My pager went off alerting me that I was needed in the operating room for a stat
c-section. As I scrubbed in I was given a very brief report, but could tell by the
tone of the OB that they were worried. I finished washing my hands, got on my
blue hat, surgical booties bootie and mask, and got into the surgery suite. When I
walked into the operating room, the NICU team was already there. As the clinical
coordinator and family support specialist of our department I found myself looking
at this group of people and feeling really proud to be a part of their team; feeling
really thankful that no matter what experience we all would soon be having with
this delivery, we were going to have the support and skills we needed in order to
provide the best possible care and support for this family.
Unfortunately, this delivery was so emergent that the mother had been placed
under a general anesthetic, making her completely asleep for her daughters’
moment of birth. If this wasn’t difficult enough, the situation was even more
complicated by the fact that the hospital policy doesn’t allow a support person in
the operating room when a mother is completely sedated for surgery. Therefore,
this beautiful term baby girl, Kira, was welcomed into this world by a team of
strangers. Caring strangers yes, but I very vividly remember feeling my heart sink
the moment they announced time of birth and we were the only ones there to
Immediately after this baby was delivered, she was handed to the NICU team
and quickly placed on the resuscitation bed. She wasn’t breathing and her
heartbeat was barely palpable. The team worked together like the most well oiled
machine I had ever seen. Without even communicating out loud, each knew their
role, knew what they needed to do and each knew what to anticipate next. With Kira in their capable hands, now was when my job started.
I was the family support specialist so my only task was to get to the family as
soon as possible and try to inform them of what was going on. I walked out of the
operating room and into the surgery hallway. As I entered this short hallway, I
couldn’t help but focus on the two sets of eyes starting into where I was. To this
day I can close my eyes and still see their eyes. Eyes that were filled with
glistening tears just waiting to either retreat or pour out endlessly. I saw such dread and trepidation, yet also the most powerful hope I had seen in a long time.
I walked out to them and introduced myself, not knowing that in that exact
moment I was meeting a family that would change my life. A family who’s story
would become such a vivid memory not only in my career, but also in my
personal life was well. As a nurse, that happens. You care for hundreds, if not
thousands of families and babies over the course of your working years, and yet
a handful of them stand out for one reason or another. These are families that
you never, EVER, forget!
As I introduced myself and what my role was, I learned that I was meeting dad
and paternal grandmother. I had the pleasure of letting them know they had a
new baby girl in the family and what time her birth was. Because the team was
so busy working on stabilizing her, I couldn’t tell them the other fun new baby
statistics like what she weighed and how long she was, so I decided to tell them
about her beautiful face and what her hair looked like. I so desperately wanted to
give them something positive to focus on because I sensed that the rest of the
news I would soon be sharing with them would be far from happy.
In what felt like only minutes, the NICU team came out of the operating room
pushing the resuscitation bed out and headed towards the NICU. I can only
imagine that the minutes for me must have felt like hours to this family. They
were able to glance over and watch the team rush away and again my heart sank
thinking this little girl was still not with her family. She was in great hands of
course, but I know I was just as desperate to unite this baby with her family as
I invited dad and grandma to come with me to unit and we painstakingly went
over the hand-washing policy as I had them scrub in. While we were all
washing up, I asked about the pregnancy and learned that up until now, everything had been going fine. It sounded as though there was no indication as to why this baby was
so compromised all of a sudden in utero and now after delivery.
After we were all scrubbed in, we walked into the neonatal intensive care unit. A
unit that was completely foreign and unknown to this family. I tried showing them
where we were going and what was where, but I have a feeling they didn’t hear a
word I said. We had to walk down to a second hallway and I still remember
exactly what room baby Kira was admitted to. I also remember thinking that as
spacious as our private NICU rooms were, hers looked so small and confined
with all of the people and equipment that was surrounding her bed. The space in
the hall outside the door and window became my post for the next few hours as
the team worked relentlessly helping Kira and trying desperately to figure out
how to stabilize her by determining what was causing her to be so sick.
Because I am also a trained NICU nurse, I was pulled in every once in a while to
support a task or get more supplies, but primarily I witnessed this entire
experience from the family’s perspective. I did my very best at explaining what
was going on, who was who, what the words they all were saying meant, what
the various pieces of new equipment coming in and out were and how Kira was
doing. She would stabilize for a while and I remember taking a deep breathing
hoping that the cause had finally been figured out and that we were helping
correct it. Then all of a sudden she would begin to decompensate again and the
team would start working her up all over again.
After what felt like hours to me, but had only been about 45 minutes, I asked the
family if I could step away and grab the camera. I explained that after general
anesthesia Kira’s mom would be taken to the main operating room, out of our
family birthing unit, to fully recover from her surgery. My hope was to get a
picture of Kira, quickly print it in the unit and then create a beautiful and colorful
crib card to take down to mom. When she woke up I wanted her to be able to
“see” her beautiful baby right away.
I grabbed the camera and carried out my plan and walked the busy hospital
hallways until I reached the main operating room recovery area. I found the pod
that I was looking for, and I could see the sleeping new mother and her nurse
who was standing next to her bed. This nurse didn’t ask me how things were
going which surprised me at the time. She later told me she could see it in my
eyes and didn’t need to. I waited silently next to them until mom started to wake
up a few minutes later. It was then that I shared with her a scrapbook looking page with a
photo of her daughter in the middle. I pointed out her features and told her how
incredibly beautiful she was. I also was honest about her condition but made sure
she knew that Kira was strong and was fighting really hard. I remember this mom
not verbally responding to my words, but she starred very intently at the photo. I
think back to that moment and wonder if she even remembers any of that. She
had just come out of full anesthesia so I imagine it is all a blur to her if she
remembers any of it at all.
Before leaving to return to the NICU, I took time to get report from mom’s nurse
about how she was doing and promised to meet them in the unit as soon as she
was able to leave the recovery room. I then walked back down to the NICU, and
as I walked down the long busy hallway, I had to work hard at not letting the
glistening tears that were now in my eyes pour out. I wanted nothing more than
to fix this situation and make everything okay for not only this family, but for this
amazingly gorgeous little baby girl. I prayed as I walked and begged that I could
start giving this family hope and good news! But as I arrived back into the second
NICU hallway once again, it seemed as though things had changed in Kira’s
Before trying to determine what events had occurred while I was away, I updated
dad and grandma about how mom was doing in the recovery room. As I was
telling them the update of their other loved one, all I could think about was here
was a pair of individuals who had to have felt completely helpless. They weren’t
able to be right up with their new baby because there were so many staff
members performing IV sticks, sterile umbilical line placements, x-rays,
echocardiograms, pushing medications, hanging bags of fluids, getting vital
signs, performing a lumbar puncture and hundreds of other things that inhibited
them from just going in and holding her. At the same time they couldn’t be with
this new mother who was now also alone in a room with strangers caring for
her….. each having to process the criticality of the situation for the first time on
their very own.
Just as I was finishing the update about mom’s condition, the attending physician
came out of Kira’s room and walked over to us. I remember all of us then walking
down to a set of benches that were located at the end of the hallway to sit down
and hear his assessment of the situation. As a nurse who had been witness to
many of these conversations, you would think I would have not only heard what
he said but would have understood it perfectly so I could then reinforce the
information in more understandable English later for this family. But unfortunately
I didn’t. I was so focused on what this family must be going through that I didn’t
hear a single word our doctor said. I just sat and watched their reactions; their
raw emotions. I prayed that mom would arrive soon so they at least could be
together to hear that it looked like we were facing Kira’s last few hours, or even
last few minutes.
I know in reality it wasn’t very long at all, but I felt like we sat on that bench for
ever. We sat in silence as the doctor left to go back to Kira’s room and I allowed
this family to stay in silence until they were ready to either speak up, ask
questions, or share their thoughts. Before the silence was broken though we
looked up and saw mom being wheeled down our hallway in her hospital bed. I
remember sighing in relief as I saw her being brought towards us. Finally, this
family was going to be united!
Because of the tremendous amount of equipment surrounding Kira, mom’s
hospital bed would not fit in the room next to her resuscitation bed. Instead, there
was an open private room in the same hallway that the team assisted mom’s bed
getting into and the doctor had the conversation with the family that his
recommendation was to stop heroic efforts and allow them time to be with Kira
before she was no longer with us. To be honest, I don’t remember if I was
present for the conversation or not. This is when the entire experience became a
blur for me too.
What I do remember is this family being together in an empty room and someone
bringing sweet Kira into them. I was able to grab our professional camera and I
asked for permission to capture these moments for them. Thinking back, I am
pretty confident they thought I was crazy. Who would want photos reminding
them of such a painful experience?
Thankfully, the family agreed to allow me stay with them and take pictures while
they finally held Kira; held each other. In the moment, I remember being so
thankful that I had a camera and lens to hide behind. It was almost as though I
was removing myself from the reality of what I was witnessing. While I was trying
to hide behind the camera, what I saw through the camera that day was the most
amazing amount of genuine love and support. This family was fully present for
one another. They held that sacred space for each of them to grieve in the way
the needed to and the moments captured were some of my favorite of all time.
Saying that makes me feel uncomfortable. Who wants to say that some of their
favorite photos and memories from their career are of a baby leaving this world?
Or are captured moments in time of the pain that a family is feeling at their most
tragic moment? It is far from what sounds appropriate. Yet some of the most
memorable families for me are those that have suffered a loss. I think of the gift I
have been given to know these babies for the short time they were here and
what an honor it is to be with those families during the time that they were whole.
Even if it is for a short period of time. I get to say I knew them as a family! To me,
that is the most rewarding part of my job.
Kira died in the loving arms of her family that day. It was so difficult and heartbreaking for them, but it was also equally as stressful and heartbreaking for the team working that day. The NICU world and the journey families face with a complicated delivery are some of the most stressful and unsettling situations for EVERYONE involved. At one point, after I finished taking photos of Kira and her family, I left the room to allow them privacy. I knew it was important to give them time to be alone as a family. When I left, I walked
into the resuscitation room and the entire team was there standing in complete
silence. Each of them grieving along with the family; holding back the human
emotions that nurses and caretakers try so desperately to hide in order to stay
strong for families. A few of us cried together, and then I went to say goodbye to
Kira and her family.
Only a day went by before I processed all of the photographs and dedicated time
putting together the photos into an album for this grief-stricken family. I went to
find them in our post-partum unit to deliver the book, yet I didn’t see their last
name on our census list. It came as a complete shock to then hear that mom
became overwhelmingly septic and taken to a higher level of care to be treated. I
fell to the ground in despair for this family. They had just suffered the loss of a
beautiful child. Did they really now have to worry about the health and life of
I am happy to report that even though it took several months, mom was released
from the hospital in good health! Mom and dad finally were able to travel back to
their home and put the hospital experience behind them, yet the memories of course would never be gone. For me, it’s an experience that I still re-live often when I walk
through the NICU or busy hospital hallways towards the main recovery room. I
can still see their faces, and can remember the feelings I had the day as I
experienced the journey of Kira’s life with them.
After that experience, I was over come with the desire to help other families not
be separated in such intimate times like this family was. I co-developed and co-
hosted a full 8-hour day seminar on supporting families that are faced with
perinatal bereavement and I have had the opportunity to speak at numerous
hospitals about this important topic.
While there are many components of loss that are important for staff and family
to learn about, what I like to stress the most is the support that is directed
towards and offered to the dad. Why? So many times staff, family and friends
focus so much attention on a mother who has lost a child. The pain a mother
feels is unbearable. There are books, poems, stories, support groups and an
endless list of support options for grieving mothers, which of course is so
incredibly important and needed. But what about the fathers? Our society doesn’t
talk nearly as much about the grief of dad. To me, this is such a sad reality. From
my perspective, the dad not only is experiencing the loss of a child and the loss
of his dreams of being a dad to that child….but he also carries the weight of
staying strong for the grieving mother. Of all family members I have met, some of
the most amazing and brave individuals are the dad’s of angels. I have watched
them care for their partners, putting aside their grief, their fears and their
questions. They make it a priority to make sure mom is supported. This quality is
one that I admire more then they will ever know. A quality that proves they are
completely selfless as they put aside their emotions and grief, only to focus on
the emotions and grief the mother is experiencing.
So to the dad’s in the world that have lost a child…… who have supported their
loved ones through that loss……. I want to honor you! You have survived
through one of the most difficult and challenging experiences of your life with
dignity and pride. You have managed to be the most heroic of fathers, even
though your child may have never been in your arms. You deserve to be
celebrated with honor and respect. I know the pain and agony may never
disappear from your memory, but I also hope you can recognize the strength you
have and what a lucky child you have that can call you DAD!
**In honor of Norman, Jamale, Michael, Ryan, Doug, Chris; just a few of the dad’s I know with sweet angels in heaven.
Okay, so Father’s Day is a few days away, but we want to start to celebrate these un-sung hero’s today!
As a NICU nurse, I have been present for hundreds of critical admissions to the neonatal intensive care unit. Rather than the birth of a new baby being surrounded by joy and celebration with balloons, flowers and cigars; these small and fragile infants are born with families that are now faced with fear and uncertainty.
While parents have frequently told me that they admire me for what I do, I always tell them it’s the other way around! I have always had the utmost respect and admiration for NICU parents. They come in to this completely foreign and scary environment day after day, having to trust complete strangers with the most precious thing in the world to them.
They have to leave their child in the hands of nurses and doctors for days, weeks, months or even years while they do everything they can to feel like a parent. They have to juggle their outside life and this new life that revolves around a hospital. Some parents have infants that are so sick, that they come in never knowing if it will be for the last time. Yet these parents stay strong and keep going. They manage other children they have at home, they manage to get out of bed each day and go back to the hospital and they manage to show their baby more love than I ever knew a human could possibly have.
Yet above this generalized admiration for NICU parents, I have found that I personally have the most respect and highest regard for the dad’s in the NICU. Please don’t take that as an offense to mothers because as a mother myself, I am fully aware of the sacrifices moms make. It’s the moms that are pumping milk every two to three hours around the clock, getting no sleep, usually are the ones that help keep the house going, the other kids going, juggle the priorities to make sure everything gets done and lets not forget the hormonal changes they have to suffer through after having a baby. Yet when you stop and watch a family, and really look at the experience and stress they are going through, I see something very different in the eyes of the fathers.
When I watch a dad come in, there is this overwhelming weight that I will see in his eyes. The weight is filled with hope of course, but it’s as if he realizes that he not only has this small little person to fight for and care about, but he also has this baby’s mother to worry about. I have watched countless fathers be at the bedside around the clock just like a mother. Yet not only is he tending to his child’s needs, but he is also making sure his partner is eating enough, drinking enough, getting up and moving enough. He is worried about how she feels, if she is getting enough rest, and the list goes on and on.
So NICU fathers, on this coming fathers’ day, we will celebrate YOU! We will celebrate the dad who shows up to the NICU with unbreakable strength and never ending devotion to care and provide for everyone that is important to him!
Visit our Celebrating Fathers Day Pinterest page to find ways to help celebrate the NICU dad’s this weekend!