One week ago today, at 30 weeks’ gestation, our daughter Saga Desiree Richardson was born. She weighed just over 3 pounds and was 15 inches long, and was delivered by emergency C-section around 9:45 a.m. on Monday, July 2nd, 2012 (her expected due date had been September 9th).
From early on in the pregnancy, we knew from ultrasounds that Mommy (Emily) had placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta implants itself over the cervix. Some risk factors for this condition include age (I’m 35) and previous C-section (which I’d had with our first daughter, Cecily, at her birth on February 26, 2010). Doctors told us this was a high-risk situation they would closely monitor. The plan was for Saga to be born by scheduled C-section at around 36 weeks, but as we have seen, our brave little Saga had other ideas.
One of the doctors had explained to Mommy that as the placenta grew and expanded, it could cause the cervix to dilate and start premature labor. I just never expected this to happen so early, or to escalate so fast (or to happen to us in particular!). There was also the possibility that they would have to perform an emergency hysterectomy to save the mother’s life.
So last Monday was just supposed to be a regular day. Mommy, Daddy (Erik), and Cecily had spent a nice weekend, visiting the Minnesota Children’s Museum and hearing a trombone concert in the park. It being summer vacation, Mommy was off from her usual part-time high school teaching job. Daddy got up and went to his work making digital mapping software.
Very soon, I realized I was in a lot of pain and cramps, and maybe wouldn’t be able to take care of Cecily by myself all day. I called Erik, who having barely arrived at work, turned around and headed right back home. Lying on the couch in my nightgown waiting for him, I called my doctor’s office and my own mom, on her way to work in Madison, WI, who kept talking to sustain me until Erik got there. The doctor said over the phone that the cramping didn’t necessarily mean anything serious, and I should come in and have them put me on a fetal monitor.
So Erik threw some clothing onto me (I felt unable to do anything) and Cecily, packed us into the car and drove off again in the rush-hour traffic. About halfway to the clinic (which is right next to the hospital), I started to bleed heavily and got back on the cell phone with the clinic nurse. She told us to forget the clinic and go straight to the hospital’s east emergency entrance. The bleeding increased and rapidly soaked the car seat, and still the traffic kept us from getting onto the hospital grounds quickly.
When we got to the East emergency entrance, Daddy couldn’t even run into the hospital with Mommy, because he had to take care of Cecily the toddler (by far the calmest of any of us), strapped into her carseat. Two hospital volunteers came with a wheelchair and took me down a hospital hallway. That’s the last thing I remember from Monday.
I woke up at some time on Tuesday with a breathing tube over my face, feeling like I couldn’t breathe, and very thirsty. I panicked and did the only thing I could think of: signed the ASL signs for H-2-O over and over again. It would’ve been easier if I’d just signed “water,” huh? But the nurse and Erik eventually figured out what I meant. The horrible contraption that was keeping me from breathing was taken away, and I guess somebody must have given me some water.
I had lost half the blood in my body, about 3,000 ml, everything hurt, and breathing made me cough. I also didn’t know what had happened. The baby had been born; I could tell she wasn’t with me in my body anymore. But where was she? If she was OK, why hadn’t they brought her to me yet? When Cecily was born by C-section in 2010, she had been put on my chest to try out breastfeeding within an hour of the surgery.
Eventually somebody explained this much to me: My second daughter was alive, and I had to be strong for her (and start pumping breastmilk). She had been transferred to the NICU at Amplatz Children’s Hospital at the University of Minnesota – on the other side of town. I wouldn’t be able to see, or touch, my newborn baby until I had recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital I was at, Fairview Southdale. The doctors had managed to save my uterus, and I was no longer in the ICU myself.
My mom had driven up from Madison, WI, to take care of Cecily for us. Erik spent Wednesday through Saturday shuttling back and forth between me at Southdale, Saga at Amplatz, and Gramma & Cecily at home, but he spent the lion’s share of his time with me, helping me relearn to walk, eat, and go to the bathroom. Erik also became an expert on disassembling, washing, and reassembling breast pump parts, and started keeping a pumping log for me (I was supposed to pump every 3 hours).
Each day there were fewer things attached to me. First the dressing over my scar, then the catheter, then multiple IVs were removed, leaving behind bruised purple body parts and sticky medical tape residue all over my body. The nurses were amazing and supportive, and Erik was my personal cheerleader when it came to practicing inhaling through a plastic “Airlife” device so I wouldn’t develop pneumonia. He also supported me physically and morally as I went for walks around the hallways, holding onto the railing with one hand. This was sometimes emotionally more painful than physically, as when we had just walked out of my room and saw coming down the hallway toward us this procession: New mom in wheelchair with baby on lap, being pushed by hospital employee, and new dad behind them, pushing a cart full of what looked like baby shower gifts. They were going home, and they looked suffused with joy. And how could anyone begrudge them that?
Erik also spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth to Amplatz with refrigerated vials of colostrum (pre-breastmilk), and returning with updates on Saga’s progress. These were too numerous for me to remember or even understand, at first. I also sent him home with a list of things I needed: basically everything, since they had cut off and thrown away the bloody nightgown and bathrobe I’d been wearing when I’d arrived. The only personal possession remaining to me at that time was my rainbow flip-flop shoes, and I wore them all the time, with the hospital gowns. Erik brought me toothpaste, deodorant, and several possible outfits I might wear when it came time for me to go home. Also my computer, watch, and wedding ring, which made me start to feel a little bit like a person again.
On Thursday, Erik brought Gramma and Cecily to visit me at Southdale; on Friday, he brought them both to see Saga at Amplatz; on Saturday, at 11:00, I was discharged into his care, wearing my own clothes. I left the hospital by the same entrance I had entered, which felt creepy and strange as I recognized it. But Erik did not drive me home in the same car: Very thoughtfully, one of his coworkers was having the blood professionally cleaned from it, so Erik drove me in my own car … straight to Amplatz to meet my baby, finally.
At the NICU, I was given a hero’s welcome: Everyone said they’d heard so much about my progress, and were so glad I could be there now. I immediately started to cry. Up until this moment, nobody had been able to take Saga out of her isolette and hold her, because it would be too much stimulation and a shock to her weak system. But doctors said this was her best day yet, and would I like to be the first to hold her? (The nurses also put me to work: “Welcome, Mommy. Wanna change a diaper?”)
So I changed the diaper while Erik listened to the medical reports, and then I got to sit and hold my bundled-up daughter, who was wearing a hat that made her resemble a garden gnome. I must have just sat there for 20 or 30 minutes; then it was Erik’s turn. During his prior visits, he had been able to put his hands on Saga through the doors of the isolette, and swab her mouth with colostrum, but this was his first time to hold her too, of course, and he looked like a guardian angel to me.
At home, a bed had been set up for me on the couch, with useful things close to it, like my own breast pump from when Cecily was a baby. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about sleeping on the ground floor, because I wouldn’t have any privacy and/or be in everyone’s way, depending on how you look at it. But the bathroom is on the ground floor, and my mom had a good point when she said I wouldn’t want to be struggling up and down the stairs to the bathroom multiple times a night.
Sunday, Gramma was preparing to drive back to Madison, when Erik gave her a special gift: He offered to stay with Cecily and have a daddy-and-daughter day, giving Gramma the chance to drive me to the NICU (I won’t be driving myself anywhere until I’m considerably more recovered than this) and have some unhurried time with her new granddaughter.
And it was indeed a glorious unhurried time! We must have been there three hours. I got the orientation to the other parts of the NICU, such as the Family Lounge, Breastpumping rooms, and Transition rooms where parents sleep with their NICU babies when they are finally getting ready to come home from the hospital, a transition in which I’m sure there are so many factors to consider. I also learned extremely useful facts like: Parents have access to their babies at the NICU any time of the day or night. If you need to hold your baby at 3:00 in the morning, the staff is there and will let you in.
But there was something even better in store: Kangaroo Care! I had thought it couldn’t get better than the day before, when I’d been able to hold Saga wrapped in her blankets and hat. But now they said her health had again improved another big notch, such that she was ready and able to do Kangaroo Care, which is defined as skin-to-skin contact between the preemie (or any) baby and the mother or father. So we drew a privacy curtain around Saga’s spot (she’s in a room with five more beds, but they are not all occupied), I leaned back in a recliner with no shirt on, and Saga got to perch on my chest, with all her limbs bent like a little frog, and all the wires and medical monitors still attached to her, doing what they were supposed to.
The skin-to-skin contact is said to have all sorts of health benefits, and sure enough, after the initial upset of being taken out of her isolette and shifted around, Saga calmed way down, as we could tell from her heart and breathing rate monitors. She went to sleep; I almost did too. I had the vague idea that at some point the nurses would say, “OK, Kangaroo Care time is up; we need to do (whatever) treatment, so you just give the baby back,” but to the contrary, when I asked how much time had passed (answer: half an hour), the nurses said they recommend Kangaroo Care go on for an uninterrupted period of at least an hour! So that’s what we did. Gramma helped with a few minor procedures after that, like the mouth-swabbing, but mostly she had passed Erik’s gift on to me: unrushed time between Saga and me, which I’m sure was as beneficial to me as it was to her.
And thus ended the first week of Saga Desiree’s life.