coax just one ounce into her tiny belly. Holding her felt like cuddling with a precious baby doll with a bowling ball head. Her body was so disproportionate! Every time we visited the doctor, I scribbled down her weight, thankful for growth and progress and blessed health in our little peanut. Every ounce mattered.
One look at her soft, sleepy face and Martin Couney sure was right;
All the World Loves a Baby.