Portrait of a Preemie

When I saw Peter for the first time, he was lying on his belly, outfitted with an umbilical arterial catheter, an umbilical venous catheter, ECG leads, a pulse oximeter, the tiniest diaper I have ever seen, and a tube in his nose supplying continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).  He had perfect, delicate features and a head of beautiful, dark brown fuzz.  At first glance, I thought that his legs were covered with fine, brown lanugo, but Peter’s nurse quickly corrected me: his legs were purplish brown and swollen due to the massive bruises he had acquired during delivery.  Ouch, was all I could think.  If my legs were so massively bruised, I wouldn’t be able to move. Yet here was my tiny newborn son, pushing with his legs and sending his rear end into the air.  I recognized this as the same action that had until recently sent his head pressing into my ribs and his feet banging on my cervix.

I was enjoined to touch Peter very gently, cupping his head in my hand to provide a sense of containment.  His head was so small that I could cover most of his scalp with just the palm of my hand.  I liked to gently stroke his temples with my thumb, but I was warned that rubbing was potentially abrasive to my son’s delicate skin and too stimulating for his underdeveloped nervous system.  So I kept the stroking to a minimum.  I was also encouraged to leave Peter alone while he was sleeping; preemies need their rest.  The problem, however, was that I usually couldn’t tell whether he was awake or sleeping.  He only had the pluck to open his eyes one at a time for brief peeks at a blurry world.  His brow furrowed whenever he opened an eye, lending him the look of a quizzical old man.  Then his eye would close, and I would wonder whether he were falling back asleep or intently eavesdropping on the conversation of the nurses nearby.  He was rarely completely still; twitching arms and pushing legs were the norm.  And of course, when he was completely still, he was having an apnea spell and needed a good shaking to remind him to breathe.

What was obvious during those first days of his life, however, was that Peter recognized my voice.  Few stimulations were interesting enough to tempt him to open an eye, but the sound of my voice as I approached his incubator was one of them.  After being abruptly pushed out of my uterus, Peter’s world had completely transformed; the cushy containment of the womb, the consistent thrumming of my aorta, and the warm, wet, and often flavorful amniotic fluid were all gone, replaced with an inclined bed, the harsh beeping of vital signs monitors, and dry air.  In this strange new world, my voice alone was familiar.

I wondered at Peter’s odd, underdeveloped features.  He had only flaps of primitive, shapeless cartilage for ears.  They would get folded over as he slept on them, so Peter’s nurse would routinely “fluff” his ears when she switched his head to look over the opposite shoulder every three hours.  It would take about two weeks for Peter’s ears to mold themselves into the familiar human shape.  Peter’s eyelashes and eyebrows would take even longer to grow in.  In the meantime, Peter did have fine, colorless fuzz on his back which formed a distinctive whorl pattern near one shoulder-blade.  I viewed it as a birth mark of sorts since his skin, though mottled, was free of any permanent blemish.

Most amazing to me was the fact that Peter’s tiny hands were somehow big enough to host five fingers each.  The ten fingers looked like a ridiculously large number of appendages on my skinny little baby.  His entire hand, fingers spread, was only about the size of a nickel.  Nonetheless, Peter was considered a big boy, 75th percentile for his gestational age.

A blue card on Peter’s incubator listed his birth statistics:

Name –  Peter Glab

Birth Date – July 13, 2010

Time – 3:51 am

Weight – 2 lbs 10.8 oz

Length – 15 inches

Delivered By –

Oops!  Wrong name! I thought to myself.

I did not change my name after I married.  Vietnamese women keep their maiden names, so I figured my Vietnamese in-laws would be a bit confused if I took my husband’s last name.  Furthermore, “Glab” is much easier for Americans to spell and pronounce than “Nguyen”.  And those who are familiar with this quintessential Vietnamese surname would be a bit startled to find it belonging to a blonde woman of northern European extraction, I figured.

I expected some people to be confused about my marital status due to my decision not to change my name.  I did not, however, expect that my son would be referred to as Peter Glab for several months due to the decision.  I soon learned, however, that this type of name confusion was common in the NICU.  Son was just lucky that he was never referred to as Mr. Glab.

The general consensus among the nurses was that Peter looked like his dad.  The hairline, I readily acknowledged, is definitely his father’s; there is no hint of a widow’s peak. I insisted, however, that it was too early to tell whether Peter would have a low, broad Vietnamese nose or a high, narrow European nose; most babies have small button noses.  Both Son and I have dimples in our chins, so it was no surprise to find one in Peter’s.  Son thought that Peter has my eye shape.  At first I agreed, but as Peter’s face filled out, his eyelids took on a slightly more Asian shape.  I still think that Peter will have my fine hair texture, but Son may be correct in asserting that it’s too early to tell for sure.  And neither of us are sure whether Peter has my small mouth or his father’s large one.  Sometimes Peter’s lips look small and plump like a doll; at other times his lips are stretched into a broad grin or  gaping wail.

Peter’s eye color remained a mystery for several weeks, in part due to the fact that Peter’s eyes were infrequently open and in part due to the fact that starting when he was two days old, Peter underwent phototherapy and had to wear an eye mask.  Even after Peter’s bilirubin levels had stabilized, he was kept shaded, with a blanket over his incubator most of the time.  At first, I just assumed that Peter’s eyes were brown.  Despite the blonde hair, I was born with brown eyes, and I assumed that all Southeast Asians were also born with brown eyes, ignoring their frequent insistence that they have black eyes.  (Don’t trust Vietnamese color assessments; they don’t even have distinct words for green and blue.  It’s just “xanh like the sky” or “xanh like the leaves.”)  After Peter moved to a semi-private room with a window, I was able to get my first good look at his irises.  Dark gray.  No hint of blue or brown.  They are still dark gray; I‘m curious to see how long it takes for them to turn brown, as I’m confident they will, given Peter’s genetic background.

I’m also confident that when Peter is older, he will not bear striking resemblance to anyone from either the caucasian or the Vietnamese side of his family.  He’s already a special little boy in my eyes, and his uniqueness will only multiply as his personality and skills develop in the coming years.

Son made the observation, “The nurses say that Peter looks like me.  When I look at the other preemies in the NICU, though, I think that they all look like Peter.  Therefore, all preemies must look like me!”  Certainly, each baby is unique, but most of what makes them different will only become evident as they grow.

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