The next few days were increasingly promising. Anna’s lung strength was improving, and she was putting on weight. She was progressing in a way that she hadn’t been able to before the surgery. It was clear that her digestion issues were clearing up, and that they had been holding her back before.
Pushing toward one month old, but still eight and a half weeks before she should have been born, Anna now weighed over two pounds, doubling her birth weight. She was off the CPAP machine and had only a nasal cannula, the thin plastic tube that went up the nose to make sure she was getting enough oxygen. I was so proud of her! Our only concern now was her eating and digestion. Anna couldn’t come home with us until she could take an entire day’s normal feeds from a bottle. The nurses were giving her one feed a day by bottle, but she fell asleep before finishing the milk, and so the rest of the feed was done through her feeding tube.
I yearned to feed her myself. I wanted to breastfeed her, but since the amount of intake is unknown, and she still hadn’t quite mastered the tricky business of breathing while eating, I was still pumping for her. I kind of hated the breast pump, but loved what I was doing for our girl. We had stored up over a month’s worth of extra milk. Part of the excess was due to how little she ate in a day. She was up to an ounce of fortified breast milk per feed. It was huge for me that she was all the way up to a full ounce. Most babies at a month old were drinking four to six ounces at a time. Of course, Anna was still supposed to be in utero, getting her nutrition through her umbilical cord. Those “normal” one month old babies weighed more like eight or nine pounds. It would be months before Anna put on that much weight. Thanks to the surgery, she was definitely gaining now, even with the weight lost because of the surgery.
On her one-month birthday, Ben and I arrived at the hospital with cupcakes for the NICU staff. We had decided to celebrate every age milestone with Anna for now, knowing that we couldn’t be certain if we’d make it to the next one. The cupcakes were chocolate with pink frosting on top. It was another concession to the “pink is for girls” mindset, and inwardly I cringed a bit. Ben had painted the nursery pink, of course, and I had to admit that I still loved the color. I wished that Anna was old enough and healthy enough to eat one of the cupcakes, but we were leaps and bounds away from that. A year or so, and she’d be gobbling up cupcakes left and right. Well, in moderation anyway.
Anna was asleep when we arrived, lying on her back with her arms and legs splayed out. We passed out the cupcakes to the nurses and other NICU moms and dads while getting the rundown on Anna’s night. She had slept fitfully, likely due to a low-grade fever she was running. The doctor was pushing an antibiotic, believing that a small infection might be starting. Her incision site from her surgery was healing up, but her skin was so thin and delicate that it would likely cause her problems for weeks until her skin fully healed.
“Happy birthday, sweet girl,” Ben said. “You are one month old now.”
She sighed and shifted in her sleep. I gently caressed her forehead, noticing how much warmer she was than usual. As I touched her head, her eyes began to flutter and twitch. Our poor baby. She wasn’t quite waking up, still fighting her way out of a deep sleep. I wanted her to wake up, to see that her father and I were here to see her, to celebrate her birthday with her, but she needed her sleep, and I knew that.
Ben and I sat next to Anna’s isolette, watching her sleep, while we ate cupcakes to celebrate the four weeks we’d had our daughter, against all odds. She still had a long way to go before we would be able to take her home, but we had loved every minute of every day we’d had with her so far.
We sang Happy Birthday to our daughter in soft tones, not wanting to bother the other babies in their isolettes. There were two other children in Anna’s area of the NICU, both born closer to term than Anna had been. One was days away from being sent home, the other would likely go home after another week or so. When we saw the other parents, we spoke to each other, trying to encourage one another, propping each other up with kind words and encouragement. Some of the other families had been where we were, and had held on, and were now close to their goals. They had seen other families leave while waiting for their turn. We would likely see new babies move into the NICU before our stay was over. Thankfully, we had not seen a child lost in the NICU since we had arrived, though I knew that probably wouldn’t last. It certainly happened, even in this, one of the best NICUs in the country. The babies in the NICU were medically fragile, were fighting battles I couldn’t even imagine, even as I watched my daughter fight right along with them. I was thankful that we hadn’t witnessed a loss, knowing that seeing a child pass away would have crushed my resolve to think positively, to hold on to my hope that Anna would begin to recover.
She woke briefly, and I jumped at the chance to hold her. I cradled her against my chest, feeling how much heavier she had gotten in the last few days. The increased number of feeds was definitely paying off for our girl. She looked stronger and healthier every day. Perhaps the roller coaster ride was nearing its end. Perhaps she would stay on an upward track, and we could begin to hope for the best.
After our small celebration, Ben headed to work, and I headed to the pumping room to do my job. While sitting in the pumping room, expressing milk for Anna, my cell phone rang. I was surprised to see the caller ID come up as my OB-GYN’s office. What could they need with me? As far as I knew, our insurance had paid our bills, at least as far as my OB was concerned, though the NICU bills were another matter. We were probably facing at least a bit of a battle there.
“Mrs. Heller? This is Janet at Dr. Smith’s office. I wanted to get you scheduled for your six-week postpartum checkup.”
“Oh,” I said, somewhat surprised. This whole abnormal birth experience had thrown me for enough of a loop that I’d forgotten that a postpartum checkup was even a thing. “Of course. I guess that’s in about two weeks?”
“Yep. Is there a day or time that works best for you?”
“I’m pretty flexible. I mean, I have a pumping schedule, but I can work around that.”
“What about two weeks from tomorrow, at two in the afternoon?”
“That works for me.”
“Great, we’ll see you then.”
I couldn’t believe that I was a month out from having given birth. I mean, obviously I was. I saw Anna every day. I knew she was a month old. It should have logically flowed that I had given birth a month ago. Yet I was in a state of disbelief. I was still wearing my maternity clothes as my body moved back to its previous shape, and as I dropped the weight that I had gained. The pain and bleeding that I’d dealt with over the first couple of weeks after Anna was born had faded away. For all intents and purposes, I felt completely normal again. Physically, anyway.
I still had a hard time with the fact that it was April and Anna was supposed to be born in June – at the end of June, no less! – and yet she was here already. How was her due date still two months away? How had my body failed so spectacularly? How had I failed at the two most elemental parts of womanhood: getting pregnant and having a baby? What could possibly be so hard about those things that my body couldn’t handle it?
I shook off those thoughts. Sure, things hadn’t gone according to plan so far. I needed to concentrate on making sure things went right moving forward. We had to get Anna bigger, heal up her tiny body, and bring her home. What my body could or couldn’t do didn’t matter right now.