When I was 23 weeks pregnant with my first son, my belly finally popped. I excitedly bought my first-ever maternity clothes. I remember looking in the mirror and smiling at that small baby belly– I finally looked pregnant. It was all becoming real. In about four months, I would be a mom!
One week later, my son was born.
I will never really understand “what happened.” Some doctors have suggested cervical insufficiency, a condition where a weak cervix begins to open in the late second trimester. I was closely monitored for cervical shortening in my second and third pregnancies, but it never happened. Another doctor suggested that an infection may have triggered my rapid, unstoppable labor at 24 weeks.
It doesn’t really matter why it happened. It just did. My baby entered the world weighing 1 lb 5 oz, teetering on the edge of life and death.
Most doctors consider 24 weeks to be the age of “viability” (the gestation at which a baby has a chance of survival outside the womb). Many doctors tell parents that a 24-week preemie has a 50% chance of survival. The doctor that greeted my husband in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) gave our son 40%.
We named him Isen, which means “iron,” because we knew he would have to fight hard for his life. And he did.
Isen spent 169 days in the NICU. For the first 10 weeks, he was placed on a ventilator because his lungs were so weak and underdeveloped. The ventilator breathed for him, shooting puffs of oxygenated air down into his tiny lungs. There were days when the ventilator was on maximum settings, and his blood was still not carrying enough oxygen to his body.
Those were long, devastating days. He was on the maximum support that modern medicine can offer, and it was not enough. We waited and wondered what damage the lack of oxygen was doing to his brain. We waited and wondered if he would live.
A few days after his birth, his doctor pulled us aside for the single worst conversation I have ever had. He told us that Isen had severe bleeding in his brain, a common complication of such an early birth. These bleeds, coupled with the ongoing episodes of hypoxia (lack of oxygen), put him at large risk for a wild range of disabilities such as learning disabilities, cognitive impairment, blindness, deafness, and cerebral palsy.
Dealing with dire medical predictions and an unclear future was hard, but not the hardest. The hardest part of it all was the grief: the grief of watching my innocent baby enter the world to live in a plastic box and endure painful medical procedures every day, the grief of leaving the hospital every night without my baby, the grief of missing out on so many “normal” moments and instead sitting in a dark hospital room, watching beeping monitors, praying for healing, asking for permission to hold my own child.
Those were dark, painful days. Days I survived by the grace of God and a determination to be there and keep fighting for my child.
After 169 of those tough days, my miracle baby was healthy enough to come home!
While those days in the NICU were difficult in a million big and small ways, it was only a small period in the lifetime that we get to spend together. It’s a life that we easily could have had without him, wondering who he would have been. I’ve gotten the great privilege of watching Isen grow up. While his early months were spent in a hospital bed, the vast majority of his life has been spent sleeping in his own comfy bed, playing with his siblings, running around in our backyard, laughing with his dad, and living a full, happy life.
Despite the pain of that early separation, I have (like most moms), held Isen until I desperately wanted to put him down and have a moment to myself. I’ve tucked him into bed a million times with a hug and a kiss. His early months were very, very hard. But it’s okay. We’ve got a whole life together.
Click here for part two of Isen’s story.
November is Prematurity Awareness Month. For more information about premature birth or March of Dimes Prematurity Campaign, visit their website.
Originally published November 2018.