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ICU

Published On September 21, 2018

CLINICAL CARE

Out of Reach

A father tries to connect with his newborn son in the NICU.

We sit by our son's incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit, wondering if today will be a day we head home smiling, crying or, worse, don’t head home at all. Mostly we are rooting for boredom in the NICU. A boring baby is one day closer to leaving.

My son was born at 29 weeks gestation, just 1 pound, 15 ounces. Other parents post happy pictures of their newborns on Facebook, meeting siblings and being held by grandparents. Our baby was whisked off to the NICU before I could even say hello. The first time I saw him, he was more wires and tubes than baby, and even if he could have cried, I wouldn’t have heard it over the monitor alarms.

We had been through this before with his brother, born at 28 weeks and now four years old. In some ways, that experience made our return to the NICU easier. We knew that a baby can make it through and thrive. But in other ways, a second round added a dimension of cruelty. We knew what we were in for—a future of hand sanitizer, the fear of transmitting any illness to his weak system and, worst of all, a separation made more poignant by knowing what we were missing.

His older brother has taught us what it is like to hold your child and protect him. We can’t give our younger son that same visceral assurance. The cutting truth is that the nurses and doctors are far more important to his care now than we are. Separated by a plastic box, by the CPAP mask, the feeding tube, the IV line, the ever-present, brain-scrambling noises of the NICU, it is hard to feel like I am his father.

I watch the nurse lift the lid to adjust one of his many tubes and hear a sound coming from inside the incubator. “Is that him?” I ask her. It could have been my son’s cry, or someone else’s, or just a sound from another machine. “It is,” she says, and then the incubator lid is back down.

My wife and I hold him when we can, and sometimes we’re allowed to change his diaper and perform other minor feats of parenting. But we also leave every afternoon, to get back to our four-year-old and to sleep in a home with an empty crib waiting. Here in his world, we are the visitors. Here, a strict set of rules takes precedence, rules that make us nervous, even dangerous outsiders.

A few days after his birth, I caught a cold. I stayed home for almost two weeks, long after the symptoms were gone, to make sure I wasn’t taking any risks. The day I returned to the NICU—the first time I held my son skin to skin—I coughed, and immediately panicked. What if I was still contagious? What if I had just introduced a virus that was going to kill my child? I couldn’t sleep that night from worry. It was three more days before I felt comfortable enough to hold him again.

How do you bond with a child you’re afraid to touch? I try to find ways to be a father to my new son—talk to him, get to know his rhythms. I want to reassure him that this won’t last forever. Someday, I whisper to the Plexiglas, you won’t live alone in a box, poked and prodded, with parents who leave every afternoon. Someday there will be books, laughter, music and hugs. Someday I will be the father you need and deserve.

My boy is one of the lucky ones, growing bigger by grams and longer by millimeters. After two months, they tell us he’ll be coming home soon. It can’t happen quickly enough. He is overdue in knowing what it is like to be a member of our family. It will be a relief, finally, to hold him and not have to let go.