Our story of Neonatal Intensive Care
Five years ago this week, our youngest daughter Rosie was born. My husband Nick and I have been looking back over the pictures of her first hours and reliving our experiences. No birth experience is easy; some are devastating. My friend Lou lost her baby at term; he would be 5 now. She has written a post on my blog about her experience of his loss. Rosie is healthy and full of life. We are so grateful for that.
As soon as Rosie was born, she was admitted to neonatal. She had a blockage in her bowel and amniotic fluid was backing up in her system. Exploratory work on day 1 led to an operation on day 2. She couldn’t feed and she needed a drip and a line to keep her alive. She was very poorly after the operation. When the doctors had opened her up, they found that her bowel was not blocked but twisted. They removed her appendix, rearranged her small intestines and sewed her back up.
When we were allowed back in to see her after the op she had breathing apparatus and was being monitored for all her vital signs. We had been allowed to hold her at the very beginning but now she was too poorly. I stayed in the ward and Nick looked after our other 2 children at home. It was very difficult not being able to feed her and seeing that she was hungry. I was expressing breast milk and a little pile of tiny bottles was building up in the hospital freezer but I couldn’t meet her needs for food.
Whenever I could, I sat by her bedside. It was fascinating to think about what she could understand of the world of plastic and beeping machines that she was in. The staff on the ward were brilliant. They knew our family and every detail of Rosie’s little life. Her nappies were weighed and her blood sugar, heart-rate and breathing monitored hourly. Meticulous notes were kept on everything. She made slow but steady progress. We knew that she would be able to come home – it was when, not if.
Sat by Rosie’s bed, I learned something that has shaped my life ever since.
Perched next to Rosie’s incubator, I could watch the machines recording her vital signs. I willed her to start breathing on her own and for her blood sugar to increase just a bit more. I stared at the little green lines and green numbers on the screens and talked to Rosie about how they needed to go up. I couldn’t feed her, or hold her. She couldn’t see me sat beside her. But I knew she could hear and smell me. Newborns always can.
“You know she works harder when you are in the room?” The nurse who was looking after Rosie that day had been watching the numbers too. He saw that there was a distinct increase in her stats when I came into the room. Rosie was too sleepy to be properly engaged in interacting with me; she lay quite still with her eyes closed. But her consciousness was not dulled. Deep in her brain something was very alert to my presence. The same part that was also controlling the motor processes of breathing and heart rate. When I was in the room she felt safer, supported and like she belonged. Somehow just knowing I was there meant she functioned better, worked harder at breathing and her heart pumped harder.
Parenting is in part the joy of giving. Giving your children a love home, a rich and meaningful life. What I saw that day in the green lines on the hospital machines was that the best thing I could give her was my presence. My connection to her was a gift of health and life.
The significance of human connection is a topic of social science that is being explored all the time. New information is helping us all to see our world as a work of connection. The Harvard Study on Adult Development – the biggest single piece of research into human happiness – found that the only valid predictor for happiness was connection; being loved and known by others.
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.” (Source Credit)
It seems that the bonds we have with each other make up the very fibres of life. We still don’t fully understand the loss felt by disconnection. When family separation, social isolation, the rise of people living alone, longer working hours and fewer holidays eat away at our connections with one other, they are eating away at our health and happiness.
Our vital signs begin to decrease as we become disconnected from others. Perhaps we do not notice the trend. But what Rosie taught me is that we are all wired to be with others. Connection is a vital life source. Health and happiness depend on it.
Rosie was sent home on day 20. We had been in hospital for just under three weeks. She established feeding and grew normally thanks to the surgery and the care of the NHS.
She now shows off her scar and talks about “when the doctors cut my tummy” to anyone who will listen.
As a family we make time for connection. Nick and I have jobs that enable us to be around the kids for extended times. We limit the activities the children do without us. We plan for being together. Simple is best.
Yesterday we went for breakfast, just the five of us. We stayed there until lunch. Connection is our highest value. It was Rosie and her stay in neonatal that taught us to value just being together.
If you enjoyed this blog post you may also want to read my recent guest post: Surviving Stillbirth.