Last summer, one of my husband’s college friends, Steve, came to visit with his wife and two children, a little boy a bit older than my daughter and a baby. They stayed with us for a couple of days and we all had a nice time, visiting the Long Island Sound and just relaxing. It was the first time I met his wife, Jennifer, and we hit if off right away. The Pumpkin fell in love with the baby. A few months later, we found out they were expecting a new baby who was due in June. But something went wrong. They’ve spent the last several days in the hospital delivering the baby, who died. We’ve been getting e-mail updates about the experience, including a last e-mail that came at 2 a.m. this morning with details about the keepsake box with a lock of hair and some photos that they brought home instead of a baby.
It’s been hard to get Jennifer and Steve out of my mind. I could easily have ended up with a similar box if it weren’t for the life-saving treatment my daughter received at White Plains Hospital Center.
Four years ago on April 20, I went into the hospital showing symptoms of preeclampsia, a disease that affects about 5 percent of pregnancies and poses risk for both mother and baby. I hadn’t read about preeclampsia before and didn’t really know what the doctors were so concerned about. I had been showing the signs of preeclampsia for a couple of weeks and had even spent a weekend on bedrest, but the doctors didn’t use that word yet. Here’s a clue: If your hands are so swollen that you lose sensation, it’s time to worry. Swollen ankles in pregnancy: Not so much.
My first night I was dazed, suffering from a horrible cold, unable to sleep. Over the next few days, the signs were clear that the doctors expected me to deliver my daughter early, but wanted to wait as long as possible. I was given steroid shots to mature my daughter’s lungs, moved to a private room and ordered to rest on my left side. In retrospect, I think I went into a bit of denial. After my cold cleared up by the weekend, I actually felt really great. It was sunny outside and I didn’t feel like staying in bed. It seemed absurd that I would actually have the baby that early, and so I discounted the idea, especially since I felt so healthy. The swelling had gone down and I didn’t have other classic symptoms, like a headache or pain in my abdomen. (I found out later that these are important symptoms of something going wrong. At the time, I just knew that nurses came into my room every four hours to ask me, “Do you have a headache? Any pain in your abdomen?”)
Every day, I rode a wheelchair down to radiology and got a look at my baby, who was healthy but tiny. Things were going so well that after a week and a half, on May 2, my doctor during rounds that morning even talked about maybe letting me go home on bedrest for a while. That was before he got the results of that morning’s blood draw. (Oh yeah, every morning I gave about five vials. Fun stuff.)
Later that afternoon, I had just showered and was sitting up in bed, making phone calls and relaxing when a phalanx of nurses from labor and delivery strode into my room with a gurney and told me I was coming with them to deliver the baby. This was a shock. My own nurse came in behind them and said the doctor had been trying to reach me, but I had been on the phone. My bloodwork showed that I had developed a complication of preeclampsia called HELLP Syndrome, which basically meant that internal organs like my liver weren’t doing so hot. The baby had to come out, or else we both would be in trouble.
After panicked calls to reach my husband to come as quickly as possible and to my sister-in-law for reassurance, I was prepped for a C-section. That evening, my daughter was born at 26 weeks, five days, gestation. She weighed just 1 pound, 13.4 ounces, or 834 grams. I didn’t even get to see her born because I was so swollen the anesthesiologist couldn’t get a needle into my spine. I had general anesthesia. I didn’t get to see her for more than 24 hours because I was stuck in bed in a haze thanks to a magnesium sulfate drip. I didn’t hold her for almost a week because she was so delicate. I just sat by her incubator, lightly touching her with my hand and talking to her. Her entire hand was the size of the tip of my pinky finger. The first days were so scary that it’s hard to even describe what it was like. The first week of a preemie’s life will determine what happens for the rest of it. And for us, the news was all good. She didn’t need a ventilator, and was breathing with just positive air pressure. No bleeding in the brain. Lots of pee. A feisty attitude. (That hasn’t changed.) I got to hold her for the first time six days after she was born. It happened to be Mother’s Day. Part of me is still in that chair, holding my swaddled baby for the first time, oblivious to everything else. One of the neonatologists walked up to me and started to talk to me about how well she was doing, but I ignored him, repeating over and over, “My baby, my baby.”
Today, she weighs about 33 pounds and is as tall as some 5-year-olds. And when she climbs into my lap for snuggles, the world still disappears and my mind repeats, “My baby, my baby.”
On Sunday, for the fourth year, I will be lacing up my sneakers and heading to White Plains to walk with hundreds of other parents who know exactly how I felt in that first moment I held my daughter. Parents of preemies never take a day or a minute for granted. We know how easily we could have come home with nothing but heartbreak. We are thrilled for the chance to help out the March of Dimes, which is committed to making sure that more babies come home with their parents. I pester my family, friends and coworkers for donations because I know that every dollar raised will go to programs to prevent premature birth and to make sure that the ones who are born early, like my Pumpkin, will live.
While I was writing this, my daughter came over to me to give me a hug and show off the blue ponytail holder her grandmother put in her (long and messy) hair today. I have never cut her hair, which is below her waist. I hadn’t realized until this moment why I haven’t, even though I know that it would be nice to have a lock of the baby blond at the tips before the whole head turns darker. I don’t need a keepsake. I have my baby. I’m marching on Sunday so that other moms can say the same.
May 8, 2005