Empty Womb, Empty Room: Our NICU Story

author/source: Briana Buffone

Empty-Womb-LeoWhen my son had to be taken by C-section a little over four weeks early, I was told prior to surgery that it was standard procedure that he would be brought upstairs to the NICU to be evaluated due to his gestational age. In the midst of the excitement and fueled by adrenaline, I happily stated I understood.  To be honest, I fully expected that he would be quickly returned to my hospital room. I never really considered the chance that he would need to be there any longer than a few hours.  While I knew that he was premature, I had also read enough stories from other moms on the app I frequented who gave birth early and their babies did not need the NICU.

I just assumed all would be well, especially after he was delivered at six pounds, eleven ounces.  In my head, his size was an indication that he was developed far enough along to be fully sustained on his own.  After all, his initial once-over immediately following being removed from my stomach was encouraging.  Not only was he larger than expected, I was assured his general appearance looked good and he was breathing on his own. There were no immediate signs of concern.

While he was being checked out in the NICU, I headed to my room following being stitched up and spending a short period of time in recovery.  My husband had accompanied baby boy upstairs briefly and then joined me.  At that point, there was still no significant news to share about his condition. We sat waiting in my room for the feeling in my legs to return to the point where I was well enough to get into a wheelchair and go upstairs.  My delivery nurse, who advocated for me and was caring and attentive, had told me that was all I had to wait for to see my baby, and then she introduced me to the nurse who would continue my care from that point forward. The new nurse introduced herself and then vacated my room.

My son had been born at 8:43 am. I was in my hospital room by about 11 am, and I could fully feel my legs by noon. The new nurse came to my room one time to ask if I needed pain medicine, returned about thirty minutes later to administer it, and then left again. Understandably, I was anxious to see my son as soon as possible, to hold him in my arms for the very first time.  But I also know enough nurses to know that they often have more patients than humanly possible for them to attend to at all times, so I patiently waited for my nurse to return.  Plus, I was hungry anyway not having eaten since the previous night’s dinner.  While I waited, I munched on a grilled cheese and chips from the cafeteria and dutifully continued to drink my water so that my IV fluids could be unhooked, even though my delivery nurse had said upon reporting to my new nurse that I had already drunk enough fluids by the time I arrived in my room. 

Time continued to pass (and by time I mean hours), and I became increasingly impatient to see my son.  I called my nurse on the phone, asking her if I could please get moving, use the bathroom after having my catheter removed, have my IV finally unhooked, and be brought upstairs.  After confusing me for another patient (even though I had stated my name and room number), she told me that she would come when she could.  She never returned to my room the rest of the shift.  I don’t want to insult your intelligence, reader, but that made a total of one time that she came to check on me in the seven or so hours that I was in her care after having major abdominal surgery.  I am certainly not a medical professional, but I am pretty sure that should not be the standard.

My wonderful night nurse came in to introduce herself and then told me that she would assist me in getting up and bring me to see the baby in about an hour or so once I could feel my legs again. 

First, I think I stared at her blankly. Did she really just suggest that I wait another hour before seeing my baby?  Feel my legs again?

Long story short, I informed my nurse that I’d been able to fully feel my legs for more than seven hours.  In turn, she was shocked and looked horrified that I had not been to the bathroom or brought upstairs in all that time… and that my previous nurse either lied or could not keep her patients straight.  At that time, my current nurse promptly removed my catheter, took me to the bathroom, and got me upstairs to the NICU.


Apparently, there is a certain protocol that is supposed to be followed the first time a mom is brought to the NICU, so then the NICU nurse and my nurse had a terse conversation about my nurse not having called ahead.  The NICU nurse made it seem like she wanted me to come back later because she didn’t have time to cater to us.  At that point, my mind and my emotions began to spiral.  I had waited all day for this moment.  All of my life, really.  How could it be possible that my baby had existed in this world for almost twelve hours and not been in my arms?  I was not leaving my son’s bedside, and someone had better get him in my arms quickly or I was going to have a breakdown, quite possibly a tantrum.  I had been up for about 36 hours, had my entire world turned around, and then been neglected all day, separated from my firstborn.  If that isn’t some kind of emotional sadistic torture, I don’t know what is.

Once I tearfully explained what had happened to the NICU nurse, she also felt horrible about how our day had panned out and dropped what she was doing to help me hold my son for the first time.  She ended up being one of our favorite nurses and helped advocate for us by reporting our negligent nurse to the charge nurse downstairs so that was one less thing we had to think about. 

To sum up the rest of our seventeen-day experience in the NICU without writing a book:  My son’s physical condition was really very positive.  He was a great size, his APGAR score was good, was breathing on his own, jaundice level did not require lights, and he was maintaining his temperature.  The one thing that he seemed to lack was the ability to suck, swallow, and breathe simultaneously, ultimately resulting in his inability to drink from a bottle.  He was also hypoglycemic (low blood sugar).  Due to the low blood sugar, he had an IV in one hand to help stabilize his levels.  Shortly thereafter, a feeding tube was inserted in his nose down to his stomach. The inability to feed is what kept us in the NICU for so long. In the grand scheme of things, I knew we were fortunate.

My physical condition in recovering was better than I had anticipated. There was some pain and it was difficult to not to be able to do a lot of things for myself. (It’s amazing the simple things that you take for granted: putting on your own socks and shoes, bending down to pick up something you had dropped, getting in and out of bed or a car, climbing stairs, etc.) It was nothing I couldn’t handle.

My emotional condition though? Not so positive. There was so much that I wasn’t able to process at the time, maybe even some emotions I still haven’t processed yet.  There are a lot of memories I can replay in my head now and still want to cry about. When you are preparing to have a baby, everyone likes to tell you their stories of how they cried over the silliest things or how they battled baby blues afterward. Or even more seriously, post-partum depression. You expect that these range of things can happen. But you don’t expect what it actually feels like to live through it yourself. Now, I would never say my situation was worse than anyone else’s. I repeat: I know we were fortunate when it comes to the bigger picture. But your own emotional trauma is your own emotional trauma, and when you’re in the middle of it, it doesn’t really matter what’s better or worse.

When I was in the moment, I thought I was handling it all very well. Looking back, I was facing a battle with myself that I didn’t understand.  I typically pride myself on being a rational being; I can handle difficult situations with some level of finesse.  I can be logical and cool-headed, unemotional most of the time. It’s hard to rectify your normal self with your new self, or at least your temporary new self, when the fragile little person you created has an IV in his arm and a feeding tube up his nose and down his throat, when he isn’t able to do something that is supposed to be instinct.  When you’re staring at this six-pound being that is so delicate, so much a part of you and also so much not a part of you anymore, it’s difficult to not lose it. 

When you’re a take charge kind of woman, and you have absolutely no control, no ability to “fix” any part of the problem, you can’t be rational or logical anymore.

It has taken me a while to come to terms with some feelings I had.  I knew it was okay for me to be sad or angry. I knew I had the right to cry over whatever I wanted.  But I really struggled with something that seemed shameful: in those first few days, I felt so disconnected from my son.  I loved him the second he landed in my womb and I loved him still, lying helpless in that NICU bassinet. But he didn’t seem real. He didn’t seem mine.  I no longer felt his feet in my ribs, and I could see him there in front of me, but I didn’t see him come out of me. I didn’t feel the weight of him in my arms until so much later after his birth that he seemed a stranger almost.  I was so limited in providing his care that I felt useless. In those first days, I would sit there watching him as he was being pricked in the foot constantly as his sugar was checked, as the formula flowed through the tube up his nose, as he struggled through violent bouts of vomiting before his formula was straightened out. I didn’t feel like his mother. I felt like a bystander. Looking back, I now know that everything I was experiencing and feeling was normal, that perhaps I learned a lesson in motherhood far faster than my peers. There is no greater love than being a mother, and that there also is no greater pain.

I’ve also struggled with a lot of guilt. At first, guilt that he was born so early. Surely it had to have been my fault. Maybe I did something that caused my water to break. Maybe my body was simply inadequate and an unsuitable place to grow a baby, a weak and faulty reproductive system. I did this to him. It was my failure that put him in the NICU, caused him everything he was going through.  Logically, I know that I took good care of myself and there was nothing I could have done to cause or even prevent his premature birth, but even still it is difficult to not put the blame on myself.



Then, I would feel guilt over feeling so much self-pity. In my more rational moments, I was able to take a look around me and acknowledge that there were plenty of babies and parents with far greater problems. How could I wallow over a feeding issue that was ultimately so small? I would then feel frustrated with myself for feeling so helpless. Whenever we faced a hard day, I would repeat to myself that it really could be so much worse.  But the tricky part there? It didn’t matter. When it’s your baby facing any kind of challenge, there’s no room for comparison. You feel the doom and gloom that is yours a

lone, and I’ve realized that that’s okay too. This too shall pass.

When there was such a lack of communication between the NICU staff and myself and my husband, I was irritated at not being included in, or at least not informed of, the decisions being made about my son’s care.  I knew I wasn’t a medical professional, but being his mother, I also had the right to know what was going on and have an opinion regarding my own flesh and blood.  When I had the wherewithal to step outside my emotions and rationalize, the guilt would nest here too.  What if the NICU didn’t exist?  What if my son didn’t have the medical option to have a feeding tube, regardless of how I felt when I walked into the sight of it in his nose without being consulted or warned?  I felt so much guilt over being angry at people who quite literally kept my son alive.  And when I let these thoughts enter my brain, cue the cycle of guilt back to my inability to carry him to term.  If the care wasn’t available, my son might not still be with us.  That was another dangerous thought, one I couldn’t conceive.  Cue tears again.

And the lowest point – if it’s possible to compare the series of lows during this time – was the night I was discharged from the hospital.  For the previous four nights, my son hadn’t slept at my bedside, but he was just a floor away.  A quick elevator ride would take me to him any time I wanted.  But that night, I had to really leave him behind.  I had entered the hospital as two, and I would have to leave as one.  Quite literally, a piece of me had been carved out and was missing.  I wept inconsolably from his bedside to mine until I fell asleep.  To say my heart was broken is too cliché to do it justice.  I don’t know how to explain the grief you feel when you no longer are carrying your child inside you, feeling his every movement and knowing he’s safe and sound, facing an empty nursery that was supposed to be full of newborn cries and middle of the night diaper changes.  Ladies who have experienced loss, I salute you for all you have overcome. I know the profound anguish I felt at being just a few miles away from my baby boy left me feeling like I could hardly function, and I know that doesn’t even come close.  While each night did it did get easier to leave without crying, I couldn’t get back quickly enough each morning.  Every moment I wasn’t with him, I felt like a delinquent mother.

The days that followed turned into weeks, and it seemed we took two steps forward and one step back over and over again.  Holding vigil by my son’s bedside for ten or twelve – or sometimes more- hours a day was exhausting and frustrating, and gave me too much time to cyclically experience the guilt, sadness, anger, and resentment of our experience.  Spending most of the day living inside my own head while trying to appear like I was somewhat holding it together was even more tiresome than everything else.  The continuous emotional and mental turmoil left me feeling like my heart and soul had been ripped viciously out of me.  I felt like we had been stripped of so much of what was supposed to be a joyous occasion.As dramatic as it may sound, I know the experience will haunt me.

If there are any babies to follow, I’m going to be anxious about my body’s capability to carry to full term.  I’ll live in fear of my water breaking four weeks early- or worse, even earlier.  I’ll dread another NICU stay, this time wondering how 

I would deal with myself and a toddler.  I’ll make myself crazy playing the what-if game, and it’ll be irrational and illogical.  But that’s okay too.  I’ve never felt so much strength and so much weakness at the same time as I did throughout this experience.  I’ve wallowed and triumphed, felt both cursed and blessed. 


But eventually, my baby boy did learn to eat on his own.  We got to take him home and fill the nursery with the sounds of baby cries.  It is no longer an empty room.  I know that regardless of how those seventeen days may have seemed like the end of the world at times, we are the lucky ones. 

As I look now at my almost two-month-old son – who is a champion eater, by the way – I know that I will never be the same. Where once there was a desire to parachute out of a plane, there became white-knuckled anxiety the first time we 

left the house alone and went for a walk around the neighborhood. The woman who was moved by little has disappeared, and a more fearful, more courageous one has stepped in her place. It has both broken me and built me, hopefully into a better mother than I could have otherwise been.