We were late getting to the hospital - which is VERY unlike both of us. We ended up getting checked in around 6:20 and then we were taken down a long and winding maze of hallways to the pre-op area of the labor and delivery floor. I was lucky enough to have two AMAZING nurses in pre-op who definitely helped ease my nerves and pass the time while we waited for Dr. Case to arrive. We went through all the normal pre-surgery stuff and then had about an hour to wait while I got fluids and waited on the doctor. Several other nurses and surgery techs were hanging out in our room too, and I kept thinking how weird it was that we were just hanging out and having normal conversations with people who were about to get up close and personal with my blood and guts. While Ryan and I were in the room, some of our family members (my Mom, brother, sister, Jessie, Robin, Aunt Barb, Terri, Scotty and Jake) were gathered in the waiting room ready to welcome our baby to the world.
At around 8:00, Dr. Case arrived and things started quickly moving along. Before I knew it, I was being wheeled into the operation room while Ryan was pulled away to get scrubbed up and dressed for the c-section. What happened over the next 20-30 minutes felt like it all happened in 5 minutes. They gave me the (completely painless) spinal, put me flat on the table and put the curtain in front of me. All I can remember hearing the whole time is several people saying back and forth "where is the Dad? Did someone get the Dad? Someone get the Dad, we're ready." Then the nurses and doctor were (supposedly) pinching my legs really hard to make sure I couldn't feel it. I couldn't feel anything. Just a second later, Ryan was beside me and I heard someone say "okay, here we go."
The next few minutes were some of the strangest of my life. You definitely feel everything that is going on, but it doesn't hurt. I felt pushing and pulling and tugging and someone kept pressing down from the top of my stomach to the bottom, basically pushing the baby down to my incision. I just kept waiting to hear him cry. Even though he was coming 3.5 weeks early, I just knew in my heart that once I heard him cry, I would know that he was okay. Just minutes after they started, I got my wish. At 8:30 am I heard the loud, beautiful cry of my baby boy. I immediately looked at Ryan and began crying but I still hadn't seen him. I could hear the nurses loving on him, doing his tests, etc. but I couldn't see him. Ryan could see him and I remember asking him, "is he really little?" and he said no, that he looked like he was a good size. I remember hearing them announce his Apgar scores, 8 and 9, and then they finally wrapped him up and brought him over to me.
He was the best thing I had ever seen. I can still remember in my head exactly how he looked when they brought him to me. He was so soft and had the biggest red lips I had ever seen on a baby. He looked healthy and perfect. As quickly as they brought him to me, they gave him to Ryan and sent him to take him away to the nursery. The anesthesiologist stayed beside me and talked to me while they sewed everything up and got me ready for recovery. I remember hearing the doctor and nurses talking about their iPods and having trouble getting music on and off of them. It's so strange how the biggest moment of your life can be just another day at the office to others that are involved.
A few minutes later I was back in my pre-op room with my nurses and I was shaking like a leaf. This was the worst part of the whole operation for me. I was freezing and shaking like I have never shook before. They said it was all normal, but boy was it annoying. They ended up putting some big inflatable blanket on me that sort of worked, but I was still shaking somewhat when they wheeled me to my room am hour later. I was in the recovery room alone with my nurses and Ryan would come back and forth from being with Eli in the nursery to come check on me. He finally told me that he was 6 pounds, 15 ounces and 19.5 inches long. And I got to see some pictures on his phone of what had been going on in the nursery.
He went back to be with Eli, and I kept waiting. I just felt like something was wrong since everyone told me they would bring the baby to me right after I got back in the room. Over an hour later, Ryan and a nurse named Ellen wheeled Eli into my room in his little nursery cart. At 10:18 am I finally got to hold him for the first time. It was everything I imagined it would be. It was the best feeling of my entire life. I thought he would be staying with me, but the nurse explained that he was breathing a little hard and was making a grunting sound so he would have to go back to the nursery for a little more observation. At this point, I thought "more observation" meant an hour or two, and that he would soon be with us in our regular room. They said that he could stay in the regular nursery for up to six hours and if he wasn't breathing normally by then that he would be transferred to the NICU. And there it was. The word I had feared since the day I was told he would be coming early. I prayed all day and all night everyday since then that he would be born without issue and would not have to go to the NICU. It was what I feared the most. After holding him for less than 10 minutes, they took him away back to the nursery to begin his further observation.
I was soon wheeled down a hallway lined by my loved ones and taken to my regular room. They all said how beautiful he was and talked about how they couldn't wait to see him again. A little while later we got settled in our room and my family began coming in to hang out and wait for the baby. Ryan was still hard at work, going back and forth from my room to the nursery to make sure everyone was doing okay. It was an extremely busy day in the nursery (the busiest in a long time) so he often had to wait a long time to check on Eli, but he always did whatever he had to do to see his baby. I found out later that the nursery nurses told my family that "they all loved the Dad" because he was so sweet to him every time he went to check on him. While he would go back and forth, I remember laying in the bed hearing the sound of the nursery carts with babies in them being wheeled into the room of the awaiting new mommies. Every time I heard that sound, I thought it was my baby. As fate would have it, I would never actually hear the sound of my baby being wheeled into our room.
Later that afternoon, Ryan came into the room with the news that we all knew was coming. We had passed the six-hour mark and Eli's breathing had not progressed enough to leave the nursery and he would be transferred to the NICU. It was the worst news we had received, but part of me still believed that he would just be in there for a little while and then he would be coming on a cart to the room with me. The minutes ticked by like days as we sat in a dark, depressing hospital room with no baby. I kept trying not to cry because there were so many people in my room but then I would just close my eyes like I was sleeping and cry to myself. This wasn't what I had planned. It all felt like a bad dream.
The day went on and many family members had to leave to travel back home. Only my Mom and brother were able to stay over the next few days. A lot of the details of that evening are foggy to me because it honestly felt like this could not possibly be my life. Surely I would wake up any second and the worst nightmare of my life would be over. At some point that evening, Ryan went to the NICU to meet with Eli's doctor and discuss the results of X-rays they had done on him. He was gone for what felt like an eternity. In the meantime, my mom and brother were with me, along with the best nurse and best nursing tech that I would have during my entire stay. They let me cry to them, and genuinely made me feel like they cared about my baby and me. At one point, I remember the nurse telling me "I'm taking you to see your baby tonight" and it was the first thing I had to be excited about after a very long day. I texted Ryan to tell him I would get to come see the baby later, and for some reason I still can't delete that text from my phone.
At some point that evening, Ryan came back to our room and explained that Eli had developed a pneumothorax on his right lung after he was born. Basically, its a pocket of air outside his lung that caused the lung to collapse, making it hard for him to breathe. They would monitor him overnight to see if the pneumothorax would clear up on its own (which often happens) or if they would have to proceed to further actions to remove it. This is when everything got real. He wasn't "breathing a little hard," he had an actual condition that made it difficult for him to breathe that could cause him to have to have procedures done to save his life. My mind won't let me remember all the specific details of that evening. I just remember crying more than I've ever cried before, praying more than I ever had before, and doing a lot of googling. A few hours later, my nurse came in to make good on her promise of taking me to see my baby. The physical pain of getting up for the first time was the worst I have ever felt, but it was nothing compared to the emotional pain of seeing my child in the NICU. They wheeled me back to his pod, and everything looked even worse than I had imagined, but still not as bad as it would be over the next few days. He was connected to so many machines, had an IV in his tiny little hand and a tube down his throat. I thought I was going to pass out and the guilt I felt in that moment is still with me today. How could this happen to my baby? Why couldn't I be the one going through the pain while he rested peacefully with his dad out in a regular room? The details are so hazy to me, but I remember the doctor saying the words "collapsed lung" when explaining the pneumothorax and I didn't hear anything else after that. No one had said it like that up to this point, they just kept using the word pneumothorax. I was sobbing and I couldn't breathe and I really didn't want to if he couldn't. I remember bits and pieces of the doctor explaining a "chest tube" and how that was the worst case scenario. The best case scenario was that the pneumothorax would resolve itself and he would be breathing normally in the morning. After visiting with him for a few more minutes, we left with the doctor saying that "no news was good news" and if we didn't hear from them that night then it was a good sign.
After a long and mostly sleepless and tear-filled night, we woke up without receiving a call from the NICU. I could have done backflips when I realized this. I wasn't feeling well and decided I should sit out the 9 a.m. visit to the NICU, so Ryan went on his own to see Eli and speak to his doctor. When he came back, I learned that a miracle had happened and the pneumothorax on his right lung resolved itself overnight. No sooner than I heard those beautiful words did he then say that Eli developed a pneumothorax on his left lung that was worse than the one on the right. I can't begin to describe the emotions of that moment. I don't remember anything else from that afternoon other than asking everyone we know to pray for him. I realized during those few days that I could barely hold a conversation because all I did was pray. I didn't have another thought in my head, I was just praying non-stop all day long. Ryan and I went to see him at 3 pm (he had to go alone at noon) and everything looked so much worse. His little chest was moving in and out so hard, it was like nothing I had ever seen. His chest would become so concave when he breathed in, it was like you could fit a baseball in the hole that each breath created. He also had a Biliblanket underneath him to try to fix some of the jaundice he had from being born early. It was so hard to look at him and even harder to look away. I just wanted to be with him. We weren't allowed to stay long during those early visits because I was killing myself by trying to stand longer than I should, and he needed to rest. We left that visit with the knowledge that he was having another x-ray soon, and if things didn't look better then he would most likely be getting a chest tube to resolve the pneumothorax on the left lung.
A few hours later, one of the doctors came to our room to let us know that the chest tube was really the only option at this point, because it was not clearing up on his own. He was really struggling to breathe, and they had to do what they could do to help him. They didn't know exactly when it would happen but they would let us know. This is another time when the details are foggy for me. I don't remember anything except crying, praying and asking others to pray for him. This ended up being the night that we really needed the most prayers. Sometime after 7 pm the doctor began the procedure to put in the chest tube, and Eli was given morphine for the pain. He didn't take to the morphine well and as the doctors said, at one point he "forgot to breathe." He stopped breathing. The doctors and nurses were able to use Narcan to get him breathing again, and they were able to get the tube inserted without any more problems. Then began the waiting game. He would have an x-ray every 3-5 hours after that to check the progress of the tube. All we could do was pray and pray for our baby to be healed.
On Friday morning, we went to the NICU to visit him and the visual is one that haunts me to this day. He had a tube in his tiny little chest, an IV in his head, an IV in his hand, monitors wires all over his chest, a CPAP in his nose and a feeding tube. He also had a blue light over him because the Biliblanket wasn't resolving his jaundice quickly enough. I tried so hard to be strong but I just couldn't handle it. I just looked at him and sobbed and shook and prayed to God to let me take his place. The doctors and nurses all jokingly told us how they were "mad at him for causing them so much trouble last night" but it wasn't funny to me. Nothing about any of this was funny. They said he was doing well with the tube, and we would just continue to wait for more results from the x-rays.
Thankfully, each time we received news, it was good news. We began to be able to have more contact with him. We would go to visit him and Ryan would change his diaper and take his temperature while I would just hold his hand and tell him how much I love him. I remember one visit specifically when the nurses let me "feed him" - which meant holding up a syringe of food while it drained into his feeding tube. It seems so silly now, but it felt amazing. It felt like I was really taking care of him. All I had been able to do up to this point was pump breastmilk every 3 hours around the clock so they could put it in the syringe for him, and even that wasn't going as well as I had hoped because I was so stressed out and depressed. I remember leaving that visit feeling closer to him than ever, and I just couldn't wait for the next 3 hours to pass so that I could come back and do it again.
On Saturday evening, we got a late call from one of our favorite nurses. Calls from the NICU were absolutely terrifying but this time, I heard the best words I have ever heard. The x-ray showed that the chest tube (and prayers) had worked, and there was no trace of a pneumothorax on either lung. I just thanked God over and over and told my family and friends as quickly as possible. The next step was to clamp the tube which basically made the body think there was no tube to see how he reacted. If nothing new developed, then the tube could come out in about 12 hours. If something else did develop, the tube would stay in and the doctors would go back to the drawing board.
On Sunday morning at 9, we went to the NICU and heard even better words. Nothing new developed overnight and the doctors would remove the tube that afternoon. And then the words I'll never forget: "Once we get the tube out, you'll be able to hold him." I couldn't believe it. I was so excited and I just couldn't wait for the time to pass. After the visit, I remember going back to the room and taking a shower and putting makeup on for the first time since we had arrived. I was going to hold my baby that day. I can't imagine a more special occasion or reason to get dressed up (in a fresh hospital gown, that is.) The visit could not come soon enough.
I'm not sure how to describe the feeling of holding him for the first time to parents who have never had the NICU experience. Imagine having a baby, holding him for 10 minutes, and then only being permitted to touch him minimally (under supervision) for the next 4 days before you can hold him again. As excited as I was for us, I felt even more excited for Eli. He would finally get to feel the human touch and the love that he so deserved. As soon as we got there, the nurse opened my gown so we could have the kangaroo care (skin to skin contact) that we never got to have when he was born. It was perfect, and everything I had been missing. We even tried breastfeeding for the first time and he knew exactly what to do. Everything was perfect and peaceful and exactly as we hoped it would be - just under different circumstances. The nurse let me hold him for almost an hour and asked Ryan to wait to hold him at the next visit, which he was completely fine with.
The Sunday visits were the best we had had, but in the back of my mind I knew it was the last day that it would be this easy. We had to check out that night by 10 pm, which meant another one of our greatest fears would be realized: we would be going home without our baby. That night at about 10:30, at the end of our 9:00 visit, that is exactly what we did. I cried every time we left the NICU but that time was much worse. I felt like I was going to hyperventilate as soon as I got in the car. I just kept sobbing and saying "this isn't how it's supposed to be." I even had the thought that if I could somehow injure myself or re-open my c-section scar that they would have to readmit me and I would be close to him again. Trust me, if I could have figured out a way to accomplish that, I would have. As we were driving away from the hospital I remember looking at all the windows with lights on and wondering which one he was in. I remember how every second that passed meant I was a little bit further away from him. It was the most crushing feeling of my entire life.
When we got home, I can honestly say that I wasn't even as excited to see Carter as I would normally be. I just couldn't be excited about anything. I remember that the Chargers were on Sunday Night Football and Ryan watched the end of it with my brother (who had been staying at our house all along to take care of Carter and come see us everyday) and I just kept thinking that I wanted it to be over so we could go to bed. Once I finally got upstairs, being up there was so much worse than being downstairs. I went into Eli's room and lost my mind. I went into our room and lost it again when I saw his pack 'n play and swing and bouncer ready for his arrival. I just wanted to go to sleep so the morning would come quicker and I could see him again. Since we still had to wake up every 3 hours to pump breastmilk for him, the morning did come pretty quickly and by 8 am we were out the door and on our way back to the NICU for the 9 am visit.
The next three days were the most monotonous, exhausting and physically painful days of my life. We would be in the NICU by 8:45 am everyday, and we would leave the hospital at about 10:30-11:00 each night so that we could be there for the 9, 12, 3, 6, and 9 visits. We quickly got into a routine and learned the cafeteria schedule, the best waiting rooms to sit in, where to get free drinks and snacks, and the location of private bathrooms along our various routes. Our days went something like this:
10:00-11:00: Waste an hour in the AWFUL labor & delivery waiting room and wait for the cafeteria to open
11:00-11:30: Scarf down some delicious grilled cheeses (one of the few bright spots of our entire stay in the hospital)
11:30-11:45: Trek back upstairs to the NICU, stopping at the private 2nd floor bathroom on the way. I only mention this because, while I prayed constantly all day, this was where I really did my serious praying. It was my last quiet moment before we went back to the NICU where I would beg God for only good news once we got in there.
1:00-3:00: Wander around, drink lots of water, "rest" as much as possible
4:00-6:00: More wandering, drinking and "resting." And possibly having my brother bring us dinner since the cafeteria wasn't open during dinnertime. (???)
7:00-9:00: Even more wandering and trying to stay awake. Usually spent in the first floor lobby that was practically deserted this time of day.
So, not exactly an ideal situation, especially when I was recovering from major surgery. Now that it's over, I will admit that I was in pretty serious pain all day long. I took my pain meds when I remembered to do so, but that wasn't as often as it should have been. Ryan pushed me around in a wheel chair all day so I always had somewhere to sit, but I remember many times feeling like my insides were being ripped in half. I became physically ill on more than one occasion but I didn't tell him so he couldn't make me go home. I often felt like I couldn't stand up one more time; but when you arrive in the NICU and you see your baby laying there and you have to stand up to see him, suddenly the pain isn't so bad. The nurses constantly suggested that we skip a visit and go home and rest for a while but the pain of going home was so much worse. I know I'll get in big trouble when Ryan reads my confession about how much pain I was actually in, but I feel better getting it off my chest. :)
When we entered the NICU on Tuesday morning, I was walking by the second pod towards Eli's pod in the back and I heard the male nurse say "Griffin" and in that moment I think my heart stopped. Ryan was a little bit behind me because he was putting our things in the breastfeeding/pumping room so I had about a 10-second anxiety attack in my head because this was not the normal routine (we had never even met the male nurse) and no one usually talked to you other than your nurse or nurses that you knew. As soon as I turned around to see why he said my name, he said "You've been moved. He's right here." And the next thing I knew, I was being handed my son, who was completely free of any tubes or machines. Instead, he was laying in a normal crib, wearing clothes for the very first time, and swaddled up in a little blanket. Finally...happy tears.
We had to learn a routine from our new nurse (we would be taking him to the breastfeeding room alone with us, not feeding him behind a screen, etc) when the day sort of took a turn for the worse. Our relationship with the nurse started off a little bumpy when she basically threatened us that if we couldn't get him to eat 40 mL from a bottle (pumped milk plus a little formula) at each of the next 4 feedings, after I breastfed him each time, that she would be forced to put the feeding tube back in. I could not bear the thought of him taking a step backwards after he had come so far. She should have known better than to give us a challenge. It certainly wasn't easy, and it certainly wasn't without me having a TOTAL meltdown all day long, but somehow after the first three feedings he had successfully passed the test and we had just one feeding to go. Without them saying it, we knew that this was one of the tests he had to pass before going home. My anxiety was through the roof before that final feeding so I asked Ryan if we could go into the hospital chapel to say a prayer for him. I prayed that God would make him hungrier than he'd ever been in his short life, and I prayed that all of these things would fall into place ONLY if he was ready to be at home with us. After we both silently prayed for a few minutes, I picked up a Bible off of a seat and asked God to give me a sign. What happened next was nothing short of miraculous. I opened to Matthew 17:18, which reads:
"And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour."
I could not believe what I had read. I remember feeling like my blood had run cold and I actually dropped the Bible out of shock. I immediately called Ryan over to show him. He didn't seem to believe it either. From that moment on, I knew the last feeding was going to be a piece of cake. Needless to say, he easily passed the test that night and we knew that we were one step closer to taking him home. At the end of that visit, they asked us to bring his car seat in so that he could have the "car seat challenge" (we pictured sweat bands and the Rocky music) overnight. He would also be having a hearing test that night. We knew that a LOT had been accomplished that day. And when we left that night, it was the first time I didn't cry the whole car ride home.
When we arrived on Wednesday, he had moved up one more pod. He was in the one right beside the door now. They told us that the closer he was to the door, the better. When he started, he was as far back as you could go, and now he was in the very front. My little trooper. He even earned the nickname "Honest Eli" from his uncle that week because my brother kept making deals with him and Eli kept making good on them. Let's just say that there is more than one pony in his future. The first couple visits that day were more of the same. Diaper change, breastfeed, bottle feed, swaddle, back to bed. I felt like we were in a holding pattern and we hadn't spoken to a doctor in a couple days so we asked to speak to one at our next visit. When we walked in for our 3:00 visit, our nurse (who was the mean nurse the day before and slowly became one of our favorites) said, "I have good news." I begrudgingly told her we should wait on Ryan, so I impatiently waited for him to come back from the breastfeeding room. She basically told us that we had the opportunity to do something called "Parent Care" that night, which basically meant a normal night in the hospital like other people with newborns. We would stay overnight in a room, only this time our baby would be with us. As long as he didn't have any problems overnight, we would take him home the next morning. I remember her saying "Would you be interested in doing that?" Um. Come on lady. Is the sky blue? I nearly jumped for joy at this idea. It was normal. It meant he didn't need the NICU anymore. It's exactly the image I had in my head of what our hospital stay would be like. We celebrated in the breastfeeding room as a little family of 3 and then immediately began calling and texting our families as soon as our care time was over. We came back for the 6:00 visit and then rushed home to get our things for the overnight stay.
The 9:00 feeding that night was a lot different. First, we helped a nurse give him a bath. Then, we got to take him to our room and put him in his own clothes for the very first time. As we walked down the hall to our room with the nurse pushing Eli in his little cart, I made sure to listen to the sound of the wheels that I wanted to hear so badly one week earlier. As soon as the nurse left us on our own, we took him out of his towel to put him in his own clothes. He immediately began peeing everywhere. I have appreciated his sense of humor since that moment. As soon as I fed him and we got him to sleep, Ryan went down to the cafeteria to get us 2 grilled cheeses to celebrate. We sat in the bed together, basically in the dark, eating our grilled cheeses and taking in our new life. It's one of my favorite moments ever.
Before we knew it, it was Thursday morning and we were all still in one piece. That meant only one thing: we would be taking our Eli home today! We fed fed him, changed him, ate breakfast and hung out while we waited on everything to be finalized for our departure. We also had his hospital pictures taken... which ended up being amazing and cost us more money than I had planned. Our absolute favorite nurse of the entire stay was on duty that morning, and I'm so glad she was there for our last hours. She wrapped everything up for us and read us all the required nonsense like: "don't leave the baby in the car, don't let the baby fall off the changing table, don't smoke around the baby." It was hilarious to us, but I guess the sad truth is that many parents don't actually heed those warnings. At around noon, everything was packed in the car and the three of us got to make the walk that I had been waiting for for so long...
We had finally made it! We were in the car, all three of us, and we were going HOME for good! I sat in the passenger seat of the car thanking God over and over while trying to text and call everyone that had asked to know when we went home. When we got home that afternoon, my brother and Carter were waiting to welcome us. I think my brother was just as happy as we were, and we all couldn't wait to see what Carter thought of his new baby brother.
I will admit, Carter's behavior on the first day was a little worrying. He was really confused. But the next day was much better, and as I write this six weeks later, he is a loving and protective big brother.
I think we have finally settled into our new and crazy life. Eli is a healthy, perfect baby boy that is growing way too fast for his mama's liking. I am still dealing with a lot of emotions over the images in my head of my baby in the NICU. Sometimes I just look at him and cry, and then I thank God over and over that he's here. Anytime I feel like my patience is running short, I can quickly regroup and remember how there are eight days where I didn't get to be at home with my crazy screaming baby, and the alternative is so much worse.
This story took me more hours and caused me more tears than I'd like to admit, but I also think it was really therapeutic. Although some of these memories I would like to forget, I also hope I never forget a thing. It's weird.
And to my sweet Eli, someday when you're old enough to read this on your own, there's something I need you to know. Some people go their entire lives without showing the strength and perseverance that you showed in your first eight days. The details of this story may seem sad, but this story has the best and happiest ending of any story we've ever heard. That's because our happy ending is you.