Watching the Fight

Was that it? Was I making my baby suffer because I was being selfish? Did I really have it in me to let her go?

My daughter at 6 weeks old

Sixteen years ago, I was at a childbirth class learning about labor massage and the latest in labor survival techniques. I was having Braxton Hicks contractions, but had been able to drink water, use the bathroom, and sleep for an hour between most of them the night before. Everything that tells you it’s false labor.

When the woman teaching the class told me she wanted me to go down to maternity and get checked out, I shrugged and said sure. Even when the maternity nurse told me that they’d have to fly me to the bigger hospital 150 miles away if I didn’t “stop it,” I simply  started making mental plans for my older kids and work while I anticipated relaxing and being bored on bed rest. I was only 29 weeks pregnant; plenty of time left to get ready for the baby.

And then things got serious.

The nurse wanted to check my cervix before calling the doctor for advise. Suddenly she yelled out to another nurse, “Call the doctor! I see a head!”

The tears came immediately. All I could think was that it was too soon, my baby girl wasn’t ready, how could she make it?

I was barely into my third trimester.

But there was no stopping things at that point. The room was immediately full of hospital staff. They lifted me to a different bed (I wasn’t allowed to get up) and wheeled me to a delivery room. Questions were asked, blood tests were run, all while trying to prep for the arrival of a very tiny and fragile infant. Why did I think I was having premature labor? Why did I have trouble gaining weight for the pregnancy? Had I been doing drugs? How was my stress level? Did I feel safe at home?

I answered their questions, as confused and confounded as they were. The on-call doctor who arrived, bless him, had delivered my previous child. He assured them that I never gained much weight with my pregnancies. The blood tests were, of course, negative for drugs or any sort of infection. There was no identifiable reason for this to be happening.

Labor and delivery were painful. My body had, for whatever reason, decided to do this 11 weeks early, yet it wasn’t actually ready. The changes that happen to a woman’s body during the last trimester in preparation for pushing out a baby had not happened yet. Everything was shifting and moving and stretching at an incredible rate, and not everything was cooperating.

That was the easy part.

My little girl came weighing less than 3 pounds. Her skin was translucent; she looked a dark reddish color.

And she wasn’t breathing successfully.

The hospital staff worked desperately to keep her breathing. The delivery doctor himself, Dr. Anderson, personally “bagged ” her by hand to keep her breathing. The life flight was called at some point, but they were already on another call and had to drop off their current patient before they could come get my baby. The doctor and staff kept her going for Two. Hours.

When the flight crew arrived, everything was a frightening blur. I got to walk to see my baby for a minute in an incubator. They prepped her to fly, a tiny thing with tubes down her throat and wires attached to limbs the size of my finger, enclosed in a battery-powered isolette. The crew wheeled her into my room and handed me a Polaroid picture of her. They were kind and they were honest. They would do their best to keep her alive until she got to the NICU 150 miles away. I was hemorrhaging and couldn’t go.

This Polaroid might be the only picture I ever got of my baby. I might never get to hold her.

Still fighting

She made the flight, with her dad on the plane and the life fight staff working hard.

She made it to the NICU.

She made it till I got there the evening of the next day, terrified that I would not get to see her and tell her I loved her while she was still breathing and could hear me.

And there she was, tiny and red and intubated, a machine pushing air in and out of immature lungs smaller than a Thin Mint.

She fought hard. But fight in a failing 3-pound body is still a small thing. And a great thing.

She fought collapsing lungs and pneumothoraxes and sepsis. She fought to digest the food going through a tube  directly into her stomach. She fought to adapt to the stress on her system every time someone touched her.

After two weeks of alarms and emergencies and medicines and machines and seeing my baby’s body turn limp and gray while they changed her breathing tube, one of the doctors approached me after morning rounds and told me my baby was very sick and was getting worse. They had been doing everything they could. There wasn’t anything they hadn’t tried. There wasn’t anything more they could do.

She told me it was time to start thinking about quality of life. It was time to decide: Were we just holding on and making her, my sweet baby, go through all of this just because we weren’t willing to let go?

I sobbed. Was that it? Was I making my baby suffer because I was being selfish? Did I really have it in me to let her go?

We cried. We prayed. Our family prayed. People we didn’t know, and still don’t know, prayed, across the country and even in some other countries, friends of friends of friends of acquaintances.

I was broken and confused and angry. At some point, it just hit me. This wasn’t only my child; she was God’s child. And finally, I actually meant it when I said, “God, she is yours. If she is not mine to keep, thank you for letting me have her for this time. I don’t understand, and it might kill me, but she is yours.”

The next morning, her numbers started improving – rapidly. Although she was still quite sick and continued to need medical intervention, she stabilized. Over the next few days, nurses, doctors, and social workers stopped by her isolette, saying things like, “I didn’t think she’d be here when I came back” and “She’s a miracle baby.” One doctor specifically said, “She is a miracle. We didn’t change anything; we had already done everything we could. This is all her, and all God.”

When she was a month old, I got to hold her for the first time. It required a pillow to help support her still-tiny body. Her siblings were able to visit her. We started kangaroo care, skin-to-skin contact proven to help preemie babies improve. (She had been too sick for even this before.) We began to learn how to “do her cares.”

A day before she turned 2 months old, we strapped her into her car seat to leave the hospital, weighing just over 4 pounds and breathing “room air” completely on her own. It was still 3 weeks until her due date of Christmas Day.

My baby girl spent her first Christmas at home with her family, and that is a miracle.

My daughter taking pictures of the sunset

She turned 16 recently. She is an artist, and an aspiring chef. She is quiet, and loud, and fiercely protective of her friends. She has a soft heart, leaves food out for birds, and saves spiders. She is a Master Procrastinator of Chores and an occasional Raiser of Voice. She loves manga and anime and creates whole alternate universes.

She is amazing, and she is mine. But mostly, she is God’s.

And she is a miracle.

-KJ Roe

Excerpt – “Aurelia”


Moon Jellies (Aurelia labiata) – (c) KJ Roe

She watched as the ghostly bodies floated, gracefully pulling in on themselves and then pushing out, a stretch against the engulfing press of water. Sliding between forms, from widely-blooming flower to deeply-rounded bowl to mushroom cap, decorated with the fringe of numerous tiny tentacles. Some appeared content to simply rise on the upward current; others moved in some unknowable dance, gliding into one another, slipping past, each briefly molding itself according to its nearest partner. Their bodies glowed, ethereal and translucent in this inky Neptunian ballroom. She wished that, for just one moment, she could feel such grace lighting her own limbs, giving life to the beauty that ached within her soul.

-KJ Roe