The season of Lent began yesterday with Ash Wednesday. It was the first time in quite a few years that I was unable to attend Ash Wednesday mass. When Peter is older, I hope he will accompany me to mass on this special day and appreciate the symbolism of the ashes.
Lent is a time of repentance and preparation for Easter. We bring ourselves closer to God through personal and communal prayer, works of mercy and charity, and acts of self-denial. Tying into my March of Dimes-themed posts of the past few weeks, I thought it would be appropriate to look at the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as they relate to babies in the NICU and their families.
Corporal works of mercy:
1. To feed the hungry.
If you know someone with a child in the NICU or PICU, consider preparing meals for them or offering restaurant gift certificates as a gift. Grocery shopping and cooking quickly falls to the bottom of the priority list when your child is in the hospital.
2. To give drink to the thirsty.
Here’s a plea to any mother with a more-than-ample milk supply: consider donating to a milk bank! One of the most feared complications for very low birth weight infants is necrotizing entercolitis (NEC), the death of intestinal tissue. About 5-10 % of babies born weighing less than 1500 grams develop NEC, and 20-30 % of these babies do not survive. Babies who require surgery to treat NEC and survive are at increased risk for short bowel syndrome and neurodevelopmental disabilities. One of the best ways to reduce a newborn’s risk for NEC is by feeding him or her human breast milk rather than formula. Breast milk contains antibodies which protect babies with underdeveloped immune systems.
3. To clothe the naked.
I’m grateful to all who have donated blankets, hats, and preemie-size outfits to a NICU. Donations to our NICU kept little Peter warm during the weeks before he had blankets and clothes to call his own.
4. To visit and ransom the captive.
A 6-month-old baby girl named Cami has been in the hospital about 3 months now. She was born 9 weeks premature with hydrocephalus and holoprosencephaly. Last December, Cami suffered multiple brain bleeds that landed her in the PICU. She lost most of her vision, developed multiple infections, and suffered a collapsed lung. She now needs a trach and a G-tube to breathe and eat, but she’s finally ready to be discharged. Only problem: her parents need to come up with $1928.64 to pay for home medical supplies before she can be discharged. They don’t have that money right now, having already spent their savings to pay for Cami’s medical treatments during a period last fall when she was uninsured. So Cami will be captive in the hospital for a few more weeks, separated from her family who lives 50 miles from the hospital while they scrape together the money needed to bring their daughter home. You can read more about Cami here.
5. To shelter the homeless.
Very premature infants often need to be transported to a hospital with a level III NICU. When this happens, parents either need to drive many miles to visit their newborns or they need to stay in a Ronald McDonald house near the hospital. Both options become quite expensive when these babies need to be hospitalized for weeks or months before they can go home with their parents. We can help by donating to Ronald McDonald House Charities or by giving gas cards to parents with babies in the NICU.
6. To visit the sick.
Some parents of preemies like to have visitors while their baby is in the hospital; others do not. Some do not want visitors during the early, more stressful weeks but do want visitors during the later, more tedious weeks. One thing is for sure, though: every pregnant woman on bed rest wants visitors. Visit your bed-bound friends as often as possible, but play it by ear after the baby arrives.
7. To bury the dead.
Sad is the day a mother has to bury her baby. The Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep Foundation helps parents through the process of grief and healing by providing remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby with the gift of professional portraiture. Consider donating to NILMDTS; volunteering as a photographer, graphic artist, or administrative coordinator; or making sure that anyone you know who has suffered a stillbirth or infant loss is aware of this foundation.
Spiritual works of mercy:
1. Instruct the uninformed.
For example, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that up to 70% of neural tube defects could be prevented if all women of childbearing age consumed 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. Folic acid education and its funding is a program for which March of Dimes advocates.
2. Counsel the doubtful.
You know, I think I’ll leave this one for Fr. Ken.
3. Admonish sinners.
Well, this reminds me of the March of Dime’s Prematurity Campaign. March of Dimes educational materials list things women can do to reduce their risk for preterm birth:
- Get prenatal care as soon as you think you’re pregnant and go to every appointment. Go even if you feel fine. If possible, see your health care provider before you get pregnant.
- If you smoke, stop smoking. It’s best to stop before you get pregnant. If you can’t stop, try to cut down. Avoid secondhand smoke.
- Don’t drink alcohol.
- Talk to your health care provider about prescription medications you are taking.
- If you use drugs or herbal remedies or supplements that are not prescribed by your health care provider, stop using them. It’s best to stop before you get pregnant.
- Try to reduce stress. Ask friends and family for help. Rest and relax whenever you can.
- If you’re in an abusive relationship, talk to someone. Abuse often gets worse during pregnancy. Do what you need to do to protect yourself and your baby.
- If you feel burning or pain when you urinate, you may have an infection. Call your health care provider.
Know the signs of preterm labor and what to do if you have any of them.
4. Bear wrongs patiently.
If there’s one thing parents learn while their baby is in the NICU, it’s patience. Preemies reach milestones on their own schedules, not ours.
5. Forgive offenses willingly.
My dad says that babies have no emotional hysteresis. I like to give them a little more credit and say that they have an amazing capacity for forgiveness. Most mothers of preemies are simply thankful that their babies will not remember any of the procedures, treatments, infections, or surgeries they endured during their NICU stay.
6. Comfort the afflicted.
Small changes in NICU practices have brought much comfort to tiny patients over the years. Babies are no longer tied down to their beds; they are swaddled and allowed to sleep on their bellies whenever possible. Noise is kept to a minimum in the NICU to protect preemies’ underdeveloped nervous systems. Blankets are placed over incubators to muffle noise and keep light as dim as possible. And because babies have a keen sense of smell and can be irritated easily, most NICUs are now fragrance-free zones. NICUs now promote Kangaroo Care, wherein babies are held skin-to-skin on their parent’s chest. Kangaroo Care helps keep small babies warm, helps regulate preemies’ breathing and pulse, and brings joy to parents who do not get enough opportunities to bond with their newborns.
The March of Dimes’ NICU Family Support Program provides information and comfort to families with babies in the NICU. As part of this program, volunteers provide parent-to-parent support to families within the NICU setting; educational materials introduce parents to the staff, equipment, procedures and conditions that they may encounter in the NICU; and Parent-Professional Action Committees guide the selection, development and implementation of programs customized for each NICU.
7. Pray for the living and the dead.
Please keep babies who are struggling for their lives in your prayers.