The happiest day of my life. Or at least one of the top ten.

Today is my birthday.  Single-minded momma that I am, though, today I would much rather celebrate Peter than myself.  Today is his 74th day at home.  Meaning that he has finally lived in my house longer than he lived in the NICU.  To celebrate, I plan to make him some cake-flavored milk.  And recount the events of September 24, 2010, the day of my firstborn son’s homecoming.

I am very thankful that Peter’s 73-day NICU stay was relatively uneventful.  Yes, he had most of the complications that neonates of his gestation are likely to have, but he had them in relatively mild form.  His RDS, low blood pressure, PDA, and infections were quickly treated, and by the time he was ready to be discharged, he looked much like any other newborn being sent home from the hospital that day.  Except, of course, that he was, on average, ten weeks older and two pounds smaller than the other babies.

On Wednesday the 22nd, a great weight was lifted from my shoulders when Peter finally went wireless.  No, I don’t mean to say that Peter purchased a chic new iPhone.  Rather, he had not had a significant apnea or bradycardia episode for 5 consecutive days and thus proved that he did not need to have his heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood oxygen levels monitored 24/7.  When I arrived at Peter’s bedside that morning, I told his nurse that it was time to take him off the monitors.  To my surprise, she complied without even checking to make sure the neonatologist agreed with my orders.  Later that day, Dr. Rylander told me that since Peter had been gaining weight well, she could discharge him as soon as the next day.  It would, however, be easier to discharge him on Friday since she was supposed to have Thursday off.  Thursday versus Friday made no difference for me; I was just ecstatic to be allowed to schedule a discharge date.  Friday was more convenient for Son because he could take off work for Peter’s discharge and then spend the weekend at home with us, so we settled on 9/24/2010 for discharge.

Peter’s NICU neighbors for over a month, Hadley and Brynn, went home Wednesday afternoon.  They were 29-week twins born about 2 weeks after Peter.  On their way out, their moms lifted their car seats to allow them to say goodbye to Peter.  I lifted Peter in my arms to allow him to return the salutation, taking full advantage of the fact that Peter was no longer tethered to a monitor.

The next day, I bought potted mini roses for Peter’s primary nurses, Sheila and Paula.  And I asked them every question I’d always wanted to ask a NICU nurse but never got around to.

Q:  Which deliveries require a NICU team to be present?

A:  All c-sections, any where meconium is present in the amniotic fluid, and of course, all preterm births.

Q:  How many neonatologists work at UMass Memorial?

A: Seven.  Peter had been under the care of all but one at one point or another.

Q: Do preemie girls really do better than boys on average?

A: Yes.  Girls are built for longevity.  Premature boys are more likely to develop BPD.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Friday, September 24th ranks among the happiest in my life.  Son and I completed our final preparation for Peter’s homecoming: grocery shopping.  We of course wanted to avoid having to go to a store – or any public and germ-infested place – that weekend.  We picked up a carrot cake at the supermarket as a final thank-you gift for the NICU staff.  Son was very enthusiastic about gift-giving, though he always insisted that I should be the bearer of gifts.

I trembled and fought back tears as we parked at the hospital and made our way across the skyway, through the lobby, up the elevators, and into the NICU for the (almost) last time.  As we entered the continuing care nursery, I ran into Sheila on her way out to lunch and broke into tears of joy.  She thought I was crying because I didn’t feel ready to take Peter home.  That was an incorrect notion, but I happily accepted her hug, anyway.

We went to see Peter.  He was sleeping soundly.  I read his chart as usual and was delighted to see that the discharge weight recorded by the NICU was 2420 grams, exactly twice his birth weight.  We unloaded our cake onto a nurse who took it to the nurses’ break room to share.  We gathered various belongings – my kangaroo care shirt, Peter’s music box and teddy bear, my pumping kit, Peter’s clothes and his bath tub – and took them to the car.  On our way back, we stopped by the lobby cafe for a lunch of clam chowder and biscotti.  At the end of our meal, I realized that the cashier forgot to ring up the biscotti.  I like to think of it as a farewell gift.

After returning to the NICU, Peter was ready for his last breastfeeding at the hospital.  He ate well and slipped into a milk-induced coma for the next few hours.  Sheila returned and went through the final discharge teaching requirements and paperwork with us.  I assured her that there was really no need to teach a pair of chemists how to use a syringe and proudly demonstrated my ability to draw exactly 0.19 mL of Fer-In-Sol and 1 mL of Poly-Vi-Sol for Peter.  Sheila gave us miscellaneous baby supplies to take home: diapers, wipes, nipples, bottles, pacifiers, syringes.  She offered me 2 bulb syringes, telling us that after all the work the NICU staff went through to ensure that their neonates could breathe, she made a point to always send parents home with bulb syringes so that they could keep their babies breathing.  I appreciated the gesture.

Sheila then set Peter free by removing his alarm-inducing identification anklet.  We laughed as she recounted the time that she had removed a baby’s anklet but put it in her pocket rather than leaving it in the NICU.  As she attempted to escort mother and baby to out of the lobby, alarms were set off and the doors automatically locked.  Needless to say, Sheila was a tad bit embarrassed.

We secured Peter in his car seat, and Son snapped one last photo of Peter, Sheila, and me in the NICU before taking my nursing pillow and our contraband to the car.  Sheila escorted me and Peter down to the lobby as Son drove the car around to the hospital entrance.  It was a beautiful, though breezy, day, so we waited outside for Son.  I marveled at the fact that my baby was feeling wind blow against his skin for the first time in his life.  Peter continued to sleep soundly as we loaded him into the car and drove home gingerly.  It was slightly nerve-wracking to drive our fragile little baby home.  How tragic would be if we were in an accident on the way home?  Or if, taking advantage of the absence of medical professionals, Peter simply decided to stop breathing as we were driving?

We made it home safely, and I allowed Peter to continue sleeping in his car seat in our living room.  When he started to stir, I put him in his crib for the first time and snapped a photo.  I later breastfed Peter and experimented with various pillow arrangements on the sofa to find the most comfortable set-up for both of us.

I took Peter on a tour of our yard, showing him the bushes that begin to blossom just before his birthday.  A neighbor saw us and came over to marvel at my itty bitty miracle.  Peter became overstimulated when the sun came out and the wind began to blow across his face.  I could tell he was overwhelmed because he put out his hands in a “stop sign” gesture and began to hiccup.  I took him inside, and the hiccups went away.

Son and I got almost no sleep that night because Peter decided that he couldn’t sleep unless he was being held.  Lack of sleep did nothing to quell my overwhelming joy, though.  Peter was finally home with his family, where he would grow and thrive during the weeks, months, and years to come.  Who could ask for anything more?

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