September is a lot of things. It’s Fall, it’s the first crisp morning, it’s the segue to all things holiday that bring us so much happiness. With equal importance, it’s also NICU Awareness Month. This month, we shared Meghan’s story of delivering son George at 32 weeks, we shared resources for friends and family of NICU families, and today, we share the perspective from the father’s side, a side we don’t often hear and what he learned from their stay in the NICU. We have one additional story to tell in the 5 days left in September but that doesn’t mean we’re done. Please continue to share your experiences from the NICU and how we can best support our readers and families. Email us submissions and ideas to hello@lovechildmag.com. If you know a NICU doctor or nurse, please share this story. It’s a thank you, a tribute and love letter to the hardworking NICU staff. Photo by Alysha Rainwaters

By Jeff Bevill

My wife’s pregnancy was typical and ordinary.  At times, she made it seem easy and at other times her body and the baby inside made it tough.  But nothing in those first seven months suggested that our baby would be early. Our expectations and our plans for the next two months dissolved in a flash flood of fear, uncertainty, and joy.  We were suddenly the parents of a 3lb, 7oz premature boy who resembled an eggplant. Life ignored our plans. This was not how we envisioned the birth of our first. We would spend the next seven weeks in the NICU learning that life only lives in the present.

It was four in the morning on a Sunday, and my wife was Googling what it feels like when your water breaks. We were eight weeks out from our scheduled due date, so it was easy to doubt her labor was beginning. Half an hour later and still unsure if her water had broken, we were at the hospital. The triage nurse calmly told us that our baby would be arriving soon. He arrived an hour later. I still remember the bright, blinding lights of the operating room and the dozen or so bodies that waltzed around us.  I remember olive oil and a never-ending stream of nurses entering the room. Everyone was faceless. Masks hid all forms of their humanity except their eyes. The only face in the room was my wife’s, and as her body fought against itself to deliver our child, I saw the pain that was devouring her. I stood at her side as little more than a bystander. My words of encouragement fell on deaf ears as her screams echoed down the halls. My baby was coming two months early, my wife was in agonizing pain, and all I could do was offer generic reassurances as she tested the bones in my hand. My whole world lay before me and I was helpless. I was terrified. I feared for my baby. I feared for my wife. I held myself together hoping she would see everything would be okay but in my mind, I imagined the worst. Standing in this oversized white, sterile room with metal instruments and light-blue-scrub-clad bodies surrounding me, I quietly pleaded to the Universe to spare my world.

George arrived on her third push and the doctor told us our baby was in fact a boy.  The gender reveal that we had saved all this time was stolen from us as the doctor handed him off to the NICU nurses who immediately set him up with a breathing tube. They brought him back over to us and we saw our boy for the first time. Scuba gear covered most of his face. We managed to get a picture and then we had to hand him back. The nurses scooped him up and began to wheel him to the NICU.  There was a moment where I was unsure what I should do: stay with my wife or follow my son? My wife saw the hesitation and gave me my orders. I kissed her, told the doctors to check her blood pressure, and then I went after my son.

In the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the first thing you learn is that there are no nurses. There are no doctors, there is no cleaning staff or admin staff. Every person that works in the NICU is a spirit of the highest regard. An angel to the religious and a savior to all. Every single one of them. These people ensure the most fragile and vulnerable among us are given a chance at life. They have the most important roles, and I will forever be indebted to them. They become your family. They support you and they treat your baby as if he’s their own. They live among us and we’re often blind to them, but they are the good and the pure in the world we live in. And when the day comes that you get to take your baby home, there’s a sadness in your heart because they stay behind. Their job never ends. They never stop fighting. The people that give life to your child, the ones that make sure your child has a clean crib and warm towels, the ones that cheer with every ounce gained, and reassure you when setbacks happen, the ones who delicately swaddle and position your baby, the people who smile if only because they have nothing else to give, these people show up day after day after day and give hope when life isn’t ready to.  The people who work in the NICU are the best people in our world.

The doctors could never find a reason for George’s sudden arrival. He was premature but stable, and my wife was healthy. Her stay in the hospital was routine and after two nights she was discharged. We didn’t want to leave though. How could we? Our boy was several floors above us and walking out of the hospital without him seemed impossible. In those two days, we spent our waking hours in the NICU and only left to eat or sleep. He wasn’t always with us but at least we were always under the same roof. Now that we would no longer sleep within the same walls as our infant son we started to feel even more removed from our boy. The universe blinked, and we had become parents and then a moment later we had to walk out of the hospital with empty arms. It was cruel. But knowing that the world’s best were caring for him, we willingly gave up the uncomfortable labor and delivery room beds. We were fortunate that our hospital runs a nearby hotel for families with loved ones in medical care. It wasn’t the same building but it was a block away. It was as close as we could get. Our routine carried on. Our waking hours were spent in the NICU and we left only when we had to. With so much out of our control we clung to what we could control. We couldn’t stop his breathing episodes, we couldn’t make him gain weight, but we knew that if we weren’t at his bedside, we were only a minute away. Proximity kept us connected to our son.

After a couple of weeks and half a dozen ounces gained, we took the advice of the nurses that had become our friends and stepped out to breathe every so often. We would walk around the hospital grounds or step out for lunch at an actual restaurant. Facing the outside world without my heart never felt quite right, but it gave us time to reflect and miss him. It gave us time to find perspective. It gave us a chance to laugh away the expectations we had and reaffirm our commitment to face life’s uncharted path in stride. Being outside the NICU, if only to feel the sun on our face, gave us the joy of reunion that comes from being away from the ones you love.  Fifteen minutes, an hour, it didn’t matter, walking back in and seeing our son and greeting him with a renewed sense of determination made the difference in our experience. We were able to reset ourselves and our situation and we learned to see the beauty in the experience we were living.

Our experience in the NICU was one I would never trade. In all honesty, I feel parents that take their baby home soon after birth have it harder than we did. We had an answer to every question we could imagine. We had first hand training in swaddling, in holding, and how to feed and how to nurse our child.  We had security, cleanliness, and every available resource at our disposal. We had a team behind us, we were never alone. That is what I choose to remember from my experience. That is what defines my NICU experience. Of course, I will never forget his feeding tube or the wires that connected him to the machine that ominously hovered over us. I’ll never forget looking at my son, my forever, through the plastic of his isolette. Or having to stick my arms through the holes of the isolette to touch him to or to whisper, I love you. Little George was loose skin draped over tiny bones and he looked like a little human frog. I’ll never forget his frailty or the helplessness that hung over me. Those memories will never be forgotten but when I think back to the NICU, that’s not what comes to mind. I see the journey he made and we made as a family. I remember the small, dedicated community of people fighting alongside my boy so he could go home. The NICU offers the light of a billion suns while darkness tries its best to shadow you. The NICU was our home for those seven weeks, and it was one of the best periods of my life.     

We were fortunate.  George is now a healthy little turd that has a vibrant personality and can force us to smile when we have none to give. The NICU brought our baby home, but I know not every parent will have an experience like ours.  I know there are parents that stay long after their child’s due date as their baby fights on. I know that some parents bring their baby home only to have to return to the NICU. And with tears that I can’t hold back, I know that some parents must leave the NICU without their child. My heart bleeds for these souls and any parent that must walk life’s path without their child at their side.  The beautiful people that walk the bays of the NICU stand between our little ones and the gates of the Great Beyond, willing them back into their parents’ arms. Although they aren’t Mom and Dad, I know they  feel every bit of the joy and the hurt that pulses within the parents that come through.

I’m humbled by our time in the NICU.  Words will never express the depth of my gratitude for what they did for my son.  The NICU will always reside in my heart and I will be forever indebted to them. I’m inspired and thankful for my wife, the absolute best mother this world has ever seen.  She continues to stare down the wild child that terrorizes our dogs and leaves our home in perpetual disarray. I’m thankful and blessed for George. He’s opened my eyes to a love bigger than this world.  Those two are the best of me. I don’t understand this world nor do I think I want to, but the blessings I’ve been given are worth a hundred lifetimes.

A million and a million more, Thank You’s to the NICU.   

A Note to the Parents

I know we learn to ignore just about all advice that’s offered so take what you will from the following: Expectations will let us down but we are not our expectations.  Embrace the experience that’s been laid at your feet and tell that beautiful baby of yours that you love him and you love her and nothing matters more than them.