The saint of the NICU
Today is my youngest child’s first birthday! Those of you who were reading a year ago might recall that that wasn’t the best day.
It was a rough pregnancy, involving bilateral pulmonary embolisms, hospitalization, and getting stabbed in the neck by doctors (UNNECESSARILY). The birth was not a ton of fun either — without going into detail, let’s just say that getting 12 blood draws in the same arm in one day was one of the better parts of the experience.
Then, only minutes after the baby arrived, he was taken away due to a concern about his oxygen levels. A nurse came back to report that he was being transferred to a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in a hospital 30 minutes away, because they suspected bronchopulmonary dysplasia and his condition was deteriorating rapidly.
They brought the baby by my room in the infant transport unit, which looked like a craft for a moon landing. Deep inside a cage of wires and tubes and glass was my son. He was screaming, but I couldn’t pick him up. I was only able to touch the glass briefly before they took him away.
I didn’t get to the new NICU until after my discharge the next day, and I walked in to find my poor little guy hooked up to even more tubes and wires, though he was in an open bed, not an incubator. He was crying again, and I moved toward him, but the nurses informed me that I couldn’t pick him up.
Due to the tubes in his chest, nobody would be able to hold him for days.
He was a full-term baby, and very alert. He was well aware of his surroundings. I think I aged a thousand years every time he cried, his little blue eyes darting around, and had no one to hold him. I promised myself that the second those tubes were removed from his chest, I would see to it that he was held for every single moment possible.
After five days, the tubes were removed and we were allowed to pick him up. One of the nurses scolded me for holding him so much, warning that I would spoil him, but every single ounce of my mother’s intuition was boiling over with the certainty that this baby needed lots and lots of cuddles to make up for his first few days.
His condition was still in question, and we had more than a week to go in the NICU. My prayer life wasn’t great at this point, but I did make one simple request: I asked Joseph, the earthly father of Christ and namesake of our son, to pray that our child would be held whenever he was in pain or scared. Due to some mix of trauma and spiritual immaturity, I didn’t pray for many of the things I should have. But I did make that one request.
We set up shifts to have someone there for all the daytime hours. Joe would spend the mornings with the baby on the way to work, Yaya would watch the kids while I took the afternoon shift, and my mom or Yaya would cover the evenings.
But that left the late night.
My mom left at midnight, and the morning shift change, when only the medical staff could be in the NICU, occurred at 6 AM. That left six hours every day when the baby would be alone. The nurses were sweet about checking in, but they had almost no time to hold the babies. I just couldn’t be there all night, every night, and neither could Joe. And the image of my six-day-old son spending more time crying with no one to pick him up sent me to a place of despair that I have only rarely known.
Though I didn’t see how it could possibly work out, I kept praying. I begged St. Joseph to pray with me for this simple intention, that his little namesake might not be alone when he needed comfort.
I arrived one afternoon for my shift to see that the baby had had a new line put in his scalp. The IV in his hand wasn’t working, so they’d had to push a needle into one of the veins in his head. “When did this happen?” I asked the nurse.
“We had to do it around 3:30 AM,” she said. “He was pretty unhappy about it!”
I picked up the baby and sunk back into my chair, utterly despondent. I began to cry, my tears disappearing into the thin hospital blanket that swaddled my son. Every time I imagined him going through that alone, in the middle of the night, while I was sound asleep, I began to cry harder.
A while later, my phone rang. It was my dad, calling to check in.
I told him about the scalp procedure, and he interrupted me with a sympathetic laugh. “He sure didn’t like that!” he said. “But after I picked him up he settled down and went right to sleep. He slept in my arms all the way until the 6 AM shift change.”
“What?” I gasped. “You were there?”
“Of course I was,” he said. “I told you I would stay.”
My dad had mentioned that he would come at midnight to walk my mom to her car, and that he’d hang out with the baby after that. I’d brushed it off as a nice offer, but never thought it was something he could really do. He’s normally in bed by 9:00 at night, and the hospital was 45 minutes away from his house.
But he did stay. And I started crying again — this time with tears of relief and joy — as I realized that my prayer had been answered.
My dad took the night shift for the rest of our son’s two-week stay. When I got a flat tire on the way home from a late evening visit, I thought Joe would have to wake up the sleeping little ones to deal with it, but my dad happily came to help. He stood on the side of the highway with me at 11 PM while we waited for the tow truck, and insisted on covering all the charges for the new tire. Then he went straight to the NICU to stay with the baby all night.
I have no doubt that God worked through my dad during those harrowing two weeks. But I’ve always hesitated to say that, because my dad doesn’t believe in God.
I know that, to non-believers’ ears, saying that their actions were the work of God might seem to take the credit away from them. It sounds like we’re saying, “You probably would have been sitting on the couch eating Cheetos if left to your own devices, but luckily God made you do something good!”
But that’s not how we see it.
We believe that God is the source of all goodness and love, and that any time anyone chooses an act rooted in agape — pure, selfless love — its source is always God. It’s kind of like when you get water from your sink: you might think of the water as coming from a spout in your house, but if you follow it to its source, you’ll find that it leads to a great river, far outside the walls of your home. You may not have ever seen it, but if you’ve tasted the water, you know the river.
And that’s what I think of when I remember the tumultuous time that was the birth of our son. As I watch my now-one-year-old child sleep peacefully on the evening of his birthday, I recall with profound gratitude the answered prayer from the NICU, delivered in the form of my father’s presence.
I picture my dad sitting there with my baby cradled in his arms, the only visitor among the beeps and blips of the NICU in the middle of the night, and it’s like seeing a glimpse of Christ. And it makes me choke up a little as I think: You might not believe in my God, but you know him. In fact, I’d say you know him very well.