Memories of my time spent in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) come to me in waves. While I don’t recall every detail of every single day, snapshots often flash in my mind, and they’re often accompanied by intense feelings of panic and heartache.
Whenever I smell that soap or hear that beeping noise, my mind catapults back to the place where I spent six weeks watching over my little ones in their boxes.
About a week ago, I was talking to another mom about breast pumps of all things, and a sense of urgency set in. It wasn’t from a memory of my babies or their struggles.
The panic I felt was one of my own – It was the moment I realized I was no longer a patient in the hospital – I was simply a visitor.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was being discharged from the maternity ward.
But instead of dressing my babies in their cute outfits, I packed their clothes back in my bag. They wouldn’t be wearing them anytime soon.
And instead of riding home with my husband to greet our older children, I kissed him goodbye. I wasn’t going home just yet.
72 hours prior to my discharge, I was sitting in my recliner at home. I was 34 weeks pregnant with twins. I had no complications, other than the fact I was miserable. But that evening, out of nowhere, my water broke.
My dad rushed me to the hospital which was over an hour away. It was too late to stop the labor. The doctors whisked me to the back for an emergency c-section and my boys were born an hour later.
The next 3 days were kind of a blur. I was loopy from the pain meds and lack of sleep. I remember wheeling back and forth to the NICU several times a day to visit my babies, but they were too sick to hold.
After my husband went home to reunite with our older kids, I told one of the NICU nurses I needed to pump. She kindly directed me to the private room I could use, but I didn’t have a breast pump. I couldn’t believe I had overlooked ordering one! Those 72 hours flew by so quickly. Surely I could use one of theirs.
That was the moment I learned I was no longer a patient. My safety net was gone and I was on my own. I was now considered a visitor. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t live over an hour away from the hospital – and if I didn’t have three other children at home.
But that’s where I found myself – torn between two worlds – without a breast pump.
Since it was a Saturday, the store at my hospital was closed. Since I wasn’t a patient, I couldn’t order a pump for myself. I ended up spending three hours that day driving to and from another hospital (with engorged breasts) to rent one.
I spent those three hours not caring for my babies and not caring for my older children. I spent those three hours fending for myself.
The next six weeks went by in similar fashion. I walked over a mile everyday from the parking garage to the NICU and back – with feet the size of bowling balls, a swollen belly, and a six inch incision – only to find out all the recliners were already taken.
I would sit in an office chair for hours at a time holding my little guys when they were well, or peering at them through their boxes when they were sick.
Sure, there were a few nurses who looked out for me – a few who saved me a comfy recliner. But that wasn’t their job. Their patients were 4 pound babies who needed all of their attention and time.
Self-care took a backseat during those weeks. Between the NICU, my older children, the commute, and real life, I just didn’t have the time to worry about myself. I even missed my own follow-up appointments.
Luckily, I didn’t get sick or suffer from postpartum depression, and I had a huge support system. But what if that weren’t the case? Who would notice?
I know that every NICU is different. Some are old and outdated, while others are newer and follow a more comprehensive, family-centered model.
But all NICU’s no matter their age, should uphold a standard in which the mother’s needs are recognized and addressed before they are discharged, while they’re still patients.
For the record –
Mothers should be included in the NICU Care Plan, as their health plays crucial role in the nurturing of a newborn. Included in the plan, NICU moms would receive on-site care, without having to travel to a secondary (or tertiary) location.
Their mental and emotional health should be monitored throughout postpartum. Moms would have a nurse/advocate/counselor dedicated to their needs, and the needs of the family as a whole.
It’s my hope that policy makers, insurance companies, doctors, and hospitals recognize the needs of NICU moms, and start making changes to help support their health, and lighten their very heavy load.
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Thank you, Sara Jacoby, for allowing me to use your beautiful photo for this article’s featured image. <3