This Thanksgiving is my first as a parent. I am thankful for so much. I'm thankful for my strong, beautiful, amazing wife (Julie); my twin daughters (Goldie and Ilana); all family and friends. The Kansas City Royals and the 2014 World Series; warm socks on a cold day; my lawn mower; my employer; my life experience that has brought me to this turning point year; and the list continues.
My what-I'm-thankful-for list, while genuine, is probably similar to many others who also love their family, baseball team, and lawn mower. But I have one more addition: the nurses of the Intensive Care Nursery (or Neonatal Intensive Care Unit -- NICU) at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.
While the rest of America was enjoying the sunshine this summer with their family and friends, Julie and I spent ours inside the friendly, yet sometimes unbearable, confines of the NICU.
Our twin daughters were born Monday, June 2 at 8:46 and 8:47 p.m. Around midnight, they were transported from Shawnee Mission Medical Center to Children's Mercy Hospital (CMH), where they are set up to handle pre-28 weekers, while Julie and I dealt with a flooding barrage of feelings ranging from excitement to anxiety to fear.
On Friday, June 6, at 12:50 a.m. Ilana's beautiful soul left her physical body to join seven of her eight great-grandparents and so many others who would welcome her to the world-to-come. She would unfortunately be the youngest soul in our heavenly family tree, so we know there are so many good people looking after her.
Between that Monday and that Friday, life quickly had lept forward for our family.*
The Monday night the girls were born Julie and I were up until around 4:00 a.m. Goldie and Ilana had left in separate transport ambulances for Childrens Mercy around midnight, and we had called CMH twice since then. First, to make sure they got to there without issue, and another time to check up on them. Things were happening fast, and in the understatement of the year, I'll just say it was really hard to be apart from them.
We have heard from -- and we all know or have experienced this -- parents who get nervous or anxious when they leave their child with a babysitter for the first time. But try leaving your child in the NICU. Try being 11 miles away from them, and not knowing if they are going to live or die. This is topic deserves it own column, so I won't go off on that tangent.
First thing on the morning of Tuesday, June 3, I took my first visit to the NICU, while Julie had to stay at Shawnee Mission Hospital to recover from her C-section. Driving up to the hospital, I was so excited. I was going to spend some time with my girls. I had dreamed of this day since we found out we were having twins, but it was obviously not the way I'd pictured it. I wanted to be by Julie's side while she recovered, but my daughters needed me, too. I had three main squeezes in my life now.
With a shivering trepidation, I signed in for what would be day one of what only G-D knew would be 90. I walked up to my daughters' bedside feeling very alone. Goldie was in bed E-45 and Ilana was in E-46. We were lucky that they were in a shared space together, as we were expecting them to be separated -- a thought that made my hands shake. It was enough that they couldn't be with their mother, they should at least have each other.
Taking small, choppy footsteps, looking around for E-45/46, I turned the corner to see a smiling face that quickly put me at ease. The nurse that day, I don't remember who it was, was trained to deal with me: a scared father who had left his wife at the hospital to see his babies. This was not her first day.
The NICU nurses at Children's Mercy Hospital work three 12-hour shifts per week from 7:00 - 7:00. They are in charge of two babies at a time and are constantly monitoring both of them, which means they are administering doctors orders, changing (and weighing) diapers, inserting PICC and mid-lines, taking temperatures, charting all activities, all while managing parent expectations and emotions. It might sound relatively routine, but I assure you it is not.
That first day, my education began. I learned what all the constant beeping was. I learned to keep calm, as most of it was routine. I learned that skin-to-skin (what most parents do with their kids minutes after they are born) is still done in the NICU. And it was the best part of my day.
While Ilana didn't make it through the NICU, she did receive unbelievable care from the doctors and nurses while she was there. Goldie spent 90 days in the NICU. And her life was literally saved by those NICU nurses. Whether it was Paula who noticed her distended stomach, thereby avoiding necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), or Brenda who comforted Julie like the mother she is, and empowered us to take a strong role in our daughters' care while in the NICU. It might have been Hannah who crafted signs for Goldie that made us feel at home, or Courtney who put us at ease with her friendly empowering demeanor. Or maybe it was just talking music with Annie that made us feel normal for 20 minutes here and there.
Or possibly it was Sheena, who knew everything about us and about Goldie and Ilana, too. She was assigned to Ilana the night she passed, and hence she experienced these life-altering moments with us. At only 25 years old, she comforted us in a way that only a NICU nurse could.
I am thankful for these nurses, and so many others. They made the most challenging part of our life bearable. They made it human. Some of them grew to love our daughter in a very genuine way. It wasn't an institutional environment, but completely person-centered, and it meant so much to Julie and I.
Before I had been there, I could not have imagined what life was like for those dealing with an extended stay in the NICU. But when we left, we couldn't imagine life without it. We came home to an empty house. There was no party to welcome Goldie home because as a preemie, she wasn't allowed to be in crowds and we had to be very germ conscious. And we obviously came home with very heavy hearts.
While most new parents get training from their parents those first months that they bring their first baby home, we had received training from the NICU nurses. Sheena showed us how to bathe her. Brenda showed us how to change her tiny (and I mean tiny) diapers amidst various cords. And collectively, they taught us how to care for her. In a way, they were the books that we did not get a chance to read in that third trimester.
But when we came home to that empty house, we knew what we were doing. We were ready to care for Goldie on our own thanks to the NICU nurses of Children's Mercy Hospital.
This Thanksgiving, I'm so thankful for these heroes. They fight a daily battle and they see us, but we want to let them know that we see them, too. It's normally a thankless job, but Julie and I would like to thank all of them, including the ones whose names we have forgotten. You've changed our lives.
Written with great help and input from my wife, Julie.
*You won't hear me say life was "turned upside down" as others have put it to me. I was blessed with two beautiful babies and am closer to my wife than I thought possible. That doesn't sound like things are "upside down" to me.