I will never forget the first time I held Zoe. It was February 19, 2009. She was a month and a half old.
Most NICUs encourage parents to hold their babies as much as they can, using a technique called kangaroo care, where babies are placed on their mother’s (or father’s) bare chest, wearing only a diaper. This skin-to-skin contact has numerous benefits, emotional and physical, for both the baby and parents.
Kangaroo care was developed in 1983 in Colombia, where medical equipment and power sources were not reliable, so doctors decided to see if the babies didbetter with their moms. The women carried their babies around all the time on their bare chests, under their shirts or in specially designed pouches. Infant mortality rate decreased significantly.
Nowadays hospitals all around the world promote kangaroo care and research has documented the physical benefits for the babies. The emotional benefits for the parents are equally amazing: the joy of bonding with your child and the feeling of being able to do something for him or her.
By mid February, once Zoe was recuperating from her pulmonary emphysema, I asked Dr. Diaz, one of her neonatologists, if I could hold her.
“She’s not stable enough,” Dr. Diaz said.
“What does that mean?”
“Well, she’s doing much better than a couple of weeks ago, but if we move her to take her out of the isolette, she could desat very quickly and before we know it we could have an emergency,” she explained.
The last thing I wanted was to put Zoe in such a situation, and I knew that it was only a matter of time, but as I saw mothers snuggling their little ones in the NICU, it was difficult to remain patient.
When Sophie was a newborn I visited my sister often. My nephews Benji and Tommy, then 6 and 3 years old, would run to me and ask “Can I hold her?” “Can I hold her?”. They would lift their little arms to touch Sophie’s feet or hand, and then run to the couch and sit with their arms cradled to hold a baby. “I’m ready. Can I hold her? Pleeeeease!” That’s how I felt every morning when I asked the doctors “Is she stable enough? Can I hold her?”.
On February 19, Dr. Koetzl was examining Zoe at the bedside. “I’m not sure she’s stable enough,” he said. “But why don’t we ask the boss…” He turned to the bedside nurse, Patricia. “What do you think?”
By then I had learned that although the doctors made the medical decisions, the bedside nurses were much more familiar with the day-to-day reality of the babies. Patricia had been taking care of Zoe for the past days. When I met Patricia, her no-nonsense, assertive attitude made me think she was cold and distant. After a couple of weeks, though, I realized she was one of the most thoughtful and dedicated nurses of the team, in addition to being extremely proficient.
“She’s ready,” said Patricia in a sharp tone that left no space for questions.
Dr. Koetzl looked at Zoe. There were lines and cables all over the isolette.
“It’s going to be a lot of work to untangle all that,” he said.
“That’s not a problem,” said Patricia. She gave him a serious look.
“OK boss,” said Dr. Koetzl with a smile.
Patricia turned to me. “We won’t do kangaroo care. She’s not stable enough to be in a vertical position, so you’ll cradle her in your arms,” she explained.
I held her hand. “Thank you. This means so much to me…” I said.
She smiled at me. “Now, bring a chair over, make yourself comfortable, and give me your camera.”
I checked my bag. The camera wasn’t there. “I can’t believe it, I always bring it but I don’t have it today.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ll have lots of opportunities to take pictures.”
Patricia called another nurse and a respiration therapist. It took them 20 minutes to get Zoe ready to be moved out of the isolette. While the nurse and the respiration therapist moved the lines, disconnecting and reconnecting IVs and respiration equipment, Patricia’s eyes went from the monitors to the baby, checking for the slightest sign that she was in distress.
Patricia wrapped Zoe up in a blanket and placed her in my arms. The respiration therapist stood beside me, holding the respiration tube in the right position. I looked at Zoe, resting in my arms. For the first time since she was born, I felt like I was her mother. I was a mom again.
“Look this way,” said Patricia. She was holding a small camera.
After 10 minutes Patricia said it was time to take Zoe back to her isolette. I kissed her on the forehead and handed her over to the nurse.
A couple of days later Patricia gave me a printed picture. I had dark circles under my eyes but a huge smile. You can’t actually see Zoe but you know that she’s there, somewhere under the hot pink tiny cap and the hospital blankets. I keep it in my NICU journal as one of my dearest keepsakes of those rocky months.