The room was dark, since Anna was under special lights receiving phototherapy. She wore a mask over her eyes, protecting them from the lights, and she had a tube in her throat and a smaller one in her nose. I didn’t yet know what any of this meant. I only knew that my daughter was here, and I didn’t want to take my eyes off of her.
“Mr. and Mrs. Heller?”
I looked up at the voice. The doctor wore a lab coat and scrubs. The picture on his ID badge showed him with less gray in his hair, but the same square-framed glasses and worry lines creasing his forehead.
“I’m Dr. Stevens,” he said. “I’ll be Anna’s primary neonatologist. I’d like to speak to you for a few minutes about your daughter’s prognosis.”
We followed the doctor to his office, Ben pushing me in my hospital-issued wheelchair. I probably could have walked, but my body ached following Anna’s sudden delivery. I would have loved the luxury of recuperating in my bed, but I loved being with my daughter much, much more.
“I’m going to throw a lot of term at you,” Dr. Stevens said. “Whenever you need me to explain something, or start over, let me know, and we’ll back up. Okay?”
Ben and I nodded.
With that began the longest chain of texts and emails I’d ever sent. As the doctors began running tests on Anna and assessing their condition, I set to alerting everyone we knew to exactly what was going on.
It started simple enough. “Anna’s here” went out in a wide blast. “Over twelve weeks early, probably health troubles. Will update more ASAP.”
Then the doctors began to update us, and text messages would no longer contain the wealth of information that we were given, so I switched to emails. I tried to give people all the information we had, not wanting to give anyone false hope, but wanting everyone to know that Anna could be fine.
I’d get a report from the doctors, send off an email, and almost immediately get new information from Anna’s doctors. It felt like her condition was in constant flux, though I knew she was steadier than it seemed.
I could recite the things the doctors told us from memory with no issue. There was a small hole in her heart, called patent ductus arteriosus, PDA. This was common in premature babies, and usually cleared up either on its own or with the help of medication. Sometimes surgery was necessary, but that was a rarity. She was on a ventilator, because her lungs couldn’t handle the small amount of oxygen in the air. She needed more oxygen than that. She was at about eighty percent pure oxygen, compared to the roughly twenty percent in room air. She was still fed through a tube that went from her nose into her stomach.
The worst part, though, was the grade-two intraventricular hemorrhage. Her brain was bleeding. Bleeds like this could cause retardation or physical problems such as cerebral palsy. I didn’t care if she had problems down the line, as long as I had her. As long as she could come off the ventilator, we would take our girl home and wrestle with whatever challenges she faced. The brain bleed was certainly the scariest of her problems, and one that we would only come to fully understand as she got older.
I knew those things, because they were the things the doctors told us, but I didn’t really know what any of it meant, even as I transmitted the information to everyone we knew. I didn’t know if Anna would be okay. I didn’t know if she’d be on oxygen for a few days, or weeks, or if she’d ever come off the oxygen at all. I didn’t know if she was going to be okay, the one thing no one was able to tell us, and that was really the only thing I wanted to know. I couldn’t even bring myself to mention her eventual homecoming in the emails.
My breast milk began to come in, and I pumped around the clock, even waking in the middle of the night, wanting to give my girl what I could. She was only eating two ccs of milk per feeding, an infinitesimal amount, and that through her feeding tube. But I wanted to make sure I was pumping all that I could so that she would always have something to eat.
We couldn’t hold her, or touch her, yet. Anna lived in a small plastic box called an isolette, which regulated her body temperature, something she wasn’t able to do yet. She was too small and her skin was too thin for her body to keep its heat in. We sat next to her isolette and spoke to her constantly when we could. We told her how much we loved her, how excited we were to have her with us after all this time, our tiny precious girl.
At ten and three quarters inches long and weighing only one pound three ounces, she was minuscule. She was the size of her father’s hand. I knew she would gain weight as she ate, since she was pretty much force-fed at this point, but for now, she looked terrifyingly small, only a fraction of the size of a full term baby.
Her skin was paper-thin, making her look alarmingly red. Really it was the blood so close to the surface, and the whisper-thin skin that covered it. I could see every one of her ribs, as she was clad in only a diaper. She slept on her tummy, butt high in the air, for hours on end. When she lay on her back, arms and legs splayed, it was terrifying to see how thin she was. Even if she was healthy enough to wear clothes, nothing would fit her. Even preemie clothes were meant for babies more than twice her size, I found out when I tried to buy a few things for when her condition improved.
We monitored her progression on the ventilator closely, knowing that as soon as she came off of it, we would be able to hold her. I couldn’t wait to have my baby girl back in my arms. I wanted to hold her, to breathe in her scent, to feel her weight in my arms. We also asked almost daily when we would be able to take her home. We were dying to have her home, settled into her nursery, which Ben had spent so much time putting together for her.
Of course, everyone else wanted to know one thing: when would Anna come home?
The standard answer to the question about taking her home was her due date, June twenty-eighth. That was the answer for most preemies. When they reach their proper gestational age, their bodies were caught up to where they were supposed to be when born, and thus were well enough to go home. I couldn’t imagine more than three months of our girl in the hospital, sometimes without us. Not now, at least, when her condition necessitated constant monitoring. I would be released soon, and then we wouldn’t be at the hospital during all hours of the day. How could we possibly be expected to leave her to fend for herself?
Anna wasn’t the only one with a team of doctors. I was under constant monitoring as well, due to continued concern about infection. It would be catastrophic for me if I fell ill. If I showed any sign of illness, I would be banned from the NICU, forbidden to see my daughter. She and her fellow preemies were extremely susceptible to illness, and so visitors were kept out if they ran a fever, or had a runny nose. I still ran the risk of an infection from the premature membrane rupture, and if I contracted one, I would be exiled to my room. I couldn’t bear the thought of being unable to go to Anna whenever I needed to see that she was really here. I couldn’t be bedridden, and I couldn’t be banished from the NICU. I needed to be available to spend time with my baby.
Before we could enter the room to be with our girl, we scrubbed our hands with scalding water and harsh soap, ridding ourselves of the germs that could be so damaging to the NICU babies. Our hands were dry and scaly by the second day of these hand-washings, but it was so worth it.
Oh, and I loved watching our girl. Ben and I sat beside her isolette, me in my wheelchair, talking to and about our beautiful daughter. We agreed that she had her daddy’s nose, and were pretty sure she had blue eyes like her mom. She didn’t open her eyes enough for us to get a good look, but we were almost certain. Her hair was still dark, like Ben’s, but mine had been dark when I was young, and had lightened up in later years, so maybe she would end up a blonde like me.
It was difficult to see her features, with all the tubes and wires, but it was obvious that she was perfect. And whether our girl was with us for a day or a million days, we couldn’t possibly love her more. She was the culmination of years of yearning, and she had turned out better than we could have imagined.