The Hardest Day Of My Life (Part 2)
It was supposed to be the happiest
If it wasn’t obvious from the title of this piece, you should read The Hardest Day Of My Life (Part 1) first.
If you’re thinking, “ain’t nobody got time for that!”, or if you read it before and don’t remember everything, here’s a brief recap to catch you up:
My wife Allison started having intense contractions very early in the morning on June 4th, 2018 — the exact due date for our daughter Emily (we call her Em mostly)
We rushed to the hospital after Allison’s water broke in our bedroom at home
Em was born 12 minutes after we arrived at the hospital
She wasn’t moving or breathing when she was born
The hospital staff performed CPR and eventually got her stable...kind of
She was moved to a new room — away from Allison — and she was intubated
We learned she needed to have her body cooled for 72 hours, which is sort of like icing her brain
The hospital didn’t have the right equipment for the cooling protocol, so she needs to be airlifted to another hospital
I got hungry at the end and visited Allison in her hospital room
It was all very emotional throughout, as I’m sure you can imagine
There’s much more detail in Part 1, of course. I hope you read it, but I know how busy we all are.
Speaking of which, thank you for spending your time with my writing. If you like my writing, or find it valuable, or engaging, or some other amazing adjective, please consider sharing it with a friend or perhaps many friends on your social media outlet of choice.
Without further ado, here’s The Hardest Day Of My Life (Part 2).
I regret not bringing something with caffeine in it. We’re still at Sonoma Valley Hospital where my daughter Em was born a few hours ago. I’m running ragged on about two hours of sleep. I did get a small rush of energy from the water and trail mix I just ate. I’m going to need something caffeinated to get through this day though.
I text my Mom asking her to bring me a soda from their fridge. My parents have a second home less than a mile from the hospital. Most of the time they live in Las Vegas. For obvious reasons, they’re here in Sonoma now.
My Mom tried to get a few hours sleep after I texted all the grandparents about Em’s situation at 4:10 am:
“It happened really fast, but baby Em was born at 3:17 am. She’s not breathing on her own yet, but has a strong heartbeat and they’re working hard to get her going. I have heard her making little noises here and there, but no crying yet. Please think positive thoughts for us.”
My Mom’s sleep attempt was mostly unsuccessful so she’s coming here to be with us and her new granddaughter.
We were at their house for dinner just last night. My Dad was joking that maybe our new baby girl would come today — her exact due date.
“You never know. Sometimes it can happen fast,” he said.
“It doesn’t happen like it does in the movies, Dad,” I said.
I was so naive less than 24 hours ago.
The medevac team has arrived. They’re getting everything ready for Em’s helicopter flight to Santa Rosa. She needs therapeutic hypothermia, or cooling, which is like icing her brain to help it recover from the lack of blood and oxygen at birth. It’s obvious this paramedic crew hasn’t done this cooling protocol in a while. Maybe ever. I can’t imagine there are that many babies born here in the small town of Sonoma who need it.
The contraption they wheel in on the gurney is sizable with an oxygen tank, hoses, wires, and tubes coming out of it in all directions. They’re telling me it’s an incubator typically used to keep a baby warm during transport. But for Em, they’re using it to cool her body temperature down, so it has some extra attachments and a cooling mat she will lay on. They need to get her temperature down within the first 6 hours of life. I wouldn’t say I’m nervous, but it has been about 4 1/2 hours since she was born. Nothing ever seems to go fast at the hospital.
The little room is getting too crowded and I’ve asked every question I can think of about the medical equipment. I hate to leave my baby girl’s side, but I’m feeling like I’m in the way. I walk out the door and around the corner to be with Allison again. The room is empty. I spin around and catch the eye of one of the nurses walking down the hall towards me. Without missing a beat, she points and says Allison has been moved to a different room on the other side of the nurse’s station in an adjacent hallway.
Is it that obvious I’m the poor, unlucky, exhausted new dad whose life has been completely upended today?
I walk into Allison’s new room and see my Mom sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed. Looking to my right, I see Allison and Rebecca, the nurse who led the birthing classes we attended a couple of months back. Rebecca is dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. It’s clear she came from home and wasn’t on shift today. Word travels fast in this small town. She’s hugging Allison and they’re both crying. It’s a relief to see her lending a familiar shoulder to cry on while I haven’t been able to be with Allison.
My Mom stands up to hug me and I collapse into her arms. I completely lose it and start bawling. I’ve been so busy running on adrenaline trying to stay strong for Allison and Em that I haven’t had time to feel the significance of what just happened.
Our lives won’t ever be the same. The future we envisioned is no more. A fading memory of what could have been.
We’re sailing in uncharted waters now.
My heart sank when I was told Em would need to be transported by helicopter. I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to ride along. My brother is a flight paramedic and he’s told me about the cramped quarters they deal with when transporting patients. He said it’s so tight that the patient’s head has to go in between his knees.
Both my Mom and I are starving. My Dad is going to cook up some breakfast for us so we can grab a quick bite before making the 40-minute drive to Sutter Hospital in Santa Rosa. There’s no sense in rushing because the helicopter will get there much faster than us and they said it will take a while to get Em situated in her room in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) anyway.
It feels so wrong that I’ll be separated from Em. Even if it is only for an hour or so. I know she’s in good hands, but I wish I could fly with her.
Allison is staying here in Sonoma for a while longer to recover. She’s feeling physically okay. But the doctor wants to err on the safe side. She should be discharged later today and she’ll get a ride to Sutter with her Dad.
A nurse tells us the medevac team has Em set up now and they’re getting ready to leave soon. I help get Allison into a wheelchair so we can go across the hall to see Em before her flight. That’s when I realize...
Shit. Allison hasn’t seen Em since the birth. Since Em was lying there motionless, silent, and lifeless on Allison’s belly. I can’t shake that image from my mind. As hard as it was for me to see and experience, it has to be ten times harder for Allison. Maybe 100 times. I was with her there in the room and I still can’t imagine how she felt. She’s the one who carried Em for nine months. She’s the one who felt the pain of the contractions. She’s the one who felt her water break in our bedroom. She’s the one who said it felt like Em was going to come out during the drive to the hospital. She’s the one who gave birth to Em. She’s the one who hasn’t seen Em look like she’s alive yet. I only watched it all unfold like a movie right in front of my eyes. The most terrifying movie I’ve ever seen. Is this real life?
“This isn’t going to be easy to see, okay babe?” I say as I hold her hand so she can stand up to see Em. “I’m right here with you.”
My Mom and I arrived at the NICU here at Sutter Hospital about an hour ago. We left Sonoma Valley Hospital shortly after the medevac team did. I helped get Allison back into her hospital bed before leaving. I held her hands and said, “I’m going to go take care of our baby girl. We’ll see you there later today. I love you.”
It broke my heart to have to leave Allison behind. Thankfully her Dad is still there with her so she’s not alone. And thankfully she will be discharged this evening. It just feels wrong to be apart from her and for her to be apart from Em.
My Mom and I quickly ate the delicious eggs, sausage, and toast my Dad had made for us at their house, and then we hit the road. I don’t remember talking about much on the drive over. It’s hard to make small talk on a day like today. We’re both in a state of disbelief.
Em has her own room in the NICU. Room 12. Her isolette has a homemade quilt draped over the top. It was donated by a volunteer group that makes them for every family admitted here. The top of the isolette is raised as high as it can go because Em doesn’t need to be incubated. She needs quite the opposite, in fact.
The medevac team has used a hospital wristband to hang a toy helicopter on the side of the isolette. Go figure, Em’s first stuffed plush toy is a replica of the red REACH helicopter she flew in, complete with the tail number N37RX.
I meet with Dr. W, the neonatologist on the unit. He’s methodical when he speaks, not the type who talks only to fill the silence. Instead, he waits for the precise words to express his viewpoint and thought process. I appreciate his directness and candor about Em’s prognosis. She’s not out of the woods yet. These few days when she’s cooling will be critical.
He outlines the plan:
They’re going to try to extubate her and switch her over to oxygen through a nasal cannula. They’re going to do an EEG test and attach electrodes onto her head to see if she’s having seizures. They’re going to do regular blood tests to monitor a variety of different markers like blood sugar levels. They’re going to do an MRI after the cooling process is done.
CPR, NICU, EEG, MRI. These are all acronyms no parent should have to know.
Dr. W and several NICU nurses huddle around Em’s isolette for the extubation. If Em doesn’t handle it well, they have to be ready to intubate her again. My Mom and I are in the corner of the room watching anxiously. We haven’t been here long, but we’re already obsessively watching the monitor showing Em’s vitals — her blood oxygen saturation, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate.
Dr. W slowly pulls the intubation tube out of Em’s mouth and hands it off to one of the nurses. Another nurse is ready with the nasal cannula. As she leans down to put it on, I hear Em make a noise that sounds like a faint cry.
My face falls into my hands and I cry along with her.
It’s nearly 8 pm and Allison has finally arrived at the NICU.
She can’t hold Em yet. Em needs to stay on the cooling mat and she has too many tubes and wires attached to her. But Allison can hold her hand and she can talk to her. I can tell Em recognizes Allison’s voice. She’s been hearing it while in Allison’s belly for the past nine months. Beautiful. Mother and daughter are back together where they should be.
The day has been a whirlwind and I’m exhausted.
When I was eating dinner upstairs at the cafe earlier, I couldn’t resist the urge to look up information about the cooling protocol on my phone. I have so many questions for Dr. W.
Why 72 hours of cooling? Why not more/less? Would she ever need to be re-cooled if there are complications? What can we expect during the warming period? Can seizures cause more damage to her brain? When can she be taken off of oxygen? Will she have cerebral palsy?
But I’ll have to wait until the morning for answers.
The hospital social worker has booked a hotel room for us. She said we’re going to be here for at least a week. Allison has been away from Em for too many hours, so she doesn’t want to leave Em’s side tonight. I understand and I don’t blame her for wanting to stay. There’s no proper bed for both of us to sleep on anyway — only an uncomfortable plastic chair that doesn’t even fully recline.
I lean over the isolette and kiss Em on her forehead. She’s peaceful and sound asleep. I give Allison a long hug and tell her I love her and I’ll be back as soon as I wake up in the morning.
As I’m leaving the room I notice a sticker on the side of the isolette. It shows Em’s weight: 6 lbs, 6.3 oz. Wait, that seems wrong. I check the text thread I’ve had with the grandparents throughout the day. I wrote 6 lbs, 7.4 oz to them earlier.
Huh, I guess that means the intubation gear weighs 1.1 oz.
Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom. I’m honored. In a world where attention spans seem to get shorter each day, it means a lot that you’ve spent this much time with my writing.
Special thanks to Kushaan Shah, Sachin Maini, Racha Ghamlouch, Derek Browers, Victoria Li, and Padmini Pyapali for their editing and words of encouragement.
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Top Image: Heaven Opened, 1850 by George Jones
Very compelling piece Lyle - I'm riveted. What happened with Em?
Wow I can only imagine...