Estelle Patrice was born at 8:19pm on Sunday, and a few hours later, landed in the NICU.
These are unsettling words for a parent. I admit, they’re even a bit gratuitous here, because of their gravity in most other circumstances.
This is our fifth child, and Marcy delivered her through a water birth. It was about as close to perfect as it could get, and I remarked during the labor that we had really perfected this whole process, going from the worst (Amelia’s labor and delivery) to the best (Estelle’s, which was at times almost sublime).
Let there be no mistake – it was still labor, and it was still excruciating. The water simply provides some buoyancy to the experience, but does not change it in any fundamental way. More can be said, but perhaps one pun is enough.
Now, I’ve seen four of these types before, and Estelle looked as good as any of them have. She showed no signs of distress, had a great heart rate and was of a healthy weight. We had her back in our room, and this was to be the shortest hospital stay of all our birthing experiences.
That’s when a nurse – “Nurse Jumpy” – commented on Estelle’s cheeks. Namely, that they looked bruised.
Now, before anyone wants to disparage me for disparaging a nurse, please note two things: One, not all nurses are perfect. My grandmother was, my wife is, my aunt is, and heck, even my mother-in-law is. Most are, it must be admitted; but not all. Two: At the risk of narrative power, I tell you that by the end, I will have to be ambivalent at best with respect to Nurse Jumpy.
So I think to myself, of course her cheeks look bruised. They ARE bruised – she was born like 90 minutes ago. All of my kids came out bruised.
Still, Nurse Jumpy wants to investigate this further, and while doing Stella’s assessments, she puts her on the oxygen sensor. Her levels bob from the mid 80’s to low 90’s.
If you’re in the medical field, this probably seems like a no-brainer: Her “sats” are too low, and they have to come up to 95+. If you’re not: “Sats” refers to the percentage of oxygen saturation in the blood. 100% is ideal, naturally. Healthy starts at 95% and goes up. It was told to me that the levels needed to be above 90%, at least, in order to allay concern.
The whole ordeal is over, and I still say: I’m about 95% sure that one or more of my other kids were “satting” below 90% when they were born. It’s just that no one ever checked, and they came home, and they were fine.
Anyway, Nurse Jumpy wanted a second opinion, and a NICU nurse came over and noted the low sats. She also thought it strange that Estelle should look so comfortable and be utterly free of distress, but nevertheless felt we should investigate the sats.
And that’s how we landed in the NICU. Marcy was highly emotional about this, and rightly so. She works in a PICU, and kids don’t land there for any old reason. They either were sick and are sicker, or they looked healthy and got sicker.
There was a chest X-ray, there were antibiotics. There was talk of cardiac issues and an Echo. There were any number of guesses, and no answers.
For my part, I kept my mouth shut. As I later told my mother: I felt nothing but contempt over this, and had nothing nice to say, so I followed her instructions and said nothing at all.
I did wonder, couldn’t they just put Estelle on oxygen and see what happens? There was no sense in which her condition was acute – what exactly was going to happen in the NICU that couldn’t be done in a nursery? Moreover: On one of my trips to see Stella in the NICU, I walked past a young man on the phone. This is what he said –
“Yeah, she’s a little fighter. (Pause) Yeah, they’re saying it could be three months, just gotta wait and see.”
THAT is what the NICU is for, not for an otherwise healthy kid whose lungs are still transitioning to outside air.
Well, it turns out that the hospital simply had no other way to put Estelle on oxygen except in the NICU. Given the medical, administrative, and business concerns involved in structuring a hospital, I decided this was not an issue anyone would look to me to correct. (Fools!)
And so, on Day 2 of the whole ordeal, I expected Estelle to make great gains, reach a healthy O2 level, and get sent home promptly. We could all agree, couldn’t we, that this NICU bed was going to be more urgently needed by some other kid?
But she didn’t make any gains. In fact, between Days 2-3, she seemed to lose some ground. She became congested, she had to be stepped back up on the oxygen tank, and she wasn’t feeding well. As our nurse noted, one problem could quickly become 3-4 problems if something didn’t change.
Unfortunately for us, she had a more demanding patient, and so not much changed on Day 3. It seemed Estelle’s situation was ideally formulated to fall through the cracks. * Marcy and I deliberated and disputed on the best way to handle this, with no clear direction. What rays of hope we uncovered were quickly darkened and diminished.
Even in a situation like this, we are never about only one thing at a time. And so, between this and whatever else I was about, I felt a peculiar impulse as I led my mom, who drove my two oldest daughters, to the hospital on Day 3.
It was first only a thought – drive into the guard rail, jump off a bridge. The rest laid itself out quickly – jump where there is land, head first. The life insurance will cover the hospital visit, and the house, and everything else will work itself out. My absence would be felt, sure, but there were other good men who could be fathers out there, and plenty of family to step in. And what was I, anyway?
The thought may be fairly common, in one form or another. I have no idea how common – I have only clues to work with, not many people have confessed thinking through a spontaneous suicide. Nor do I think there is any special virtue or honor owed to such an experience. It is simply ugly, inviting of grave sin, and to be avoided at great cost.
It transformed from thought to impulse. I speak metaphorically, if not literally – it was an impulse initiated in my brain, which failed to engage my body. It simply passed through me, glided across the muscles that would have jerked the car off to the side, and did not take.**
Anyway, I give you an impression of my psychological state. There is more, but this will do.
We had a lively visit with my parents and daughters, and after they left, Marcy and I discussed the situation again. I expressed my distrust of the situation, of the governing protocols where – I felt – a common-sense medical professional would see things differently. But I saw that all of this troubled her greatly, that it created unrelenting tension for her. And we both simply wanted Estelle to be healthy and home.
I resigned myself simply to accept the situation, to let the doctors and nurses do what they would, and to let Marcy work from the outside of a system she knew so well on the inside. It was maddening, but I suppressed my anger.
On my drive home to get supplies for Marcy, I sought God. I reflected on the prospect of Stella getting worse as a direct result of a situation I was sure she didn’t belong in. I thought, too, of the texture of my spirit, of what could instigate the impulse to jump off a bridge, of what else I had been wrestling with in life. I wondered whether Stella might really get worse – was it inevitable now? – and, God forbid, whether there really was some mysterious and foreboding illness which no one could see coming.
God had given her, He could take her away. I felt no indignation about this, only sadness that it might occur.
So, I did what a father is supposed to do when there is nothing left he can do: I begged for her life. If you had been in the car, you would have looked to see with whom I was speaking. I was cognizant of the ability to speak directly to God, and so I did.
You have to remember how silly the prideful me would have felt. This prayer was unnecessary. It’s not that I wouldn’t do it, it’s that I didn’t have to – there was no problem! Yet from Nurse Jumpy’s obvious observation to here, there suddenly was a problem with no end in sight.
And think further with me: If there is a God, and He was to answer this prayer, to hear my plea and grant it to me, what would that look like? Would I – should I? – expect to see an angel descending from Heaven, taking Stella into its arms, and kissing her clean? Should I expect to return to the hospital and have a vision of the Virgin Mary holding Stella in the rocking chair at her bedside, assuring me that all would be well?
But I arrived at home, and received a message that Stella’s congestion had cleared, and she was eating well again. And again on Day 4, that she was off oxygen several hours ahead of schedule, and ready to come home shortly after that. And a picture came of her sleeping face with cheeks reddened where the tape had held the oxygen tubes.
And I finally arrived to pick her up, almost a full day earlier than expected, with no wires or tubes attached, and her eyes open. It was exactly the scene I had originally expected, just two days later than I originally expected.
Did she really need to be in the NICU, or would she have recovered on her own? For all I know, it could have been either.
Was she headed for worse, and then God heard my prayer and answered? All I know is that the prognosis was bleak and aimless, and then suddenly she recovered. Shall I argue with God that He has not provided sufficient evidence of His intervention?
I am not that foolish. All I know is that every time I pray like that, He answers.
*I’m reminded of the time I was choking on a multivitamin in West Virginia, and in the process of gagging, I found a position which allowed me to breathe, even as the vitamin was stuck in my throat. When the ambulance arrived, my friend asked if they could help me. They said no, unless I would resume a natural position and allow the pill to block my airway again; then they could perform the Heimlich maneuver. Bent over and resisting my gag reflex, I could not believe how stupid an idea this was.
**The enemy does not play nice, he does not wait for you to catch your breath or to pull on your armor. He is a seducer, not a lover. He is a tempter, not a redeemer. But Lewis was right: The strength of a temptation is seen by the one who resists it, not by the one who gives in.
When you notice Satan stalking you, when you hear his footfalls behind you – resist, and pray. And best not to let your guard down.