This Is What I Feared When My Baby and I Were Separated Shortly After Birth
Upon hearing my daughter had a critical congenital heart defect (CHD) and would need life-saving surgery soon after birth, my thoughts immediately turned to her survival, the complications, the hospital stay, and all those important things that surface when you have a child who isn’t 100 percent healthy.
However, as my pregnancy continued and plans became more concrete regarding the hospital I’d deliver at, the surgical team we’d use, etc., it hit me that as soon as she was born, she would be taken from me almost immediately after she was born. It became a fixation, unfortunately, as I was fortunate to have unlimited skin-to-skin time with my two sons after they were born and to start breastfeeding immediately. This time, things would be very different.
Below are my thoughts and feelings on the day of my daughter’s birth.
Separated after birth — a stream of consciousness for heart moms and a letter for my daughter at the moment of her birth
May 6, 2015.
Last night as a family of four. I push the thoughts out of my mind about what tomorrow brings. Bedtime — anxiety is making me shake but I steel myself and think that it’s not like I’m going into war.
May 7, 2015.
Silent, dark, cool morning air greets us as we make our way down to the hospital where high-risk births take place in Dallas. Hospital room feels like a hotel. I miss my OBGYN; he doesn’t do high-risk births like this. I’m blessed to live close to this hospital, I know that.
Pitocin begins. Nurse keeps it very low; she’s watching my daughter’s heart rate as the contractions begin.
Family starts to arrive. Epidural in place. I slowly sink into the back of my mind. Dazed. Tired. I don’t talk much. The new nurse is talkative and tells me that having four children almost sent her to the poor house. I don’t ask her if any of them have a medical condition that will require lifetime care.
Frustrated — why are the contractions slowing down? My other births went so quickly. The nurse is turning down the Pitocin because my daughter’s heart rate keeps dipping. I appreciate that, but I want this baby out and I am high on the epidural. I ask if the Pitocin can be turned up; I am given a non-answer.
I’m getting emotional and the nurse starts putting me in different positions to help along the progression of my labor. Something clicks and it’s time. The doctor walks in, throws out half the staff who have been milling around. “It’s time to push, Whitney. It’s time to meet your baby; you’re ready.” I feel I am ready.
All of a sudden my husband announces that someone needs to bring my sister, Sarah, back into the room. I need her there and he knows it. Sarah and my husband hold my hands, and we begin — push for 10 counts, breathe, OK push again for 10… OK breathe… push more, now, push, that’s it. Breathe. Good job, take a break, take a second. I suck for air and look around and know that my baby is almost here already! I’m tired, but the fear is gone and I know I can do this. It’s time to push again and on the second wave of pushes, she is coming and this is what I want my daughter to know:
I feel that big release as you are pulled out of me, easily, almost no effort at all, and I see the doctor holding you. You are blue, completely blue, but you are screaming mightily — and that is what comforts me. The blue tint of your skin scares me to death but you are screaming loud enough to instantly remove any fear from my heart that you are dead or weak. I know better than to ask, “Is she OK?” because obviously, you have a serious heart issue that resulted in you being born blue. The doctor warns me you might stay blue for a bit, but as soon as she says that, you start to pink up. There is no relief like the moment you start pinking up. Sarah is overjoyed, my husband can’t say much but keeps grinning at me because he’s so proud you’re finally here. We did it, you and me. We made it through that horrific pregnancy, where every single day I feared you had died in my belly. But you are here, you are alive, you are a fighter. You’re slightly cleaned off, your breathing is checked and it’s confirmed that I can hold you for 60 seconds before you need to be taken down to the NICU to begin the medication that will keep you alive until your surgery.
You’re placed on my chest and I feel your tiny head on me and I kiss you, over and over, and tell you I’m sorry that I couldn’t give you a healthy heart — that if it were up to me, you’d have mine because I would sacrifice my life for you to have even one day with a normal heart. I kiss your head and keep talking because instinctively I know you need to hear me, smell me, drink me in, for that short minute. I don’t know when we’ll be heart to heart again.
My mother and younger sister come in to meet my baby; my husband holds her; the extra time we are given to marvel over the miracle that she is, is precious. We take a few pictures. The room is jam packed with nurses and staff now, impatiently waiting to whisk my daughter down to the NICU. I want to be annoyed, but I check myself because we are fortunate that we found out early about her heart defect and that she was born at a hospital that knows exactly what to do with babies like her.
So as the nurse gently lifts her from my arms and places her in the bassinet that will slowly roll her out of my room, down the hall, and into the NICU, hot tears slide down my cheeks as the room goes from high activity to complete silence. My sisters reach out to me and ask me how I’m doing. I let myself feel self-pity for one second, and then a burst of adrenaline kicks in and I’m OK. It’s time to get to a recovery room, pump my first bottle of breast milk, and start trying to pee so I can walk on my own in a few hours.
Many heart moms can relate: when your baby is taken from you to go to the NICU (or straight to surgery), your own recovery is a non-issue. I have seen moms who’d just had a C-sections find a way to get to the cardiac floor to be with their babies. When you are separated after birth, you may worry that the bond will not form. I only held my daughter three brief times in her first four days of life. And I felt a distance for those first few days — self-preservation, likely, as my subconscious was afraid to get too close, in case we lost her.
But I’m here to tell you there comes a time when you realize the bond you were scared would never form was actually growing and strengthening from the time you found out there was a problem with her heart. And once you have that moment, all you can see is her. You don’t see the nurses struggling to get your child into your arms; you don’t see the tangled cords or hear the beeping machines or look up to see what’s going on out in the hall. Your precious baby is finally in your arms, and she’s looking at you, and her eyes tell you what you suddenly realize: you are in this together, and nothing can break your bond, ever.
Getty image by NataliaDeriabina