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Lessons From a Dying Baby

Alarms on the life support machines went off constantly in the ICU.  The electronic screaming signaled wires were disconnected, monitors weren’t working, medicine and saline bags were low, or that there was some other problem that needed attention.  When the alarm went off two beds down from my daughter, it was just one more artificial sound in a room filled with artificial life.  The sudden activity surrounding the two-day-old baby was how I knew something was wrong.  Nurses surrounded him, checking wires, administering medicine, and paging his surgeon with an efficiency that bordered on panic.

His tiny body lay there.  His only movement was the little rise in his chest when the breathing machine puffed air into his lungs.  He was covered with tubes and wires and medical tape, looking similar to my daughter, only he was much smaller.

The surgeon arrived within minutes.  The alarm was still going off, signaling the baby’s cardiac arrest.  The surgeon was our surgeon—the man who had worked on my five-month-old daughter’s small heart for nine relentless hours.  He had the perfect balance of scientific fascination and human compassion.  Determined that he could solve the intricacies and stubborn problems in my daughter’s heart, he refused to let her die.

He scrubbed in at the sink.  His nurses slid blue surgical gloves and a sterile green gown on him while he surveyed the information on an EKG printout.  There was no time to move the baby to an operating room.  The curtains were whisked around the baby’s bed and the ICU was on sterile lockdown.  No one came in and no one went out.

The sounds behind the curtain were quiet.  Hushed voices and murmured words floated towards my daughter’s bed.  After fifteen minutes of trying to read a magazine, hoping to take my mind off the circumstances going on behind the curtain, the nurses slowly pushed back the curtains.  The surgeon asked the nurses to call the parents to his office and left, looking defeated.  The nurses were left standing around the baby, their faces revealing that the outcome was not good.

The machines still gave the baby the appearance of life, inflating and deflating his lungs.  His heart monitor told the truth, a slow heartbeat with little spikes in the baseline infrequently peaking.  His tiny heart was barely beating, barely sustaining.

The parents soon gathered around the baby.  They were young, close to my age, and it appeared that he was their first baby.  The mother rushed to her baby’s side and wept quietly as she held his hand.  The baby’s father stood behind her, also crying quietly.  Grandparents, aunts, and uncles began gathering around the bed.  The curtains were drawn to offer the family some privacy during the final moments of their son’s short life.  The visual barrier did nothing to block the heavy despair in the ICU.

I noticed the baby’s grandparents stepping out from behind the curtain.  They had arrived shortly after the attempt to save the baby’s life had failed.  The grandma saw me watching them.  I was embarrassed at my empathetic curiosity and glanced away.  She managed a smile, letting me know that my indiscretion was forgiven.  As she walked by my daughter’s bed toward the ICU door, she stopped.

“Your daughter is beautiful.  How old is she?”

“Five-months-old,” I responded, feeling uncomfortable.

She watched my daughter for a moment, the machine supplying her oxygen, the IV’s, chest bandages, and plastic tubes the same as those covering her grandson.

“You’re so lucky to have her.”

Her voice quivered a little.

“I’d give anything for five-months with our grandson.”

She smiled.  She patted my daughter’s chubby leg before leaving the ICU with her husband.  I instantly felt the weight of her statement.  I bit my lip and the tears in my eyes blurred the room around me.  I kissed my daughter’s head and left the ICU, seeking out the refuge of a bathroom.  Inside, I locked myself in a stall and cried.  Five months of emotions slowly escaped.  I had cried often in those months but this time my crying felt good.  My tears brought a relief.  I had experienced five amazing months with my daughter and it looked like I would enjoy many more.  I was lucky.  I was blessed.

I finished crying, feeling the emotional weight of the last five months dropping with my tears.  Dreading the scene in the ICU, I walked around the quiet night halls of the hospital, alone with my thoughts.  After some time, I returned, knowing when my daughter opened her eyes for the first time after her surgery, I had to be by her side.  I took my place beside her bed, running my fingers through her soft hair.  I watched a janitor mopping the floor two spaces down, which was now just an empty bed.  I felt guilty when I looked back at my daughter.  She was here and he was gone.  But guilt made way for gratitude.  Days later when I left the hospital with my daughter, laughing and smiling, I carried that gratitude with me—along with the memory of a baby boy who taught me the value of what I had.


March 25, 2010 at 1:39 am 3 comments

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