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There was nothing unusual about my pregnancy except for my craving for chocolate-cream filled snack rolls. With no obvious medical reason for an ultrasound, I did not have one, especially since our insurance would not pay without a demonstrated need. During earlier pregnancies, I had painted the house, refinished floors, and even wallpapered, but I was not as active during this one.
My husband Andy and I arrived early at the hospital because my doctor decided to induce labor. He thought I needed to deliver before my due date because one of my other children had weighed eleven pounds, two ounces when he was born, and the doctor did not want this baby to be as large.
The nurses assigned to me asked me how many children I had. Each was surprised to find out I had three toddlers at home and more astonished to hear their ages. One nurse curled her upper lip in a sneer and said she thought I already had enough.
The lights were extra bright, reflecting off the white tile walls of the delivery room. My obstetrician and Andy stood at the foot of the delivery table. Andy was so excited that he grinned as if he were the one doing something wonderful. I smiled back at him, anticipating the joy of having another child. Then my doctor announced, “It’s a boy!”
Nicholas Samual May was born at 5:20 P.M. on April 5, 1989. He weighed eight pounds and eight ounces, a healthy size for a baby. He joined Drew, five; Mary Beth, three; and Zach, fifteen months. If Nick had been born three weeks earlier, we would have had four children under the age of four.
The delivery took twelve hours from start to finish. After the birth, I asked my doctor if Nick was okay. I noticed he was bluer than my other children had been when they were born. My doctor told me the baby had ten fingers and ten toes and looked good to him. His assistant put Nick on oxygen, but explained it was nothing to be concerned about - just routine.
Andy and I had met at Auburn University. He was tall and red-headed, contrasting sharply with my short stature and brunette hair. When we married, Andy wanted a big family, as did I. He worked in the carpet industry as a production manager, and after our first child was born, I became a full-time homemaker. We were a happy and busy family and enjoyed traveling, camping and football games.
In recovery, I asked the nurse, “Can you check on my baby?”
“He’s fine. You can see him later,” she said.
“I really wish you would check. My other child, just a year older, had to be in the Special Care Unit for low blood sugar, and I’m worried about this one.”
“Okay, I’ll see how he is.” She returned sometime later. “He’s fine and in the regular nursery.”
I was told that Andy, the children, my mother and both his parents had seen Nick. A nurse brought him out of the nursery so that his brothers and sister could touch him, and they had a big photo session with Nick.
From past experience, I knew I would not see Nick for the first few hours. After getting settled in my room, I asked for him, and the nurse said she would bring him to me around 7:00 P.M., but no one ever brought him. Asking again, a nurse told me that there might be a problem with his blood sugar, but I would probably get to see him around midnight. Although I was concerned, Zach had experienced the same problem and was fine, so I took it in stride.
I was still wondering why Nick had not been brought to me when the phone rang shortly after midnight. It was a nurse from the Special Care Unit. “I’m just calling to let you know we’ve transferred your baby to the Unit. We need to watch him a little more closely. He’s fine right now. We want him to stay that way.” I interpreted that to mean that they were being careful because they were aware of Zach’s problems at birth.
The next morning, right at 10 A.M., I called the Unit. “May I come see my baby?”
The nurse put me on hold. When she returned, she said, “Dr. Reed is here and would like for you to come to talk to him, if you feel up to it.”
“I’ll be there in just a few minutes. I need to walk some anyway.” I wondered what was going on, but I still was not too worried. Dr. Reed was our family pediatrician, and I was not surprised that he wanted to speak to me.
I walked slowly down the long hall. Reaching the Unit, I washed my hands and put on a gown. Dr. Reed was standing beside Nick’s isolate when I entered. His characteristic smile was missing this morning.
As usual he went straight to the point, “Susan, your baby has some type of problem. He’s receiving one hundred percent oxygen, but the oxygen isn’t getting to his feet or hands. This tells me that there may be something wrong with his heart.”
Oxygen level? Heart problem?
Dr. Reed continued, “I’m sending your baby to a hospital in Atlanta. I’ve already made arrangements. He will go by ambulance.”
What? I was stunned, shocked, in disbelief. I stared at him, saying nothing. I looked at Nick, the floor, the ceiling, anything to make this news not to be true. If I did not focus on Dr. Reed, maybe this would all go away. He had to be talking to someone else because my child could not be that sick.
“The ambulance should be here in the next hour or two.”
Angel II was the neonatal ambulance that works out of Grady Hospital in Atlanta. It is a highly specialized ambulance staffed by a driver, a nurse, and a respiratory therapist, that transports newborns from area hospitals to those that are more specialized.
Nick would be transferred to Egleston Children’s Hospital. Dr. Reed started a drug to keep the hole in the heart between the two upper chambers open. Everyone is born with this hole, and it closes anywhere from hours after birth to around three weeks later. Nick’s problem appeared when the hole began to seal.
I had no family with me as I looked at what appeared to be my perfectly-formed new baby, yet Dr. Reed was telling me something was terribly wrong. I calmly said, “Okay.”
When I left Dr. Reed, I was sure he thought I did not understand; he was right. My brain was skipping like stones on a lake. I had to call Andy.
In slow motion, as if in a shadowy mist, my body trembling all over, I walked back to my room. Fear consumed me, but still I did not know enough to know exactly what I feared. I would not let the possibility of Nick’s dying cross my mind. I forced death out of my thoughts the second it entered. I started praying - hard.
If I stood in the hall with my back to the wall, still, so still, so quiet, barely breathing, I started to believe that even though I was in plain sight, I could be invisible. I would disappear. If no one could see me, nothing bad could happen. The horrible truth could not find me. It was surreal, like seeing my life from a distance.
When I finally made it to my room, I called Andy. ”I’m on my way,” he said.
He was with me in less than ten minutes. I talked to my mother. She arrived later, after finding someone to watch our other children. I told them what I knew. Andy also called his mother and told her the situation.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She and Daddy will be here after work. But when what I told her sinks in, she’ll call back.” He could always read people, and this time was no exception. His mother phoned five minutes later, saying she and his dad were on their way. They made it to the hospital before Nick was transferred.
At 2:00 P.M. the ambulance finally came, and it took two hours for the neonatal personnel to prepare Nick for transport. He was placed in a portable isolate and hooked to monitors and equipment that might be required if he started having problems. The nurse and respiratory therapist brought him to my room so that we could see him before he left. Nick was sleeping peacefully. I reached for his soft tiny hand through the holes in the side of the isolate. With as little contact as I had been allowed, just touching his warm fingers was exciting. Too scared and uninformed to react, I did nothing. If I allowed myself to feel too much, I might break down. The one thing I was positive of was that I loved and wanted my child to live. This parting just could not be the last time I would see Nick.
Since I had not been discharged, I could not accompany him. Left behind, a lost feeling settled over me. I watched from a window of the hospital as the ambulance pulled away. Although chill bumps covered me, I was not cold. Still today, I shiver whenever I see Angel II on the road. The memories slice just as acutely as if it were all happening again, always amazing me with how swiftly and sharply they return. Andy was told not to try to keep up with the ambulance, but he was right behind it when it moved away from the hospital.
I was concerned about how I would find out what was happening to Nick. Andy tends not to let me know everything. He does not hide the information; he just does not think that every little detail is necessary. I wanted everything. I had to trust that Andy would realize my need to know even the smallest detail.
Andy’s parents would meet him at Egleston, and Mother said she would spend the night with me. She knew I should not be alone. As a mother of three, she had weathered many tough times with her children, including becoming a widow. The aftermath of Nick’s birth had been traumatic. I do not know what I would have done without my mother. I knew I could depend on her to be there for me without even having to ask, just as I wanted to be there for my child. My brother and his wife watched our other children that night.
Andy called about 9:00 P.M. “Nick and I are at the hospital. They had no problems with him on the way. The cardiologist was here to meet him in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She had an ECHO and some other tests done on Nick. They plan to do a heart catheterization first thing tomorrow morning.” He sounded tense. A big man with a soft heart, he loved children, and it was hard for him to think of his son being so sick.
“Do they know what’s wrong?”
“They’re not sure yet. They’re letting me know what is going on as they decide,” he said.
“How’re you doing?” I asked.
“Fine. Mom, Dad and I will sleep in the waiting room tonight. I want to be close if I’m needed. You can call the ICU anytime. Ask for Nick’s nurse.” He gave me the number.
“I plan to get out of the hospital first thing in the morning. We’ll get the children and be down there as soon as we can.”
“All right, I’ll see you then. Just call up to the ICU waiting room when you get here. I love you.”
Unable to sleep, I called Nick’s nurse around 2:00 A.M., and a male voice answered.
“He’s still stable. We’re keeping a close eye on him. Your son is my only patient. I’ll be here all night.” After my phone conversation, I was reassured.
Mother and I were ready to leave before the doctors made their rounds at 7:00 A.M. Dr. Reed was the first to visit.
“What do you think is wrong with his heart?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. It could be a number of things, from a hole in his heart to something more complicated.”
“Do you think he’ll be all right?” I prompted, desperate to hear something encouraging.
“I just don’t know.”
“Do you think he’ll have to have surgery? If he does, what kind will it be?” I persisted.
“We’ll just have to wait and see what they say.”
Mother said she could tell the problem with Nick’s heart was serious from the look on Dr. Reed’s face and by what he had not said. I was glad he was making the decisions. We did not have the knowledge to do so ourselves.
I thought about Nick’s having surgery. He would have a scar, forever. I innocently believed this would be the worst thing that could happen.
Soon after Dr. Reed left, my doctor came by to check on me. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m fine, but my baby is not doing so well. He had to be moved to Egleston yesterday evening. Dr. Reed thinks it is some type of heart problem. I want to be out of here as soon as possible. I need to go to Atlanta this morning. May I be discharged now?”
“I didn’t know about your baby. I’m sorry.” He took my hand.
“Can you pleas-e-e-e release me?”
“Are you sure you are ready to go? Are you feeling all right?” he asked.
“Yes. This is my fourth child. This is old hat to me.”
“I’ll let the nurses know, and they’ll get you out of here.”
Thirty minutes later I left the hospital without a baby. I was in a wheelchair, holding an “It’s a Boy” balloon, but I was missing a baby. I knew the people I passed were wondering what had happened to my child and possibly thought my boy had died. I wanted to explain to everyone what was happening. From the hospital, Mother and I went directly to my brother’s house to pick up my other children.
“Where’s the new baby?” Drew, my five-year-old, asked.
I did not want to explain; it hurt too much. What if I scared him? I had to make it simple. “Nick is in a hospital in Atlanta with Daddy, and we are going to see him,” I said. He accepted that.
I told Mother while she drove us the two hours to Atlanta that no matter what was wrong with Nick, there would be other children with worse problems at Egleston. I was wrong. Nick had less chance to live than a child with cancer.