Guest Post: Joshua; NICU Dad Posted on November 10, 2014 by Guest Poster.
Joshua is a father of 3, with his youngest coming a little early and teaching him what it’s like to be a NICU dad. He writes on the experience of growing with a premature baby and the new challenges posed by life in the NICU, and about his day to day experiences with his other children.
NICU Dad: A whole new (sometimes scary) world
My wife’s third (and final!) pregnancy was off to a good start earlier this year – until about week 12 or so. Intense headaches, non-stop vomiting due to hyperemesis gravidarum, and pregnancy induced hypertension. It became obvious pretty quickly that this pregnancy would not be like the last.
Fast forward to week 30, about 2 weeks prior to the time I’m writing this, and we’re at the ER. Her headaches are so bad she literally can’t see straight, and the pounding in her head was telling her that her blood pressure was too high again. We were admitted, labs were drawn, samples were collected… and a quick dose of BP medication and pain medicine were given via IV. What we didn’t know, is the doctors were gearing up to take the baby that night – luckily they were able to control her symptoms enough to postpone and not take Shane at 30 weeks.
At 31 weeks and 5 days, though, even Dilaudid, a very potent pain medication, would not stop the headaches, and the c-section was ordered. We had about 3 hours of lead time on it – they told us at 7 and she was in the OR at 10.
My world kinda went into a frenzy. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know how well a nearly-32 week baby could handle being born. I knew it was supposedly pretty safe, but at the same time the Neonatologist spared no details of what we could expect, and what we should expect. Breathing problems, temperature regulation problems and eating problems were at the top of the list.
When he was born, he cried – and so did I… I knew at least he was able to breath on his own. The Neonatologist examined him for a minute with his nicu nurses and then told the doctor “He’s noisy and very pink!” … both great things, he was able to breath and he was getting oxygen from the air. He looked healthy, but small. Very small, 4lbs 11oz (which is actually more than a lb above average for 32 weeks, but my first son was 10lb 8oz at birth at 37 weeks, so we expected him to be a little big). He was less than half of the weight of his brother, and very fragile looking. As they got him ready to leave the OR and head to the NICU, I really didn’t know what to expect. I followed him to the NICU, and watched as they quickly setup and fitted him with a CPAP unit. They gave him extra oxygen and the pressure from the CPAP unit made it easier for him to keep his lungs expanded in his breaths. It was terrifying. To see your child with wires all over from various probes, and IV being inserted into what was left of his umbilical cord, and a breathing apparatus strapped to his head was rather shocking. Add to this the constant beeping and alarms of the various machines in the NICU, and this is when I realized just how different my experience with Shane was going to be compared to his brother.
Settling into things
Now that he’s stable, its time to settle into the life of a NICU dad. There are things you just never experience with a regular nursery that quickly become part of your routine when you’re baby is in the NICU. “Scrubbing In” – in the same kind of sink with the same kind of soaps and scrubbers as OR doctors before surgery for 3 minutes before you visit it step one. Shane doesn’t have an immunity problem, but some of the babies do, so keeping things steril is a must. Once we go in to visit him, the experience is just as unique.
Babies in the NICU are hooked up to lots of various monitors. Temperature, O2 sensors, monitors for the breathing equipment, machines that slowly squeeze syringes full of protein and fats into their IVs to feed them… and almost all of these machines make noises, many of them alarm often. A baby moves in a way that loosens the pulseOx monitor… alarm. Baby stops breathing for a few seconds (its normal in premies, much like sleep apnea in adults) alarm! Food syringe is empty, ALARM! Baby gets more than 1 degree C away from target temperature… ALARM! Its a jungle of sounds, and they are mostly all alerting and someone terrifying to get used to at first. The constant bubbling of the CPAP machines (they use a bubbling mechanism to maintain the correct pressure) is another one of those sounds that just comes to be part of the visit.
Our optional parental duties (that we do as often as we can) are to take his temperature (under his arm) and change his diapers. The temperature is straight-forward, but his diapers can be a challenge with all the wires and tubes, not to mention how fragile he feels. We can’t just pick him up, and we can only interact with him through the armholes in his isolette (some call it an incubator). Its certainly a little painful to be so removed from the normal daily duties of a new parent, but its for the better.
When many people think of their babies’ milestones, they think of the first time they sit up on their own, or the first time they really “see” you, or when they crawl or when they babble.
When you’re a NICU dad, milestones are a little different. Yesterday Shane was taken off his CPAP and put on a Nasal Cannula (those thing you see older people with oxygen tanks using under their nose). This was a huge milestone for us, it means he can provide the strength needed to open his lungs without the help of the added pressure of the CPAP machine! I cried… I was so happy. My son is on his way to breathing normally, it was the world to me. He’s also started receiving milk… at first it was just 5ml, and he gets it through an ng tube into his stomach. Yesterday he was bumped up to 10ml (about a ⅓ of an oz). That was amazing, and made us so happy to hear! He’s actually digesting food! More food means less reliance on the IV for sustenance, which means it’s on it’s way to coming out – and when the IV is out, thats the day I get to hold my son. That’s right, I haven’t been able to hold my son yet. I can hold his hand, I can comfort him when he’s upset, but I can’t hold him. A huge milestone for us is the day we can just hold him. I took for granted all of these things with Noah, he was so perfect and healthy from day one, but I don’t and can’t take them for granted with Shane, I appreciate every day and every minor victory he makes on the way to be a healthy baby.
It’s scary at first… but it gets better.
The NICU is an intimidating place, especially when you see your baby hooked up to so many machines and the noises are so off putting… but it gets better. The alarms that scared me the first day are just part of the background noise now… the tubes and wires all have a purpose and many of them are benign and are just there for redundancy. The isolette is intimidating with its arm holes at first, but it’s really just a nice warm room for baby. There is also a great support system in NICUs, there are groups like “Hand to Hold”, who are made up of past NICU parents who volunteer their time to talk to new NICU parents in the NICU itself… and sit and talk with you as you go through this experience. It’s a great group of people who know what its like and know that more than likely, this will soon be a memory and you will go home with you happy, healthy baby. It’s certainly a learning experience, and it’s taught me a lot. Appreciate your healthy full-term babies, they are gifts for sure, but you don’t have to be terrified if your little guy arrives a few weeks early – modern medicine certainly hasn’t looked past the little ones, and they are in great hands these days.
I can’t wait to take Shane home, but thats probably still a month away – but I know he’s in great hands, and I’ll be sure to write more as I learn more and discover all the challenges and triumphs of being a NICU dad.