By KATE WALTHER
The night my daughter was born I couldn’t look at her. I heard her tiny cry, like a lost kitten, and saw her miniature 1 kg frame and turned my head away, shocked at how fragile she was. How my body had failed her at just 26 weeks gestation. Luckily, she was born fighting.
So many times in her 4 month stay in the NICU we would hear the mantra from her doctors and nurses – 2 steps forward, 1 step back. It was a warning to expect turbulence, even when things seemed good, but it was also a source of comfort when things were bad. I knew what it meant before – intellectually at least – but I didn’t understand what it was like to live it day by day. Hour by hour. Beep by mechanised beep on those damn monitors.
As we watched the screens, mesmerised by the blue line, (oxygen saturation), life quickly became about seconds. It seemed as though we lived in a cocoon where time slowed to the sound of those alarms. Life continued around us at breakneck speed, but we remained so focussed on the numbers on her monitor that we barely noticed. When you live your life by seconds, something goes numb inside. You live on the edge of your seat, waiting for that breathtaking step backwards. Dreading it.
Lucy’s first month went by slowly, but without a backwards step. She was strong, and amazed her doctors, who like us waited with baited breath for what was inevitably to come. And then it came. Infection. And even though we saw it coming – even though we were warned, and the signs were there – it changed me. I felt vulnerable in a way I could never have comprehended. Desperate. Exposed. I bargained with the universe to take my life instead of hers so many times.
The day we knew for sure she was sick I couldn’t bring myself to stay at the hospital. I wanted to – I was so afraid of not being there. Of being at home and getting that phone call. “You need to come in now. Things are touch and go – we’re not sure if there will be another step forward.” But I was a wreck, and she needed strength, not tears.
This is where the NICU team stepped in for me, their experience and fortitude making up for my weakness. An hour after I left I got the phone call to say she had been ventilated, but her doctor was reassuring. “She is on a very low setting. Don’t worry. She is in good hands.” He and a very special nurse asked to take a double shift to take care of her and get her through the night, calling with hourly updates. Her nurse, Esther, sang to her in Chinese and stroked her gently to sleep. It may have saved her life, I can’t say for sure, but I will forever be grateful for her willingness to care for my little girl in her hour of need when I just wasn’t strong enough. I’ve learned that strength is relative – as much as I felt like I had failed Lucy, not being there that day was the best thing to do for us both. The only thing I could do for her was to let her fight on her own.
Slowly she recovered – those two steps forward took another two weeks. She fought three different ventilators and had to be sedated. She fought too hard, and wouldn’t let them breathe for her. She even extubated herself, something no one believes unless they witnessed it. She’d had central and arterial lines, was put back onto a drip, was given several blood transfusions, antibiotics, steroids, a nebuliser and shift after shift of extraordinary care from the staff in the NICU. And finally, slowly, she emerged and clawed her way back to health.