Zoe was smaller than I imagined. She had weighed 1 pound 9 ounces at birth (720 grams) but had now lost around 15 percent of her weight. She looked like the babies in the “How your baby grows” brochure, except that she was outside the womb. Her tiny body was covered with lines and IVs. Her skin was dark and rough. There was a big tube in her mouth. Her face was completely covered to protect her eyes from the bright light of the phototherapy that she was receiving because she had jaundice.
Dr. Koetzl, one of the neonatologists, gave us a rundown of the potential risks micro-preemies were exposed to. “Everything we do implies a risk. We need to intubate them to help them breathe, but the tube is a source of infections. We need to give them oxygen, but too much oxygen affects their eyesight. We need to give them medicines but every medicine has side effects,” he said. “The NICU is like an emotional rollercoaster. There will be many ups and downs … try to take it one day at a time.”
During her first week of life Zoe behaved wonderfully, but the honeymoon was over quickly. A valve in Zoe’s artery, called PDA, was open and wouldn’t close. All babies are born with this valve open; in full-term babies it closes naturally but in preemies sometimes it does not. They gave her several doses of a medication that could help close it, although the downside was that it could provoke a perforation in the intestine. It didn’t work.
She needed surgery. An incision would be made between her left ribs and a titanium clip would be placed to close the artery. She weighed less than 700 grams. I prayed for the valve to close, for the surgery to be avoided, but she started to show signs of distress and the operation was scheduled for January 6. I tried not to worry ahead of time, but how could I, when I loved her so much?
The night before the surgery, I was restless and worried. I prayed for something that would make me feel less anxious. I couldn’t sleep so we went to the hospital. That evening we met Yani, Zoe’s nurse that night. She was a young woman with a lively expression, full of energy, with a compassionate look in her dark green eyes. “I know you’re scared, but I want you to know that this is a routine surgery in the NICU. They don’t even take the baby to the operating room, they perform the surgery at the bedside,” she said. “The surgeons do this all the time. They could do it with their eyes closed.” She hugged me goodbye. I had a good night sleep knowing that Zoe was in Yani’s care.
We arrived at 6.30 am and signed the paperwork. The documents included a long list of potential risks of the surgery and even though we knew that this was mainly for liability issues, it was painful to think about everything that could go wrong.
Sheila, the nurse manager, offered us coffee and chocolate chip pound cake made by a volunteer. She had been Zoe’s first nurse and had taken care of her while the doctors treated Jean-Marc Junior during the hours after they were born. Back then she had told Zoe that she was strong and that she would make it, and she told us the same thing as we sipped our coffee.
We waited in the NICU family area at the end of the hallway. It was a large bare room with a clock on the wall, a clock where seconds and minutes seemed to move at a slower pace than everywhere else. I prayed in silence.
The surgery was successful. After the operation Zoe looked tired but her vital signs were improving. She had a chest tube and a PICC line, a kind of IV that lasts longer, on her left arm. We were told she was on insulin. “Is she diabetic?” I asked. “No.” replied the nurse, “The sugar in her blood went up because of the stress of the surgery.”
“These are the downs that the doctors warned us about,” I told my husband. “Now everything will go smoothly.”
The following days were, indeed, good. Zoe recuperated from the surgery and her breathing was slowly improving, aided by a machine called the conventional ventilator.
“I can’t believe everything is working out so perfectly,” I said to my sister. “I’m so happy the worst is behind us.”