Note to anyone who is still with us: This is my first blog post over a year. It’s hard to say why neither of us has written since last spring. Perhaps it was lethargy. Perhaps Claudia and I had a lot of catching up to do at home after spending so much time in Seattle last year. We definitely had a lot to learn about parenting, especially without the safety net of our care givers at Swedish. Probably in large, it was a subconscious effort to put most of what happened in 2011 behind us. Whatever the reason, I am begging forgiveness for the delay.
9 July 2012
Memorial Day 2012
Blessedly, the girls allowed me to sleep in this Sunday morning. But at 9 o’clock the bedroom door swings open and a cooing, pajama clad bundle of baby girl is laid upon my chest. Through squinted eyes Olivia’s features slowly appear as little hands examine my face. At this stage, she still needs to feel or taste shapes and textures as much as see them. Inquisitively, her beautiful blue eyes and tiny hands explore my features up close. Probably because she is a baby and doesn’t have a clue about morning breath, nappy hair, and scruffy faces, she’s intensely all up in my grill. I worry about creating a bad impression, and hope that my 55 year old mug doesn’t permanently scar her psyche. Oblivious to all, she lingers, and I’m reminded of the first encounter between rain forest explorers and members of a lost tribe, the Poopoopees.
A smirking Claudia sprawls on the bed next to us, and for a while we make our little girl the meat in an Olivia sandwich. She takes turns climbing over each of her parents, depending on who looks most interesting at the moment, occasionally pausing in the gap between, as if she can’t make up her mind. We take turns “getting her mutton”, and all three of us are now laughing and wrestling among six pillows and a big down comforter. Almost dreamlike, the fact that I am experiencing one of the most satisfying brief moments of my life, does not escape me.
It’s the last weekend of May, 2012, and a year since Claudia and I updated Olivia’s blog. Predictably and metaphorically, our lives are as radically different now as is today’s anticipated high temperature for the two cities, Atlanta - 86, and Seattle - 62. Olivia still has almost a weekly doctor’s appointment or some sort of therapy, but for the most part, she is a normal well-adjusted baby girl of either 11 or 15 months old, depending on your point of reference.
Her happy and peaceful demeanor belie the fact that she spent exactly one hundred forty five days in the NICU/ISCU units of Seattle’s Swedish Hospital, most of that time with breathing and feeding tubes in her nose and throat, needles in her feet and hands, and sensors stuck to her body, while she lived under Plexiglas in an incubator called an Isolet. At one point about mid-way through her stay, I counted 13 different wires and tubes connected to her little figure, all of it vital to her survival.
Now having kicked the feeding tube, her most troublesome attachment is a disposable diaper.
For a long time she didn’t make a sound, even when in obvious pain or discomfort. Her mouth would open, but only a raspy micro wheeze would emerge, her throat so traumatized by tubes. Her mother and I worried that she might not ever find her voice.
Today she laughs, cries, and spends most of the day attempting to converse with us in a language only she understands. What sound like to me “dada” comes out fairly often, but before I get too cocky she follows it up with “da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da”, or something akin to a song that you all know by the Police. A neck nibble or just the threat of one will usually summon an impish laugh or a screech. Those are sweet sounds, especially from this little being who almost didn’t survive the first night of her life.
When she was born, Olivia weighed 1.7 lbs. Yesterday the LCD display of her digital scales announced that she had bested the 18 lb. mark. Way to go Olivia! Unfortunately, I think that dad has had a similar increase in weight. If there is such a thing as “freshman forty”, there certainly is a “fatherly fifteen”. You dads know what I’m talking about.
Therefore, on Saturday mornings Olivia and I grab the B.O.B stroller, and head down to what we call “the river”, a park which straddles the Chattahoochee River on the north side of Atlanta. This a popular spot where locals can quickly escape the concrete, metal, and glass of the city to walk, run, cycle, or just take in nature. There is a wide dirt path next to the “Hooch” that we run along, the round trip being about the length of a 5K, or 3.1 miles. In route I try to point out things like “trees” or “doggies”. Although I don’t go out of my way to intrude on other park patrons, Olivia’s infectious smile and social nature easily engages strangers. Her positive energy raises everyone’s spirit, even her old man, while he struggles to shed the “new daddy weight”.
But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself.
How We Escaped Seattle
On Monday June 6th, 2011, the 67th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, I boarded a Delta flight for my last trip to Seattle and a mission to bring mother and daughter home. My face wasn’t painted with camouflage stick, I didn’t have a rifle, hand grenades, and a bunch of other gear strapped to me. Eisenhower wasn’t there to see me off with his “…embark upon the Great Crusade” speech as he did our troops in 1944. And to be sure, first class on Delta is quite a bit more comfortable than squeezing onto a web bench, parachute container against the wall, wedged between similarly equipped soldiers in a drafty C-47 transport, engines roaring as it claws the night air trying to gain altitude while overloaded with men, equipment, and fuel.
OK, the metaphor is laughable, and to compare oneself with those of the greatest generation is borderline sacrilege. Still, I was filled with no small amount of apprehension as the Delta 767 lifted off. Ahead lay the task of accepting the responsibility of our preemie daughter’s care. If everything went well, in a few days Claudia and I would be walking down the corridors of Swedish Hospital, me with a baby car seat and Claudia with the obligatory “Swedish Babies” discharge bag. Claudia at 39, me at 54, were about to become what we had seen countless times in the past months, first time parents of a newborn walking out of the shelter of the hospital and on our own, so to speak.
Claudia had given me the call the night before, that on Tuesday they were planning moving Olivia to the rooms in the ISCU (Infant Special Care Unit) in which parents are responsible for most of the care and more importantly, Olivia would be removed from monitoring. Sure, the nurse’s station would be right outside the door, but seeing Olivia completely untethered for the first time in her life would be a very special moment.
There was also the logistics of moving the girls home after five and a half months in Seattle. When Claudia checked into the Silver Cloud hotel, a few blocks from the hospital, she had her luggage and a cart worth of flowers and a few care packages from home. Due to an unimaginable outpouring of support by friends and family, the care packages had kept coming. There was food, books, clothing, more flowers, nursing equipment, Claudia’s laptop, iPad, a couple of cameras, and now baby supplies. In the hotel kitchen’s deep freezer a last box of frozen breast milk that the Silver Cloud staff had so graciously stored for us needed to be boxed in dry ice and… there might have been a few more items hanging in the closet after a couple of trips uptown to the Nordstrom Rack.
The point is that by June, Claudia had pretty much filled a hotel room to the roof, and guess who’s task it would be to get it all home?
Boots on the Ground
Once I arrived in Seattle and made my way downtown via Seattle’s Light Rail system, I grabbed a small Volvo sedan from ZipCar, and headed to the nearest UPS store for boxes. Armed with those and some more contributed by the hotel staff, the packing could commence. Heidi, another preemie mom from Vashon Island whom Claudia had befriended in the NICU, stopped by the room to add some much needed reinforcement. While I was out running another errand, the girls got everything but what we would carry on the plane boxed up. Returning to the hotel, I packed the little Volvo and made one more trip back to UPS to see what Brown could do for us.
Last Days in the ISCU
At Swedish, when a preemie is well enough to leave the NICU but not go home, they are moved downstairs to an Intermediate Special Care Unit (ISCU). Here they get most of the same medical care as in the NICU, but while on supplemental oxygen, are transitioned out of the Isolets, and then eventually on to breathing room air. Their vitals continue to be monitored up to the last few days before discharge. I can tell you that having focused on Olivia's vitals monitor for 5 months, it is somewhat disconcerting when they finally take it away. Not hanging on every breath is almost impossible. It reminded me of when during my pilot training, my flight instructor got out of the airplane one day, and told me that he wanted to see three takeoff and landings to a full stop – solo. He somehow knew that I was ready and I wanted to believe him, but that taxi back to the runway for takeoff was the longest two minutes of my life.
The other big change is that were the care time is voluntary in the NICU/ISCU, the infant personal care is progressively more given over to the parents. Not that Claudia missed many of the 6 daily diaper changes, feedings, and taking of temperature over five months, but in the rare event that she was too exhausted to walk to Swedish for the last care time, a NICU nurse would handle everything, no questions asked. Now we were the whole production, but as you can imagine neither of us complained.
Over the 5 months that Olivia spent in the NICU, we were fortunate enough to meet some pretty amazing parents, more or less in the same boat as us, providing care for their preemies. Sadly and for whatever reason, there were also a few critical infants whose parents never made care time. Although the NICU/ISCU was definitely the most nurturing place they could be, it was hard to imagine this king of abandonment. Confidentiality precluded us from learning their stories, so we said a prayer and hoped for the best.
One of the items on the pre-departure check list is a session to see how Olivia would handle an infant car seat. Our nurse placed the car seat that we provided into her hospital bed, and then observed if mommy and daddy actually had been paying attention in class while we strapped our little girl in for the first time. Then there was a thirty minute comfort check. My memory is that Olivia slept through most of the ordeal, so perhaps it was in fact a parental check.
Finally the day came. The discharge interviews and paperwork seemed to go on forever, but by early afternoon, we were finally deemed indoctrinated, signed, sealed, and fit enough to walk out of the hospital with our baby girl.
On the wall behind the desk at the main nurses stand in the ISCU is a white board listing infant patients and their assigned nurses for the current shift. A lovely lady named Shannon, who was the manager on duty, asked Claudia if she wanted to do the honors in erasing Olivia’s name from the board. Another tearful moment ensued.
Goodbye hugs from Nurse Marcie followed and Claudia paused to leave a goodbye message on the nurse’s board in the room.
At the main entrance as we briefly waited for the hotel van, Chaplin David and Shannon emerged for final hugs and well wishes. Tearfully thankful for the amazing care that we had received, we took one last look at Swedish, and told the van driver Peter that we were ready to start the first leg of our journey home.
When we returned to the Silver Cloud, the staff had a Pack n Play crib waiting in the room. Only one and a wake-up left for the three of us now. When I lay Olivia down in the bottom of the crib, she looked so small and detached. Thankfully, she seemed content and slept pretty much through the night, Claudia and I waking her for feeding and comfort care on the same schedule as the ISCU, every four hours.
In the weeks prior Claudia and I had spent a great deal of effort planning and reviewing our trip home. We stressed about flying, mostly for the exposure of Olivia’s premature immune system to the public that would be unavoidable in the airport, going through the security checkpoint, and on the airplane. We considered renting a car and driving, renting a small plane (I have my pilot’s license), and or trying to get a hop on a corporate jet. After discussing it with Olivia’s doctors, weighing the risks and costs, commercial travel was deemed the best choice. We booked a red eye, with the thought that the airport security checkpoints and flights would be less crowded.
Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the case. Although we brought a letter from Olivia’s neonatologist explaining our circumstances for the TSA, it did us little good. Claudia, with Olivia in a sling carrier on her chest, still got a thorough inspection by the blue rubber glove crew. I complimented them on their assiduousness as formula and ice packs were sniffed. A necessary evil I suppose, but damn it was stressful.
We decided that I would board early, and wipe the seating area down thoroughly with Clorox sheets. Claudia brought Olivia on just before the crew shut the door. We snuggled into the last row in First Class on the right hand side of the Boeing 767’s cabin, Olivia on Claudia’s lap. When the flight attendants dimmed the cabin lights for taxi and takeoff, Claudia and I shared a kiss over Olivia, our checks moist in the dark. Claudia had been gone for six months.
My wife had been through so much stress over the last few weeks, I wanted her to try to sleep. We transferred Olivia to my lap, I dialed up a movie, and ordered a bourbon on the rocks. Olivia and Claudia slept. A couple of hours later, Olivia showed impeccable timing waking just as the movie credits rolled. She was hungry, so from a flight attendant I requested a little hot water in a barf bag to heat a bottle. Olivia proved a capable traveler going right back to sleep after her midnight snack and a fresh diaper. The later I performed on my lap in the dark, thank you very much. We flew on.
At my age, it isn’t as easy to do an all-nighter. But as the plane touched down at Hartsfield a few more hours later, sunshine infiltrating partially opened window shades, I felt renewed. We were home at last.