Last semester, we did our Pediatric/Obstetrics/Newborn/Neonatal Intensive Care rotation for clinicals. It was the moment in this journey of mine, that I had most anticipated and simultaneously, most dreaded.
My complicated pregnancy, my first born’s emergency delivery, his six week stay in the NICU, and several subsequent stays in PICUs during medical crises and his transplant surgery…right up to my boy’s death…all centered around hospitals. I revisited all of these settings during my third semester of nursing school.
It was as difficult as I’d feared it’d be…but, it was more.
My rotation through the Neonatal Intensive Care began, and the twangs of pain were barely there. I was in RN mode and I’m learning to play that part quite well (yes, after three semesters it still feels like a part I play, rather than a part of who I am…I wonder when that will change). The nurse I was working with, impressed with my comfort level in the NICU and knowledge of the equipment, asked if I’d been in a NICU before. I shared Joey’s story and after the usual “I’m sorrys,” that follow, she said, “Hey, there is a gastroschisis (the birth defect my boy was born with) baby in that room right there. His nurse is great…I’m sure she’d let you work with him today.”
She introduced me, and I followed the nurse into the gastro baby’s room. His bed was filled with toys, stuffed animals, and balloons were tied to the ends of his bed. Pictures of his mom and brothers hung from one of the sides. It looked much like Joey’s bed did. When you spend so much time in a hospital, you start to make it look like home. This little one had been in the NICU since birth, and he was over 2 months old.
I chit chatted with his nurse as she fed him…a feeding of the same formula that Joey used to take. A gentle formula, easy for babies with gut issues to digest. The little guy with the same exaggerated round cheeks that my boy had, and same short, stocky body (all side effects of the IV feedings that sustain these little guys while their bowels rest after surgery) was a bit fussy after his feeding and his nurse had work to do, so I offered to sit with him for a bit.
I knew it was dangerous, and tried to brace myself for it…but, I had no idea what I was about to get myself into.
She handed him off to me, left the room, and I was alone with the little guy…my arms in my lap, my hands cradling his head, so I could look at him, and talk to him.
Exactly like we’d held our boy so many times…on the cold hard plastic chair that was provided for weary parents to bond with their babies…
Now that he was close to me, the smell hit me. So funny how a smell can bring back memories so quickly…much like a song. It was the perfect mixture of Neocate formula, hospital tape and tubing, and that fresh baby smell that catapulted me instantly back almost fourteen years.
He smelled EXACTLY like my boy.
In my mind’s eye, his dark skin began to fade a bit, and for a moment, he began to look like my boy. I soaked it up…I let myself go there. I had to go there to see if I have what it takes to make it in this field with this painful past. I felt myself spiraling, spinning…out of control almost, to another time. A time that until this moment, was a faint and fading memory.
A smile spread across my face…and I felt myself become lost in this moment. It was comfortable…it was warm…I didn’t want it to end. I closed my eyes and bathed in the memory of my boy, enhanced by my surroundings.
It was sublime.
As my eyes began to burn and I felt the tears welling up, I was brought swiftly back to reality. I thought about putting the baby down, and running. Running to the parking lot, letting the swell of emotion go in a big old ugly cry, calling my nursing director and telling her that I couldn’t do it, and heading home, confident that I’d given it a good old college try.
But…I didn’t. I couldn’t let my past paralyze me…I had to keep moving forward.
“Swimming, swimming…just keep swimming…”
I inhaled one last time, put the baby down, settled him into his swing, and walked out of the room.
No tears fell, my shoulders were back, my chin was up…I had work to do. Patients to care for. Parents to support and teach. Things to learn from my nurse. Paperwork to do.
I moved on from that moment that I would’ve loved to have remained lost in forever…confident that I’m going to make one helluva nurse!