There was nothing unusual about my pregnancy, except for maybe my craving for chocolate-cream filled snack rolls. During my earlier pregnancies, I had painted the house, refinished floors, and even wallpapered, but I wasn’t as active during this one. With no obvious medical reason for an ultrasound, I didn’t have one, especially since our insurance wouldn’t pay for what they viewed as an unnecessary test. Andy, my husband, and I were satisfied with being surprised to learn if our new baby was a boy or a girl.
We arrived early at the hospital excited about having our fourth child and what we planned would be our last. My obstetrician had decided to induce labor because Zach, our fifteen-month-old weighed eleven pounds, two ounces when he was born. This baby didn’t need to be as large. He or she would also be joining Drew, age five and Mary Beth, three. If this baby had decided to come three weeks earlier, we would have had four children ages four and under.
The nurses assigned to me asked how many children I had. I proudly told them. Each was surprised to learn I already had three toddlers. One nurse curled her upper lip in a sneer, “Don’t you already have enough?”
In the delivery room, the lights were extra bright, reflecting off the white tile walls as the doctor and Andy stood at the foot of the delivery table. They watched for the baby as I pushed.
Andy and I had met at Auburn University. He was tall and redheaded, contrasting sharply with my short stature and brunette hair. When we married, Andy wanted a big family, as did I. He worked in the carpet industry as a production manager, and after our first child was born, I became a full-time homemaker. This made me unusual among young women because the popular culture was to have a job and raise a family at the same time. Andy and I decided we wanted to have one parent home with the children.
We were a happy, busy family who enjoyed traveling, camping and football games. Everyone was looking forward to the new addition. I hoped for a girl; then we would have two boys and two girls.
I never had a sister and thought it would be nice for Mary Beth to have one. Neither had Andy. He had a brother, Tim, and I had two brothers, Bo and Ed. Another female would make the genders nice and equal in our family.
Andy was so excited. He grinned as if he were the one doing something wonderful as Nick moved to join the world. I smiled back at him, anticipating the joy of having another child.
Finally, the doctor announced, “It’s a boy!”
Nicholas Samual May was born at 5:20 p.m. on April 5, 1989. He weighed eight pounds and eight ounces, a healthy size for a baby.
The delivery took twelve hours from start to finish. After the birth, I asked my OB if Nick was okay. I noticed he was bluer than my other children had been when they were born. I was reassured Nick had ten fingers and ten toes and looked good to him. His assistant put Nick on oxygen, but explained it was nothing to be concerned about – just routine.
In recovery, I asked the nurse, “Can you check on my baby?” “He’s fine. You can see him later,” she said.
“I really wish you would check. My other child, just a year older, had to be in the Special Care Unit for low blood sugar, and I’m worried about this one.”
“Okay, I’ll see how he is.” She returned sometime later.
“He’s fine and in the regular nursery.”
Zach’s troubles had started at birth with him being so large that forceps were used to help him down the birth canal. From their use, a large hematoma formed on Zach’s head that took months to clear up. He had little muscle mass to his legs or arms. Early on, he didn’t eat as he should. I spent a good deal of time at the pediatrician with him. As months went on, he improved. At Nick’s birth we believed he would grow out of the problems.
I was jealous when I learned Andy, the kids, my mother and inlaws had seen Nick. A nurse brought him out of the nursery so that his brothers and sister could touch him, and they had a big photo session. I hate that I was not there to participate.
I already had visions of our family of six filling the supper table. The hustle and bustle of birthday parties and Christmas mornings. Of sharing playdates with other moms.
I was very involved at our church and planned to continue that after the baby was born. We had a trip to Disney World on the calendar already. I hand sewed special outfits for the children and was looking forward to making one for this baby. Since I was home full-time, I kept the yard and saw to most things around the house. I’d even started writing a book. My life was full and some days running over.
From past experience, I knew I wouldn’t see Nick for the first few hours. After getting settled in my room, I asked for him. The nurse said she would bring him to me around 7:00 p.m. but no one ever brought him. I was getting worried. When I asked again, a nurse told me that there might be a problem with his blood sugar, but I’d probably get to see him around midnight. Although I was concerned, Zach had experienced the same problem and was fine, so I took it in stride.
I was still anticipating Nick being brought to me when the phone rang shortly after midnight. It was a nurse from the Special Care Unit. “I’m just calling to let you know we’ve transferred your baby to the Unit. We need to watch him a little more closely. He’s fine right now. We want him to stay that way.”
I interpreted that to mean that they were being careful because they were aware of Zach’s problems at birth. I settled into sleep but with a nagging feeling something wasn’t right.
The next morning, I called the Unit. “May I see my baby?”
The nurse put me on hold. When she returned, she said, “Dr.
Reed is here and would like to talk to you.”
“I’ll be there in just a few minutes. I need to walk anyway.” I wondered what was going on but wasn’t too worried. Dr. Reed was our family pediatrician, and I wasn’t surprised he wanted to speak to me.
Reaching the Unit, I washed my hands and put on a gown. Dr. Reed stood beside Nick’s isolette. His characteristic smile was missing.
As usual, he went straight to the point, “Susan, your baby has some type of problem. He’s receiving one hundred percent oxygen, but the oxygen isn’t getting to his feet or hands. There may be something wrong with his heart.”
Oxygen level? Heart problem? My head spun. What was he talking about? I had a political science degree and knew little medicine wise beyond applying a Band-Aid. I had no idea what all Dr. Reed was telling me meant. My mind searched back to my high school biology to remember how the body works.
He continued, “I’m sending your baby to a hospital in Atlanta. I’ve already made arrangements. He’ll go by ambulance.”
I stared at him in disbelief, saying nothing. I looked at Nick, the floor, the ceiling, anything to make this news not be true. If I didn’t focus on Dr. Reed, maybe this would all be a bad dream. He had to be talking to someone else because my child couldn’t be that sick.
“The ambulance should be here in the next hour or two.”
The one he was referring to was Angel II, a neonatal ambulance that’s highly specialized, staffed by a driver, a nurse, and a respiratory therapist. It transports newborns from area hospitals to trauma centers for higher level care. I had been passed while driving on the main highway by one of these vehicles a few times. I never imagined my child might need one. This is when fear started to well in my chest. This type of heartbreak didn’t happen to us. We heard about it occurring to others.
Nick would be transferred to Egleston Children’s Hospital across from Emory Hospital, deep in an area of Atlanta where we rarely went. I had been there one other time, a year earlier. Zach had gone to the clinic to see a doctor about a possible heart problem, but nothing was found. Only because of that visit did I have any idea where the hospital was located.
Dr. Reed started a drug to keep the hole in Nick’s heart between the two upper chambers called the ductus arteriosus open.
Everyone is born with this hole, and it closes anywhere from hours after birth to around three weeks later. Nick’s problem appeared when the hole began to seal.
I had no family with me. I looked at what appeared to be my perfectly formed new baby, yet Dr. Reed was telling me something was terribly wrong. I calmly said, “Okay.” What I wanted to say was no, no, no this can’t be happening.
When I left Dr. Reed, I was sure he thought I didn’t understand. He thought correctly. My brain was skipping like stones on a lake. I had to call Andy.
In slow motion, as if in a shadowy mist, my body trembling all over, I walked back to my room. Panic consumed me, but still I couldn’t grasp enough to know exactly what I feared. I refused to let the possibility of Nick dying cross my mind. I forced that possibility out of my thoughts the second it entered. I started praying – hard.
If I stood in the hall with my back to the wall, still, so still, so quiet, barely breathing, I started to believe that, even though I was in plain sight, I could be invisible. I would disappear. If no one could see me, nothing bad could happen. The horrible truth could not find me. It was surreal, like seeing my life from a distance.
When I finally made it to my room, I picked up the phone with a shaking hand. “Andy, something’s wrong with Nick.” “I’m on my way,” he said.
He was with me in less than ten minutes. I talked to my mother. She arrived later, after taking my other children to my brother, Bo’s house so my sister-in-law, Jeanie, could watch them. I told Andy and Mom what I knew. Andy also called his mother and told her the situation.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She said she and Daddy will be here after work. But when it sinks in, she’ll call back.” He could always read people, and this was no exception. His mother phoned five minutes later, saying she and his dad were on their way. They made it to the hospital before Nick was transferred.
At 2:00 p.m., the ambulance finally arrived. It took two hours for the neonatal personnel to prepare Nick for transport. He was placed in a portable isolette and hooked to monitors and equipment that might be required if he started having problems. The nurse and respiratory therapist brought him to my room so we could see Nick before he left. He was sleeping peacefully. I reached for his tiny, soft hand through the holes in the side of the isolette. With as little contact as I had been allowed, just touching his fingers excited me.
In my heart I wanted to snatch Nick to me and not let him go but I knew with my head that wasn’t best for him. Too scared and uninformed to react, I did nothing. If I allowed myself to feel too much, I might break down. The one thing I had no doubt of was that I loved and wanted my child to live. This just couldn’t be the last time
I’d see Nick. Mr. and Mrs. May
Since I’d not been
discharged, I couldn’t accompany him. Left behind, a sick, lost feeling settled over me. I watched from a window of the hospital as the ambulance pulled away. Although goose bumps covered me, I wasn’t cold. Still today, I shiver whenever I see Angel II on the road. The memories slice just as acutely as if it were all happening again, always amazing me with how swiftly and sharply they return. Andy was told not to try to keep up with the ambulance, but he was right behind it when it moved away from the hospital.
I was concerned about how I’d find out what was happening to Nick. Andy tends to not tell me everything. He does not hide the information; he just doesn’t think every detail is necessary. I wanted everything, down to facial expressions. I had to trust Andy wouldn’t fail me.
Andy’s parents would meet him at Egleston, and my mother decided to stay with me. She knew I shouldn’t be alone. As a mother of three, she had weathered many tough times with her children, including the loss of my father in a tractor accident four years earlier.
The aftermath of Nick’s birth had been traumatic. I don’t know what I would’ve done without my mother. I knew I could depend on her to be there for me without asking, just as I wanted to be there for my child. Bo and Jeanie watched our other children that night at their house.
Andy called at about 9:00 p.m. “Nick and I are at the hospital. They had no problems with him on the way. Dr. Jane Todd, the cardiologist, was here to meet him in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She had an echocardiogram and some other tests done. They plan to do a heart catheterization first thing tomorrow morning.”
He sounded tense. A big man with a soft heart, he loved children. I knew it was hard for him to think of his son being so sick. “Do they know what’s wrong?”
“They’re not sure yet. They’re letting me know what’s going on as they decide,” he said.
“How’re you doing?” I asked.
“Fine. Mom, Dad and I’ll sleep in the waiting room tonight. I want to be close if I’m needed. You can call the NICU anytime. Ask for Nick’s nurse.” He gave me the number.
“I plan to get out of the hospital first thing in the morning.
Mom and I’ll get the children and be there as soon as we can.”
“All right, I’ll see you then. Just call up to the waiting room for the ICUs when you get here. I love you.”
Unable to sleep, I called Nick’s nurse around 2:00 a.m. and a male voice answered. “He’s still stable. We’re keeping a close eye on him. Your son’s my only patient. I’ll be here all night.” After my phone conversation, I was reassured.
Mom and I were ready to leave before the doctors made their rounds at 7:00 a.m. Dr. Reed was the first to visit.
“What do you think’s wrong with his heart?” I asked. “I’m not sure. It could be a number of things, from a hole in his heart to something more complicated.”
“Do you think he’ll be all right?” I prompted, desperate to hear something encouraging.
“I just don’t know.”
“Do you think he’ll need surgery? If he does, what kind will it be?” I persisted.
“We’ll have to wait and see what they say.”
After Dr. Reed left, Mom said, “From the look on his face, it’s something serious. He didn’t give us the usual pediatrician reassurances.” I was glad he was making the decisions. We did not have the knowledge to do so ourselves.
I thought about Nick having surgery. He’d have a scar, forever. I innocently believed this would be the worst thing that could happen.
Soon after Dr. Reed left, my OB checked on me. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m fine, but my baby’s not doing so well. He was moved to Egleston. Dr. Reed thinks it’s some type of heart problem. I want to be out of here as soon as possible. I need to go to Atlanta this morning. May I be discharged now?”
He took my hand. “I didn’t know about your baby. I’m sorry.”
“Will you pleeeeeease release me?”
“Are you sure you’re ready to go? Are you feeling all right?” He looked at me with concern.
“Yes. This is my fourth child. This is old hat to me.”
He nodded. “I’ll let the nurses know, and they’ll get you out of here.”
Thirty minutes later, I left the hospital without a baby. I was in a wheelchair, holding an “It’s a Boy” balloon, but I was missing a baby. I wondered if the people I passed were questioning what had happened to my child or if he had died. I wanted to explain to everyone what was happening.
From the hospital, Mom and I went directly to Bo’s house to pick up my other children.
“Where’s the new baby?” Drew asked, looking in the car.
I didn’t want to explain. It hurt too much. What if I scared him? I had to make it simple. “Nick is in a hospital in Atlanta with Daddy, and we’re going to see him.” He accepted that.
Mother drove the two hours to the hospital. On the way, I told her, “No matter what is wrong with Nick, there’ll be other children with worse problems at Egleston.” I was wrong.