‘Portrait of Courage’: Becoming a NICU Mom Changed Me
As a nurse assigned to care for our community’s most critically ill and fragile babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), I thought I had developed a good understanding of the struggle and the emotional rollercoaster that defines the lives of families whose babies I am entrusted with each day.
With more than a decade of experience, I thought I knew what they were going through, and I did my best to offer support and guidance based on what I thought they needed. But all of that changed when my son was born.
It’s true for any parent that having kids will change your perspective on the world, but giving birth to a baby who would ultimately wind up in my unit–the same exact place where I had cared for countless other very sick babies like him–profoundly changed me as a mother, as a nurse, and as a person.
In the fall of 2014, I arrived at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital for a scheduled caesarean section, which was recommended since I delivered my first child via C-section. My son, William, was my second baby. My pregnancy had gone well–no complications at all–and yet, I was nervous. As a NICU nurse, I’ve seen the worst of the worst, and it can skew your opinion about the risks and complications associated with labor, delivery and newborns. You worry, irrationally even, that the worst can happen to you. Even though I had no reason to fret, I requested that a neonatal transport team be present for my delivery. The charge nurse also agreed to be there.
During a C-section, the medical team places a blue drape over your midsection so you’re unable to see anything below your chest. Your sense of hearing becomes heightened as you await your baby’s first cry. I vividly remember holding my breath so I could hear that sweet sound. I heard William’s wail just before my OB-GYN announced that he had arrived. Finally, I could relax. I felt like I could take a deep breath for the first time during the delivery. My baby was here and he was healthy!
Unfortunately, that moment of relief was short-lived. As I listened to the charge nurse, Karolyn, and neonatal transport nurse, Noel, assessing William under the warmer, I noticed him growing quieter. I became keenly aware of a grunting sound, which is the awful noise babies make when they are struggling to keep their airways open. It’s a sound I immediately recognized from my years of delivering care, the telltale indication that a baby needs lifesaving oxygen; I knew this meant William was headed to the NICU.
I remember the wave of fear that washed over me. I remember the desperation of wanting to see what was happening to him. I remember thinking, “This wasn’t supposed to happen to my baby.”
Noel and Karolyn lovingly carried William to me, giving me a few precious moments to say hello and kiss my newborn before they had to whisk him away. To this day, I’ll never forget the gratitude I felt to have my colleagues by my side during one of the hardest moments of my life, doing everything they could to help my boy.
Words cannot express the emptiness you feel as a mother unable to be with her newborn baby, but I knew William was in the best hands of people who would love and care for him as if he was their own. In total, William would spend five days in the NICU, requiring breathing treatments to open his airways. I’ll never forget the first time I came to see him. As I happily settled next to his warmer to cradle him in my arms for the first time, the whole thing felt surreal. This was the place I had worked for years–day in and day out–providing care to other babies just like him, cuddling newborns just like him, assuring the mothers of little ones just like him. Except now I was the one with the visitor badge.
In that moment of uncertainty, it was reassuring to look around and see a room full of familiar faces. In my heart, I still believe that William was able to come home as early as he did because of their diligence, their expertise and their compassionate care.
Today, my little baby is a happy and healthy toddler who loves swimming and playing with his older brother. It’s been nearly three years since I got the chance to hold Will for the first time, and I still keep a snapshot above my desk of that moment: my first visit to the NICU as a NICU mom. It serves as a constant reminder of my unique perspective as both a calm caregiver and a worried mother, guiding me when I work with parents during some of the most difficult and frightening times of their lives.
I remember the heart-wrenching feeling you get as a mother, knowing that somebody else is taking care of your baby just a few floors away. But I also remember the sense of appreciation you feel for those who show your baby love and compassion. My hope is that every family who comes through our doors takes home a happy, healthy baby just like I did, and this desire drives everything I do as a NICU nurse. Unfortunately not every family gets that blessing, so I strive to provide the kind of care that ensures that their time with their child is as meaningful and loving as mine was–every time, no matter what.
I look at that photo above my desk every day when I start my shift. When others see it, they often remark how I don’t look like myself in it. They are right. It is not a photo of me as a NICU nurse. It is a photo of me as a NICU mother. It’s a reflection of who I am and why I do what I do. It’s a portrait of courage in the face of fear, hope in times of darkness. It’s a face that I find mirrored across my unit every day, as families struggle against incomprehensible hardship. It’s a face that I can now relate to.
Leslie Schafer, RNC-NIC, BSN, is clinical manager of the Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and Neonatal Special Care Unit (NSCU).