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When a Young Doctor Saw Me Crying Over My Second Preemie Baby

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One day after giving birth to my son via emergency C Section, I finally made my way to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) to actually see him for the first time. I was not new to the NICU; my daughter, who was born just three years earlier, was also premature. Shea (pronounced Shay) entered the world six weeks too soon, weighing only 2 pounds 8 ounces on December 14, 2000 (an early Christmas present). She was severely small for gestation due to a malformed umbilical cord and placenta. She entered this world crying and kicking. The neonatologist let us kiss her and then they whisked her away to the NICU. I wouldn’t see her again until the following day. Our tiny baby’s lungs were not fully developed and she had to be put on a ventilator for the first 24 hours of her life.  

For the next 26 days, my husband and I trekked back and forth to the hospital through the Michigan cold and snow to see our tiny baby. To quote another preemie mom, “The NICU is the dirty little secret in a dark corner of the hospital where no one wants to go but where miracles happen every day.”

The first time you walk in, you can’t help but be overwhelmed. Heart and oxygen monitors are beeping and blinking, nurses are walking quickly but efficiently around the unit with IV bags and baby bottles in hand, parents are huddled behind incubators, home to their babies who are connected to a variety of tubes and wires leading to the medical equipment keeping them alive. As a mother, I recall feeling helpless. I’d sit by my daughter’s incubator and just watch her. After three days had passed, I was finally allowed to hold her. I’ll never forget the first time our eyes finally met and I whispered to her, “Hello Shea, I am your Mama… I am so happy to finally meet you… I love you and I always will… I loved you before you were born.” It was that moment I bonded with my child, and for the first time, I began to feel like I was her mother.

We were so happy when the day finally arrived and we could take her home.  She weighed just 3 pounds, 5 ounces and was still on oxygen therapy. Many people assume the journey of premature birth ends once your baby is discharged from the NICU, but for us, it was just beginning. The next three years were filled with therapy and doctor’s appointments. We took Shea to a geneticist who couldn’t diagnose her with any known syndromes. And we were told the complications surrounding her birth and development were a “grievous one-time event.”

About two and half years later, we decided to have another baby. At first the pregnancy was normal and seemingly healthy. Everything changed when I reached 27 weeks. I began to have severe headaches and dizzy spells, and I was diagnosed with preeclampsia (pregnancy induced hypertension). I was immediately admitted to the hospital for bed rest. And I was yet again separated from my daughter — only this time, I was the one who had to stay in the hospital.

I convinced myself everything would be just fine if I took it easy and obeyed the doctor’s orders. But, it wasn’t meant to be. After only one week on bed rest, my blood pressure was dangerously high, my kidneys were beginning to shut down and my liver enzymes were elevated. Not only had I developed severe preeclampsia but also HELLP syndrome. Both of these conditions can cause death to mother and/or baby. The only cure is delivery. There was no question now; I was going to give birth to another premature baby. Only this time, my life was in danger along with that of my unborn child.

As they quickly prepped me for an emergency C Section I began to have flashbacks of what it was like when my daughter was born. I knew what to expect, only this time, my baby would likely be smaller, sicker and in the hospital longer. And I was mentally asking myself, How could this be happening again? Why me? What did I do to cause this?  I was devastated and afraid. “It’s too early… It’s too soon…” I said softly while tears rolled down my face.

The staff kept trying to reassure me things would be all right, but I knew differently. Even if my baby lived, there would be many difficult days ahead of us. I knew too much. I’d done this already, and I didn’t know how I could possibly do it again.

On January 15, 2004, our son, Colton James, was born three months premature and weighing only 1 pound, 15 ounces. He came into the world crying just like his big sister. We were amazed! It was like music to our ears, and my husband and I cried together with relief.  But it was short lived. He was so tiny, and he needed immediate breathing assistance, and once again, my new baby was whisked away to the NICU where he was placed on a ventilator. And I was left on the table where doctors tried to stop my bleeding for the next two hours. I begged my husband to go with the baby, but he was too afraid to leave my side. Eventually he went to check on our son to give me some peace of mind. I was heavily medicated to prevent seizures and the next 24 hours are kind of a blur.

When I delivered my daughter, I was up and in the shower the following morning at 7:30 a.m., and I insisted on walking to the NICU to see her for the first time right after. I felt strong and determined to take care of my baby. This time was different. I’d been ill, my organs were shutting down and I was heavily medicated. I could barely walk for the first few days — yet my baby needed me. I couldn’t wait to see him, and the day after he was born I was determined to do so. My husband was on his way to the hospital, but this time we had a 3-year-old at home, and he had to wait for child care. But I wouldn’t wait to see my son. 

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I talked a nurse into wheeling me down to the NICU. I saw a sign on an incubator which read “Happy Birthday Colton!” This was my baby. I stood up from the wheelchair on weak, shaky legs, and for the first time I looked at my son. He was the smallest baby I’d ever seen, and I didn’t know how he could possibly survive. He was naked; he was too fragile to try and diaper. I could see his blood vessels and veins through his almost transparent skin. His tiny eyes were covered with a little mask to protect them from the lights that shone above him to treat his jaundice. He was on his belly with his tiny little legs tucked up under him. He was a little longer than a ruler and weighed less than two packages of butter. He was hooked to all of the familiar wires, tubes and monitors. I was afraid for my baby, and as I looked at him fighting to breathe, I felt like a failure, I felt like a defective woman. Why could I not carry my babies to term?  Why did my body yet again fail my child? I began to cry. I sobbed for my baby boy and felt a deep sense of guilt for what I’d not been able to provide him — a healthy beginning in life.

I was still crying when a young female resident came to my side and asked me, “Why are you crying? He is doing so well. He is off of the ventilator!” I replied, “I just feel so guilty. I did this to him. I feel like I failed him.” 

I expected her to pat me on the hand and offer me a tissue and give me that look — the look that we parents of special needs children become so accustomed to — the look that says, “I’m sorry for you, but I’m glad it’s not me, and I have no idea what to say to you so I’ll just smile and offer you a tissue.” But that’s not what she did.

She came to my side, and she put her arm around me and she said, “You have no reason to feel guilty! You gave him the gift of life! You gave him life! You did everything right! This is not your fault. He is here for a reason, and he is a miracle.”

In that moment, this young doctor helped me to release the all-consuming guilt that I’d been feeling. And I began to feel mentally stronger, and my thoughts became clearer. It was at that very moment when I became determined to do whatever it would take to help both my children reach their full potentials. And just like that, my life was forever changed. I chose not become a victim. I chose to become an advocate. Our journey would be different from that of our friends with healthy babies, but we would find our way, one day at a time.

Shea had been our early Christmas present and Colton was our late one. But the most important gift I’ve ever received — the most wonderful gift of all — was the gift from that young female resident. She gave me the gift of hope. Hope. And over the years I’ve learned from hope comes strength.

Originally published: December 11, 2014
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