Story by Christi Young, Chair of Social Sciences at Southwestern Michigan College
When approached with the request to write something for this blog, I found myself crippled by the memories of the emotions of my pregnancy, my son’s birth and our NICU experience. Writing this blog has forced me to drudge up those memories and feelings I had long forgotten as part of my focus to heal as time has passed. Truth be told, I have a hard time looking at my healthy, strong boy of above average size and ability, and remembering him as a fragile preemie who spent his first six weeks in the NICU; to say I am overwhelmed is an understatement….
Prematurity is clinically defined as a birth prior to 37 weeks gestation – more than 3 weeks before the due date. While defining terms clinically may be considered efficient, it is also unemotional and coldly detached (Reader’s Digest Oxford complete wordfinder, 1996). I would argue that it is so much more than that.
When you give birth to a baby born prematurely you discover that those born before 34 weeks do not eat on their own. You learn that they lack the suck/swallow reflex we are all born with that is required for eating. Add to that the additional task of breathing, you come to realize how much longer it takes a baby born prematurely to eat. When my son was born, I learned to determine when and if he could handle nursing and for how long. I did this so that he could finish a feeding orally as opposed to eating through a tube in his nose.
Eating is only one piece of the puzzle. There is also the part where you must leave your heart (child) at the hospital and not take him home for another 6 weeks, or for some, even longer. There are also the emotional outbursts that occur when you are too fragile to advocate for yourself or your child – times that result in the prescription of an antidepressant. For those who have not experienced antidepressants, know that they can be quite effective in depressing not just emotions, but one’s energy as well.
Prematurity does not end there. It is learning to diaper a child smaller than the baby dolls I had as a girl while maneuvering around the wires connected to my son in order to prevent false alarms from sounding – the thought of which still sends a shock through the core my being.
Prematurity is feeling like a visitor, rather than a mother – having to ask permission to feed, change, and hold your child.
It is bathing your child in a basin no bigger than a bedpan, yet him still looking as though he was in a kiddie pool. A process, I might add, that required two people.
It is replacing the “normal new mom waking in the middle of the night to check if my child was still breathing” with a nightly call while I was pumping to see if my child had gained weight, if he had breathing spells, or if anything new had transpired since I had left him in the hospital. I was still up in the middle of the night, waking typically at 3 am to pump, but there was no baby in that room to check on, only the phone calls.
It is trudging to the NICU day after day, knowing your baby is not coming home, yet still riding the elevator with countless family members and friends who had expected to instead be waiting to see a new, full term, 8 lb baby… nevertheless excitedly filled with love and joy every trip.
It is finding out who is really there for you and who can handle this new challenge you are embarking on. For me, it meant they still visited, sent flowers and gifts and continued to treat this as it should be – a celebration, albeit a little early, but still a celebration.
It is also enjoying the benefits of Kangaroo care. Each time I would hold my son, all of his respiratory and pulmonary functions regulated. He became one with me. His temperature controlled, his breathing regular, slow and peaceful.
For me today, prematurity is experiencing PTSD style reactions when Meijer has the same soap as the NICU, immediately transporting me to that wash sink.
Prematurity has become a soapbox topic for me, fueled by a passion to educate. The NICU experience certainly taught me that some things are just out of your control, for even when you do everything right there is no guarantee. There is still hope, however.
Hopefully, with education, we can prevent some of the instances of prematurity that are within our control, such as avoiding teratogens that cause birth defects, – teratogens like caffeine, nicotine, and lack of prenatal care.
November 17thhas been designated as World Prematurity Awareness Day. The significance of this is captured by a simple statistic, documented by the March of Dimes:
“For the first time, the complications of preterm birth outranked all other causes as the world’s number one killer of young children. Of the estimated 6.3 million deaths of children under the age of 5 in 2013, complications from preterm births accounted for nearly 1.1 million deaths.” (“World Prematurity Day,” 2016).
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Reader’s Digest Oxford complete wordfinder. (1996). Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association.
World Prematurity Day. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.marchofdimes.org/mission/world-prematurity-day.aspx