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The First Visit (revisited)
How do you thank the person who saved your kid’s life?
I originally wrote this piece in February 2021. At the time, I had almost exactly 1,000 fewer email subscribers. It’s a story about a time I reflect on from time to time and I was reminded of recently. So here it is again with some small tweaks.
For context, this story took place in July 2018. My daughter’s name is Em, my stepdaughter’s name is Sara, and my wife’s name is Allison.
“We’re headed back to room seven,” the nurse says.
Em is five-weeks-old and we’re at her first pediatric visit after spending all but three days of June in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
“Sorry it’s so warm in here,” the nurse apologizes as we enter the room. I lay Em down on the exam table with the familiar noisy paper.
The late afternoon summer sun is relentlessly beaming onto the small single-paned window on the wall above the table. The blinds are drawn, but I can still feel the heat radiating from them. The oscillating air conditioning unit affixed to the wall near the ceiling can’t keep up and has been reduced to blowing only slightly colder than room temperature air.
Every time the airflow points toward Em, she startles. Her arms shoot out to each side, her eyes open wide, and she looks terrified.
Since leaving the controlled, predictable environment of the NICU a week ago, we’ve noticed she startles easily. Place a plate on the kitchen counter and she flinches. Close a bedroom door and she jumps.
Naptime is the hardest. It’s the one time when we get a break during the day, but we have to spend it tip-toeing around the house so we don’t wake her up. It feels like we’re constantly on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop—hopefully not literally.
There are only three pediatricians to choose from in the small town of Sonoma where we live. Before Em was born, we already knew which one we were taking her to—the same one Sara goes to.
But then everything changed.
You develop a special kinship with the person who saves your kid’s life.
When Dr. S enters the room, he looks exactly as I remember him. He’s not the lab coat-wearing type. Instead, he dons a casual salmon-colored polo shirt tucked into khakis and horn-rimmed glasses that frequently drop down his nose and need to be adjusted.
I resist the urge to immediately give him a hug and play it cool instead. He glances at Allison, then looks at Em as he fidgets with the stethoscope hanging from his neck. I can tell he’s feeling emotional too. It’s the first time he’s seen Em since the night he saved her life.
I want to thank him for what he did, but I’ve been thinking about it for hours and I’m still not sure how to do it. It’s not like you can do a Google search and find a bunch of Top 10 Ways To Thank The Doctor Who Saved Your Kid’s Life blog posts.
He and I spent hours together in the hospital just after Em was born that early morning. He brought an air of calmness I needed in those chaotic hours. In the NICU a few days later, I told Allison I thought he should be Em’s doctor. It felt like the right thing to do. So I called his office that day and made it official.
We’re in his clinic today, only a week after getting discharged from the hospital, because we need to track Em’s weight. She’s 100% tube fed, which means feeding her is boiled down to a simple caloric math equation. We will be coming back weekly to ensure she’s on track and to make any needed adjustments.
Allison is a dietitian, so this is right up her alley. But she’s still mourning that she likely won’t ever be able to breastfeed Em. Breastfeeding was one of the things she was most looking forward to because she cherished the mother-daughter bonding time it gave her with Sara. Thankfully, she’s able to pump breastmilk, and—besides the various meds—it’s all Em’s eating at this point.
As Dr. S shows us Em’s growth charts on his laptop, we see her height, weight, and head circumference percentiles paint the picture of a perfectly healthy baby. Yet we all know something is off. It’s too soon to tell how severe her motor movement issues will be due to the lack of blood and oxygen to her brain during her traumatic birth. We’re optimistic she will be able to eat more and more by mouth since we practice with a bottle every time we feed her with the feeding pump. The thought is that she will equate the bottle with the feeling of food in her stomach and it will encourage her to eat more by mouth. Maybe it’s a long shot, but we have to keep trying.
After some final thoughts, Dr. S collects his things and stands up to leave the room.
I finally shake off my nerves.
“I want to thank you for what you did for us and Em,” I say, “I don’t know what would’ve happened if you weren’t there that night.”
He pauses to adjust his glasses and says, “Let’s not think about that.”
I get what he means. That night is overwhelming to think about. It’s still an open wound that hasn’t quite healed yet. If he lingers in the room much longer, we might all end up in tears.
He gives me a nod and turns to leave the room. A moment later, the nurse comes in and hands me a piece of paper with Your Baby at One Month written across the top. I scan down the page and see bullet points that read, “Brings hands to face,” and “Lifts head briefly during supervised tummy time”—neither of which Em can do yet. I furrow my brow and turn around to show it to Allison.
“I can’t even look at that,” she says.
I’m sure the nurse didn’t mean to hurt our feelings. But it’s tone-deaf for her to give it to us when she knows about Em’s situation. While Em is a super cute kid and her growth charts all look normal, her development will be far from it. There will be countless times when we will unwittingly play the comparison game. The “where she should be versus where she actually is” game.
For now, I wait for the nurse to leave the room, crumple up the paper, and throw it in the trash.
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