Leaving the Hospital Without Your Baby: One Mom’s Journey as a NICU Parent
At 28 weeks pregnant with her first baby, Jen Hardwick was sitting at her desk at work when her ankles started to swell. Not knowing what might be wrong, she took herself off to the hospital where she was told by her doctor she had preeclampsia, and was immediately admitted to the hospital. While in the hospital and hooked up to IVs, doctors did everything they could to keep the preeclampsia under control, but at 30 weeks, Hardwick was rushed into the operating room for an emergency cesarean section (c-section).
The First Days
Hardwick’s They welcomed Langston, a beautiful baby girl, who weighed just 3lbs 1oz and measured 15” long. Langston was immediately taken to the Level 3 neonatal intensive care unit (NICU.) It wasn’t until two days later that Hardwick was able to hold her for the first time, it was only for 45 minutes but it was incredibly special as it would be another five days before she get to hold her again.
Hardwick was able to recover in hospital, spending much of her time in the NICU with Langston, however when her new baby was just five days old, the doctors and nurses broke the news to Hardwick that they would be releasing her from the hospital. “There was nothing we wanted more than to stay their with our baby,” said Hardwick.
As they wheeled me out of the hospital, they handed me a cake that said, “It’s a girl” I looked over to my left, there was another new mom, smiling and holding her newborn baby and there I was holding a cake.
Leaving your new baby behind in the hospital is a heartbreaking experience. “I started sobbing as soon as I got in the car. This is not how it was supposed to be, I was leaving behind the love of my life” Hardwick explained. “As soon as we got home and settled, we drove right back up to the hospital and would ‘live’ there for 8 to 10 hours a day.” Langston was released 42 days later.
Just a few years later, Hardwick was pregnant again, this time with twins who were born at 27 weeks. She admitted the second time was a bit easier, because she knew what to expect. Her twins spent 70 days in the NICU before they finally came home, together.
As a parent whose baby is in the NICU, there are many days where you can feel completely helpless. “They are tiny, in an incubator and the doctors and nurses are doing all these things for them,” said Hardwick. “There is very little that you can do or have control of.” To help Hardwick feel that she was needed, the doctors and nurses gave her a piece of fabric to go home and sleep with. “When I brought it back to the hospital, they put it in the incubator with Langston and covered part of her face with it (because their eyes are sensitive to light) the fabric had my smell so it was familiar,” explained Hardwick. “It was little things like this that were so helpful.”
Pumping was also something that helped Hardwick feel like she had a bit more control. "Pumping saved my sanity, it was the one thing I could do that was contributing to her growth and development,” she Hardwick admitted.
I was dedicated to pumping. Even though I wasn’t having the typical newborn experience, I was getting up every three hours to pump. Pumping gave me a sense that I was contributing to something.
5 Tips for Parents
With three children, and all having spent time in the NICU, has a few tips for other parents who may be going through a similar journey:
Ask questions and feel capable of asking questions. When Hardwick was in the hospital and sitting by the incubator, she wanted to make sure she fully understood what was going on with her baby. If she didn’t know exactly what was going on, she made sure to ask the nurses or doctors to explain so she could truly understand what was happening.
Create relationships with the other NICU parents with you in the hospital. “You see the same parents over and over again and you create mutual understanding for one another,” said Hardwick. “They are the ones that understand the struggle of ‘when are we coming home?’, ‘when are we going to be off the ventilator?’, ‘when are we going to be off the feeding tube?’, etc.” Hardwick found joy in forming these connections with the other parents and celebrating those milestones together.
Seek out other parents whose babies are preemies or in the NICU. Find parents who can give you tips, who allow you to ask questions. There are all kinds of social media groups, blogs, support groups for NICU parents. Hardwick found that many people in the same situation wanted to talk about their experience. “Because that’s all you can do is talk about it,” admitted Hardwick. “Who can help me navigate this? Who can help me understand? Who can let me know if my feelings I’m having aren’t silly? The validation that there are other people out there who understand and could tell me about their experience and reassure me that it will eventually end in a positive way….and at some point it would be a distant memory.”
Communication with your partner is important. Hardwick says one of the things that helped her get through those long days was talking with her husband. “We talked a lot,” said Hardwick. “We wanted to constantly check-in with one another to make sure that we were each getting enough sleep and taking care of ourselves.”
Lean on your friends. Hardwick mentions how important it is to seek the help that your friends are offering their help. “It was so nice to have those friends who would come and sit with me in the NICU,” she said. As for advice for friends wondering what they can do for those they know with a child in the NICU? Hardwick said to stick with them, even after those first few weeks. “Three weeks passed, we were still in the hospital and things were getting harder because we were getting further from her birth date, the days were getting longer, we had some setbacks from her coming home and people kind of faded away.” She says those surrounding parents of a child in the NICU need to continue to “persevere and check in, continue to follow up and just because it may be old news to you, they are still living it and breathing it and need your support all the way through.” Friends and family can help with things like offering to take care of their house, any other children they might have, or even cooking dinner. It’s all very helpful to a NICU parent. "Even those who texted and checked-in to see how I was and to see if there was anything they could do. It felt good to be cared for,” said Hardwick.
Having a baby in the NICU is a “scary time,” as Hardwick told me. “You are literally leaving a piece of you behind. We’d wanted a baby for so long and it was my dream to be a mom,” said Hardwick. “And then leaving that baby behind and it felt like forever before she was able to go home.”
But even during those long days, Hardwick admitted that it was all worth it once she brought her babies home. “We brought our twins home on July 4th and now refer to that day as NICU Independence Day.” for any parent whose child has been in the NICU, it’s a day for celebration indeed.
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