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There was nothing unusual about my pregnancy, except for maybe my craving for chocolate-cream filled snack rolls. During my earlier pregnancies, I had painted the house, refinished floors, and even wallpapered, but I wasn’t as active during this one. With no obvious medical reason for an ultrasound, I didn’t have one, especially since our insurance wouldn’t pay for what they viewed as an unnecessary test. Andy, my husband, and I were satisfied with being surprised to learn if our new baby was a boy or a girl.
We arrived early at the hospital excited about having our fourth child and what we planned would be our last. My obstetrician had decided to induce labor because Zach, our fifteen-month-old weighed eleven pounds, two ounces when he was born. This baby didn’t need to be as large. He or she would also be joining Drew, age five and Mary Beth, three. If this baby had decided to come three weeks earlier, we would have had four children ages four and under.
The nurses assigned to me asked how many children I had. I proudly told them. Each was surprised to learn I already had three toddlers. One nurse curled her upper lip in a sneer, “Don’t you already have enough?”
In the delivery room, the lights were extra bright, reflecting off the white tile walls as the doctor and Andy stood at the foot of the delivery table. They watched for the baby as I pushed.
Andy and I had met at Auburn University. He was tall and red-headed, contrasting sharply with my short stature and brunette hair. When we married, Andy wanted a big family, as did I. He worked in the carpet industry as a production manager, and after our first child was born, I became a full-time homemaker. This made me unusual among young women because the popular culture was to have a job and raise a family at the same time. Andy and I decided we wanted to have one parent home with the children.
We were a happy, busy family who enjoyed traveling, camping and football games. Everyone was looking forward to the new addition. I hoped for a girl; then we would have two boys and two girls.
I never had a sister and thought it would be nice for Mary Beth to have one. Neither had Andy. He had a brother, Tim, and I had two brothers, Bo and Ed. Another female would make the genders nice and equal in our family.
Andy was so excited. He grinned as if he were the one doing something wonderful as Nick moved to join the world. I smiled back at him, anticipating the joy of having another child.
Finally, the doctor announced, “It’s a boy!”
Nicholas Samual May was born at 5:20 p.m. on April 5, 1989. He weighed eight pounds and eight ounces, a healthy size for a baby.
The delivery took twelve hours from start to finish. After the birth, I asked my OB if Nick was okay. I noticed he was bluer than my other children had been when they were born. I was reassured Nick had ten fingers and ten toes and looked good to him. His assistant put Nick on oxygen, but explained it was nothing to be concerned about – just routine.
In recovery, I asked the nurse, “Can you check on my baby?”
“He’s fine. You can see him later,” she said.
“I really wish you would check. My other child, just a year older, had to be in the Special Care Unit for low blood sugar, and I’m worried about this one.”
“Okay, I’ll see how he is.” She returned sometime later.
“He’s fine and in the regular nursery.”
Zach’s troubles had started at birth with him being so large that forceps were used to help him down the birth canal. From their use, a large hematoma formed on Zach’s head that took months to clear up. He had little muscle mass to his legs or arms. Early on, he didn’t eat as he should. I spent a good deal of time at the pediatrician with him. As months went on, he improved. At Nick’s birth we believed he would grow out of the problems.
I was jealous when I learned Andy, the kids, my mother and in-laws had seen Nick. A nurse brought him out of the nursery so that his brothers and sister could touch him, and they had a big photo session. I hate that I was not there to participate.
I already had visions of our family of six filling the supper table. The hustle and bustle of birthday parties and Christmas mornings. Of sharing playdates with other moms.
I was very involved at our church and planned to continue that after the baby was born. We had a trip to Disney World on the calendar already. I hand sewed special outfits for the children and was looking forward to making one for this baby. Since I was home full-time, I kept the yard and saw to most things around the house. I’d even started writing a book. My life was full and some days running over.
From past experience, I knew I wouldn’t see Nick for the first few hours. After getting settled in my room, I asked for him. The nurse said she would bring him to me around 7:00 p.m. but no one ever brought him. I was getting worried. When I asked again, a nurse told me that there might be a problem with his blood sugar, but I’d probably get to see him around midnight. Although I was concerned, Zach had experienced the same problem and was fine, so I took it in stride.
I was still anticipating Nick being brought to me when the phone rang shortly after midnight. It was a nurse from the Special Care Unit. “I’m just calling to let you know we’ve transferred your baby to the Unit. We need to watch him a little more closely. He’s fine right now. We want him to stay that way.”
I interpreted that to mean that they were being careful because they were aware of Zach’s problems at birth. I settled into sleep but with a nagging feeling something wasn’t right.
The next morning, I called the Unit. “May I see my baby?”
The nurse put me on hold. When she returned, she said, “Dr. Reed is here and would like to talk to you.”
“I’ll be there in just a few minutes. I need to walk anyway.” I wondered what was going on but wasn’t too worried. Dr. Reed was our family pediatrician, and I wasn’t surprised he wanted to speak to me.
Reaching the Unit, I washed my hands and put on a gown. Dr. Reed stood beside Nick’s isolette. His characteristic smile was missing.
As usual, he went straight to the point, “Susan, your baby has some type of problem. He’s receiving one hundred percent oxygen, but the oxygen isn’t getting to his feet or hands. There may be something wrong with his heart.”
Oxygen level? Heart problem? My head spun. What was he talking about? I had a political science degree and knew little medicine wise beyond applying a Band-Aid. I had no idea what all Dr. Reed was telling me meant. My mind searched back to my high school biology to remember how the body works.
He continued, “I’m sending your baby to a hospital in Atlanta. I’ve already made arrangements. He’ll go by ambulance.”
I stared at him in disbelief, saying nothing. I looked at Nick, the floor, the ceiling, anything to make this news not be true. If I didn’t focus on Dr. Reed, maybe this would all be a bad dream. He had to be talking to someone else because my child couldn’t be that sick.
“The ambulance should be here in the next hour or two.”
The one he was referring to was Angel II, a neonatal ambulance that’s highly specialized, staffed by a driver, a nurse, and a respiratory therapist. It transports newborns from area hospitals to trauma centers for higher level care. I had been passed while driving on the main highway by one of these vehicles a few times. I never imagined my child might need one. This is when fear started to well in my chest. This type of heartbreak didn’t happen to us. We heard about it occurring to others.
Nick would be transferred to Egleston Children’s Hospital across from Emory Hospital, deep in an area of Atlanta where we rarely went. I had been there one other time, a year earlier. Zach had gone to the clinic to see a doctor about a possible heart problem, but nothing was found. Only because of that visit did I have any idea where the hospital was located.
Dr. Reed started a drug to keep the hole in Nick’s heart between the two upper chambers called the ductus arteriosus open. Everyone is born with this hole, and it closes anywhere from hours after birth to around three weeks later. Nick’s problem appeared when the hole began to seal.
I had no family with me. I looked at what appeared to be my perfectly formed new baby, yet Dr. Reed was telling me something was terribly wrong. I calmly said, “Okay.” What I wanted to say was no, no, no this can’t be happening.
When I left Dr. Reed, I was sure he thought I didn’t understand. He thought correctly. My brain was skipping like stones on a lake. I had to call Andy.
In slow motion, as if in a shadowy mist, my body trembling all over, I walked back to my room. Panic consumed me, but still I couldn’t grasp enough to know exactly what I feared. I refused to let the possibility of Nick dying cross my mind. I forced that possibility out of my thoughts the second it entered. I started praying – hard.
If I stood in the hall with my back to the wall, still, so still, so quiet, barely breathing, I started to believe that, even though I was in plain sight, I could be invisible. I would disappear. If no one could see me, nothing bad could happen. The horrible truth could not find me. It was surreal, like seeing my life from a distance.
When I finally made it to my room, I picked up the phone with a shaking hand. “Andy, something’s wrong with Nick.”