Zoe’s intestine surgery was a success and weeks later she was stable and improving. We went over the list of things that could go wrong with preemies and checked the ones that we had already experienced: brain bleeds (check), PDA ligation (check), lung complications (check), intestine perforation (check). Last on our list was retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), an eye disease caused by high levels of oxygen, and we were thrilled that her first eye exam was positive.
Every Friday at noon the pediatric ophthalmologist, doctor Guthrie, came to the NICU to perform eye exams on the babies that needed it. The exam took less than ten minutes. The baby received three doses of drops to dilate the pupils, and the doctor placed an eye-opener to examine the retina. In severe cases, babies needed to undergo laser surgery to correct the disease and give them a chance to see, because if the disease was not treated it could lead to extremely poor eyesight or blindness.
On March 6th, Zoe had her second eye exam, and given that the first one had been so good, we were not concerned. My mom and I stepped out of the unit during the exam. This time doctor Guthrie examined Zoe and, once he was done, I went back in. It was past noon and I was thinking about the tuna wrap I would order for lunch at the hospital cafeteria.
“So how are her eyes?” I said with a confident smile.
“Very bad,” he said. “She has gotten much worse, she’s gone to grade 3 and she has PLUS disease. Grade 4 is very severe and in grade 5 the retina detaches and the baby goes blind. She needs surgery urgently. If you sign the release now, we’ll do it immediately.”
He went on and on about the characteristics of the disease, the potential consequences and the risks of the surgery. He handed us a brochure with pictures of eyes with red lines all over. There was a burning hole in my stomach. “If untreated, the disease could result in blindness…” I reached for a chair. “The downside of the surgery is that she will lose peripheral vision…” I couldn’t stop crying. “It’s a lot to take in,” said the doctor, “but keep in mind that the success rate of this surgery is 80 percent, and that’s very high. She’s already intubated, so we can have her ready in half an hour.”
I couldn’t stop thinking that she could be blind. I so wanted her to make drawings, to read Green Eggs and Ham, to see the ocean.
Forty-five minutes later, the doctor was back. “The surgery went very well,” he said. “It was quite advanced, especially in the right eye, but we caught it on time.”
That afternoon I went back to see Zoe. Her eyes were red and so puffy that she couldn’t open them.
I said hi to Gretel, a NICU mom who lived in Grand Cayman and whose twins were born at 23 weeks. One of them had gone home after four months, and the other one was still in the hospital.
“My baby had eye surgery today,” I said to her.
“Been there, done that,” she replied with a grimace. “Matthew had eye surgery and I cried during the entire operation. Look at him now, he’s doing fine.” Indeed, Matthew was looking intensely at his mother’s dark eyes, moving his arms and legs.
“Really?” I felt surprisingly relieved.
“Oh yes. It was his first eye exam and the doctor said he needed the surgery immediately. I couldn’t stop crying when I signed the papers. It was a shock. She’ll be fine.” She smiled at me and went back to her baby.
Zoe recuperated quickly from her eye surgery, she started breathing better and overall improving.
Several weeks later, doctor Guthrie was making his rounds. As I was feeding Zoe, Mrs. Frederique walked into the unit. Her son Sidney had been admitted to the NICU a month after Zoe was born. Although we had been in the same unit for several weeks, we had never spoken much, other than hello and goodbye. She was a shy Haitian woman with a sweet, worried expression. She was talking to doctor Guthrie and the nurse. She was crying. “It’s important to perform the surgery today,” the doctor said to her. “If you agree we can do it now, we can get started in thirty minutes.” Her eyes were fixed on her baby, her hand holding a handkerchief to her mouth. She signed the papers and held her baby until they took him for the surgery.
I finished feeding Zoe and looked for her in the sitting area next to the elevators. She was waiting for her husband, looking through the window and crying.
“Hi. I’m Guadalupe. My baby had the eye surgery,” I said and I held her hand. “She’s fine now.” We hugged.
“I’m Sandrine… It was so unexpected,” she said.
“I know. It’s horrible. I cried the entire operation. He’ll be fine, you’ll see.” I was also crying.
“Thank you for talking to me. I’m so worried. His lungs are still weak, and now the eyes…”
We talked until her husband arrived. I went back to the unit, thinking of how Gretel had reassured me and made me feel that I was not alone, and happy to be able to do the same for another mom.
Over the following weeks Sandrine and I had lunch at the hospital cafeteria between our babies “touch times” and spoke frequently over the phone to share our concerns and joys.
Four years later, Zoe and Sidney play together at birthday parties, Baptist Hospital’s annual NICU reunions and March of Dimes walks. We might not talk often, but we know that we will always be there for each other.