My wife Erin’s belly was impossibly big.
And not in the 9-months-pregnant-and-about-to-pop way. In the something-is-wrong way.
Seven months into her pregnancy with our little girl, Erin moaned with pain throughout the night, propped up on a half-dozen pillows to find any angle where she could get some sleep.
She was convinced that the baby was transverse inside her uterus — meaning laying sideways instead of straight up and down as a baby should be. The pressure made her ribs hurt.
An OB visit promised some answers. When we described what was going on, we were quickly whisked into the ultrasound room. The technician was quiet as she scanned Erin’s belly up, down, sideways and around. A few minutes later, back in the regular exam room, the doctor came in to tell us what was going on.
The good news? Baby girl was in the right position, head down and ready to rock and roll.
The bad news? Something was really wrong.
I couldn’t tell from the ultrasound images they showed us, but to them, it was clear that our baby girl had something called duodenal atresia. A hundred years ago, this would have been an automatic death sentence. Babies with this condition have a blockage in their intestine that keeps them from eating once they’re born. In the womb, it causes amniotic fluid to build up to tremendous levels.
Four liters too much fluid, in Erin’s case. Hence all the pain.
There were a hundred other little details to absorb as the diagnosis was handed down.
But the bottom line was this: Our baby would need major surgery within a day or so of being born. Hopefully her tiny body and lungs would be strong enough to endure it.
In an instant, so much we had worried about and planned for seemed utterly ridiculous.
We were keeping the baby’s name — Noelle — a secret, even from family. What did that matter anymore? And we had spent hours scheming for what we would do with our holiday plans and insurance coverage depending on what day the baby was born (she was due New Year’s Eve).
Now my mind was consumed with more primal questions: Was my baby in pain? Would she ever be healthy? And the question that you can’t help but wonder — why us?
The doctors sent us home with some unnerving advice.
Try to keep the baby in as long as possible. Every day longer in the womb meant she would be stronger and better able to handle surgery.
And if Erin’s water were to break, treat it as an emergency. With all that fluid, the baby’s umbilical cord could get twisted up and cut off her oxygen supply.
They also gave Erin medicine to prevent contractions. A steroid shot to strengthen Noelle’s lungs.
Erin’s baby shower was canceled with her best friend already several hours down the road from D.C. to Charlotte.
We headed home and prayed.
We made it two more crucial weeks.
Then early on a Tuesday morning, Erin woke me up from a dead slumber with a shout: “My water broke!” I bolted out of bed, immediately awake but unprepared and beginning to panic. I packed up my 6-year-old still in his pajamas and rushed Erin to the nearest emergency room.
A few hours later, Noelle was born at 5 pounds, 12 ounces. Her lungs looked good. She held my finger with a tiny hand as she got cleaned up by the cadre of doctors who had assembled. Within minutes, she was whisked off to the NICU. Her journey was just beginning.
Noelle’s surgery was scheduled for the next day. We weren’t exactly sure when, and the uncertainty was nerve-racking. Nobody had told us that Noelle was at any higher risk than any other baby. But neither did they give us any assurances.
As we waited, I asked my pastor, “What happens to babies if they die before they’re baptized?”
It’s hard to describe how painful it is to see your newborn on a ventilator.
The first time I saw Noelle after her surgery was a shock. Her lips were twisted cruelly around a tube going down her throat. An IV line was embedded in the thin skin of her scalp. Her chest moved unnaturally in time with the machine keeping her lungs working. She spent hours like this, not moving.
Over the next three weeks, the NICU became a routine.
I became a pro at scrubbing in and a regular at her bedside during any spare minutes I had.
I learned to feed her through a tube, how to change her diaper around all the wires and how to jostle her whenever her oxygen levels dipped too low. I read her her first book — “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”
And I got to watch as she grew heartier and heavier every day. Her nurses called her the poster child for recovery.
Finally, the magical day arrived when she got to come home. I drove way under the speed limit and even stopped a couple miles down the road from the hospital at a gas station just to check to make sure Noelle was OK in her car seat.
It wasn’t easy.
I’ve glossed over a lot of pain in this narrative. Every night when I went home and Noelle wasn’t there with me, it killed me inside. I felt like I was missing things. Not that I expected any major milestones. I just want to have her around while watching the Hornets game, or eating dinner. I wanted to tote her around and show her off. I wanted to hold her and breathe together.
But you know what? The ordeal has made everything so much sweeter now that she’s home. The early sleepless nights as she woke up every few hours. Tears for seemingly no reason. Just hanging out together. I’ll never feel anything less than tremendously lucky to have her happy and healthy.
And I realized the question “why us” isn’t the right one. Why not us? Or rather, why were we lucky enough to bring home a healthy baby from the NICU when so many people can’t? That’s something I’ll never take for granted.
Today Noelle is nearly 7 months old. She loves her big brother, walks outside, her blanket and sleeping with one arm over her face.
My baby, born unable to eat, now pounds mashed-up bananas and boiled sweet potatoes like there’s no tomorrow. She even gets mad at me when I don’t have the next spoonful ready fast enough.
I have so many people to thank for all they did for me and my family.
The nurses in the NICU who made us feel at home and never, ever rushed us no matter how far behind we were making them on their rounds.
Dr. Graham Cosper with Pediatric Surgical Associates, who I’m convinced is the most talented doctor to walk the earth. Not only did he manage to do laparoscopic (!) surgery on a 5-pound preemie, he exhaustively explained everything that was happening with Noelle and drew us charts and diagrams to explain the procedure.
Erin’s mom Carole and my mother Amy for stepping in to help with our son while Erin was in the hospital.
Pastor Matt Simpkins from Christ South for dropping everything to come sit with us in the hospital and pray with us and Noelle.
Countless friends for keeping food on the table while we went back and forth to CMC-Main.
Ted, for coming to the hospital and taking our son to school while Erin was in labor.
And God for watching over my sweet Noelle.