Hillary Barton is like most of us, I’d say. Largely independent with a sometimes fierce aversion to being on the receiving end of help. But, as it always seems to happen, on the day that turned into many days of needing it, help found her. Her birth story reminds us that we’re so much more than ourselves in this big old world, and I quite like feeling that reminder today. I hope you do, as well.
As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I knew two things: this baby was a girl, and although this pregnancy would be different from my first, it would all be okay. And as the months went by and I found out what that all meant, I clung to that assurance tightly.
When we went in for our 20 week ultrasound, we found out I was right about the gender. But then the tech told us we needed to wait for the doctor to come talk to us, which I was pretty calm about. He told us that the placenta was covering the cervix, which could be dangerous, but that it was still pretty early and it would likely move as my uterus expanded. And I somehow knew it wouldn’t, but I didn’t worry – then – too much about it.
Six weeks later, a week before Thanksgiving, we went in for another ultrasound, found out it hadn’t moved, and received the official diagnosis of placenta previa. If I went into labor and the cervix started to expand, I would hemorrhage and likely bleed to death. I would be delivering early by c-section. And that if I experienced any bleeding, I was to go immediately to the hospital.
I’m an intensely independent person, so it pains me to ask for help. I’m blessed to live less than ten minutes away from my parents, and within 45 minutes of all my siblings and some of my husbands’, as well. So, at 28 weeks, when I woke at 3:00 am with heavy bleeding, I was relieved I could call my mom to come stay with my son, Nathan. There aren’t many people I would call in the middle of the night, but she tops the list.
We went to the hospital and explained the situation. They monitored the baby, and then after several hours, a doctor in the same practice as my OB came in to talk to me. Coldly and professionally, she explained to me, “You’re going to need some help. You can’t take care of your son by yourself. Once the bleeding stops you can go home, but if you ever have bleeding again, you will be in the hospital until you deliver.” I already didn’t like this doctor very much – that’s another birth story, since she’s the one who delivered my first baby! – but her clinical manner, devoid of any sympathy, shook me.
This was during the swine flu epidemic, so they weren’t allowing kids into the maternity ward. I was only allowed two people to visit in my room. Not two at a time, just two people total, so I chose my husband and my mom. My mom brought me some slipper socks and a fleece blanket, white with holly leaves and berries since it was December. I thought, as always, “Oh, mom, that’s not something I need,” but it was nice to have something more cozy than the thin hospital blankets.
The bleeding slowed down to a trickle, then stopped, then started again. Since I couldn’t go home until I’d been bleed-free for two days, my stay kept extending with each new gush. They gave me a round of steroid shots to help the baby’s lungs develop. I had a lot of time to think. I’d always thought the phrase was hyperbole, but I woke early one morning, and my blood literally ran cold with the thought, “I could die. People die from this.” I pulled my fleece blanket around my shoulders and waited to warm up.
I got to come home after eight days. Unasked, our families had cobbled together a schedule for taking care of us. I couldn’t lift my nearly two year old, so we moved him into a toddler bed so he could get up in the morning. Every morning someone would show up to take Nathan for the day. My mom would take both of us to her house, put on movies for me and bring me lunch on a tray, like she did when I was home sick from school as a kid. It’s humbling to be the recipient of so much service, so many physical acts of caring.
I wasn’t strictly on bed rest, but I didn’t feel comfortable going anywhere. I didn’t want to be out in public when the next rupture would happen. I took to straightening my hair, since my super curly hair looks like a rats’ nest when I lay around too much. I snuggled in my new fleece blanket through the long days of that holiday season. I watched a lot of movies, read a lot of books, and occasionally picked up the toys strewn everywhere, when I couldn’t stand the mess. This was always remonstrated by my husband, who was amazing. He’d go after work to pick up Nathan from wherever he was that day, come home, cook dinner, and do whatever cleaning or laundry needed to be done. He did it willingly, and I was grateful, but there was always the strain of waiting, and of not being able to pull my share. Around New Year’s I thought, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Three days after New Year’s I woke up just as the bleeding started, heavy. This time it was nearly 7:00 on a Sunday morning, so I didn’t feel as bad about the phone call to my parents. At the hospital I explained the situation to the nurses, and they seemed so calm and lackadaisical that it calmed me, a little. They called the doctor on call from my practice; not my regular doctor, but I at least liked this one. When she arrived, the nurse joked about having checked my cervix to see if it was dilated. “You did what!?” They talked about checking me in to wait, to give the baby all the time we could. I was having small contractions, which I was too tense to notice, but the monitor picked them up. The doctor carefully checked my cervix and then announced, “This baby is going to be born today.” I was 33 weeks, seven weeks early, three weeks earlier than our already scheduled c-section. She told me that the baby would spend probably two weeks in the NICU.
They had me walk back to the OR, where Frank Sinatra was playing. After the epidural was put in and they were getting ready, the song “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” came on. It made me smile. I was completely numb, but they warned me to expect tugging and pressure, and they weren’t kidding. When they pulled her out I heard with relief a small but robust squawk. That small cry was such a relief. They let me peek at her before the NICU team took over.
She was 4 lb. 4 oz., 17 1⁄2 inches long. Thanks to two rounds of steroid shots I’d received in the last month to help her lungs develop, she was breathing on her own. They took her to the NICU to be fully checked out; I didn’t get to hold her right away. While I was in recovery we filled out the birth certificate.
Early in the pregnancy we were joking about names, trying to come up with something funny. Since our last name is Barton, I jokingly suggested Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. We laughed; wouldn’t that be funny? And then I didn’t like anything else. I tried and tried to find a name I liked better, but just couldn’t. I learned my lesson: don’t joke about a name unless you’re okay with using it. And so she became Clara Barton. Several of our NICU nurses asked, “Did you know Clara Barton was a famous nurse?” Yep. Yep, we did. But it turned out to be appropriate, given where she spent the early weeks of her life.
I got to hold her that evening, when she was about 12 hours old. They kept me in the hospital for five days to recover. I spent most of my time lying flat, since that’s the only thing that kept the terrible headaches the epidural had given me at bay. Twice a day, someone would wheel me down to the NICU so we could give breastfeeding a try. Those first few days, she would do nothing but sleep. She was hooked up to monitors and had a feeding tube up her nose, but she was breathing on her own and that was huge. There were many sighs of relief and thankful prayers.
They gave me the option to room in the hospital so I could be close to her after they discharged me, but I had a toddler at home who had not had a regular home life for six weeks already, so I felt I needed to be with him. His already impressive tantrums had taken a turn for the epic lately, and he needed as much normalcy as we could give him, which wasn’t a whole lot since I was leaving him with a babysitter twice a day so I could go see Clara and try to feed her.
Breastfeeding her was very important to me. I spent a lot of time at home pumping, and then I’d take that frozen milk up to the hospital where they’d put it in her feeding machine. Twice a day I’d go and try to have her nurse. We had 30 minutes to get her to eat. If she would nurse for ten minutes, that would be considered a full feeding, and she wouldn’t need the feeding machine. We’d undress her, hoping the cold would wake her up. The nurses taught us to rub her spine and jaw with more force than we’d dared to use, to keep her awake. We strained to hear the small click, nearly inaudible, that meant she was swallowing milk. As the days went by, she got better and better, only to have a sleepy day where nothing we did was successful. Those two feedings a day were all she could handle; the other feedings were always through the tube in her nose. Family members continued to help out, with babysitting and meals and driving me up to the hospital in the early days while I was still recovering. They even cleaned the house for me before I came home from the hospital.
She became jaundiced, and we’d go in to find her in a bili bed, with a foam eye cover on that looked a little like sunglasses. She became slightly anemic, which only contributed to her sleepiness. All she needed to do was be able to wake up and eat all of her feedings, but it was too much. Her expected two week stay stretched longer.
At 17 days, I wrote this in my journal:
This morning Clara was wearing socks on her hands. This, the nurse informed me, was so that she did not have to repeat the adventures of yesterday when Clara twice pulled the feeding tube out of her nose and once got two good handfuls of nice yellow poop. She likes to wait until the dirty diaper is off and the clean diaper not yet on to finish her business. I think she’s staging her own little protest of still being in the hospital at 17 days old. Now if she would only realize that her lack of eating is the reason she’s still there…
She has been doing better and better at breastfeeding, and took a bottle well this morning. So we’re making progress; it’s just slow progress. The rest of us are coping pretty well, although I do confess that I’m just wishing for some good and simple physical exhaustion, and no more of this emotional and mental exhaustion mumbo jumbo. Because I’m just tired, tired of arranging babysitters twice a day, tired of a tired toddler whose schedule is skewampus, tired of always going and coming, tired, tired, tired.
I know we’ve been so blessed, that out of all possible outcomes we got the best one. We’re so blessed to have so many people willing to help us out. And we are so blessed to have a healthy little girl who will some day maybe soon get to come home with us.
After 25 days in the NICU, she came home. I was told to only try to breastfeed twice a day, and instructed on how to mix breast milk with a preemie formula to give her extra calories, and with a thickener to help her keep it down since she had a little trouble with reflux. After a couple of weeks at home, I gave up on breastfeeding. It was too hard, I was too tired, she just preferred bottles. They were so much easier, and we needed a little bit of easy. So I didn’t let myself feel guilty, but I was a little sad.
Nathan didn’t get to see his little sister until she was home. He didn’t express any jealousy of the being who had taken so much of his parents’ time and energy for the past two months, and who would still dominate the household for several more weeks until we settled in to life as a family of four. He just walked up to her, took the binky out of his mouth, and welcomed her: “Cwara!”
She’s nearly five, and apart from being small for her age, has no residual effects from her preemie days. And every December, as I pull that holly fleece blanket out with our holiday decorations, I am tangibly reminded of those anxious days, my mother’s love, and the ways my family continues to take care of me, even if I don’t ask for it. And I am again humbled, grateful.
Thank you, Hillary. My favorite part – besides Nathan’s nonplussed welcome! – is your admission that you all needed a little bit of easy. I get it, and I’ve been there, too. Plus, I’m just wishing for all my readers to have experienced that feeling you describe in your last paragraph. To be able to gratefully look back on a stressful time in our lives, and be reminded of the joys that were right there next to us…well…that is perfect.