I was a lucky NICU mom. The neonatal intensive care unit can be a scary place, but it’s also an amazing place.
My water broke while I was enjoying a cup of coffee on a snowy February morning. I was not quite 26 weeks pregnant and thought I was about to enter the third trimester.
When I finally found someone to drive me to the hospital, I was told a number of gross explanations of how my water probably didn’t actually break, this was all pretty normal, blah, blah and a couple of medical students who looked about fourteen years old would be giving me an exam just in case. My water had totally broken.
After a few days in the hospital hooked up to several monitors and trying to lie perfectly still, I had an emergency C-section at 26 weeks and 1 day. Alice surprised everybody when she came out breathing and let out a little cry that sounded like radio static. Usually the 26 weekers can’t breath on their own. She was 1 lb 6 ounces, about the size of a squirrel. When I first met her, she was lying in an incubator in the NICU. A lot of things can go wrong when a baby is born so premature, but for Alice they mostly didn’t. The next four months would be spent slowly and steadily learning to breath in the scientific wonderland of the NICU with the support of an amazing and brilliant staff of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, lactaction consultants and numerous other specialists. I participated in all of the studies I could, pumped breast milk, brought her toys to look at, read her stories, and got to know this tiny little creature.
In a place as modern and sterile as the NICU, it’s easy to forget about history. And the history of the NICU is strange.
In the early 1900s, when incubators were first introduced to North America, hospitals didn’t really want them. They found their place in amusement parks, where a mix of a sideshow and a hospital was set up to display the incubators with live infants, and for an admission fee, anybody could see them and marvel at the wonders of science and the tiny babies. Staffed by nurses and showmen, many lives were saved in a bizarre show.
I think about these sideshows a lot. They were the first step towards the comfortable and private NICU where I got to know my daughter. Moms would have been present at these exhibits, were encouraged to visit often and breastfeed, and would usually, eventually have a healthy baby to take home. Same as me.
I don’t know much about the preemie moms who came before me, who visited their babies in amusement parks instead of hospitals, but I feel like I owe it to them to remount this exhibit with historical and social context instead of live babies.
You are an amazing woman. I don’t have children, but some of my friends have gone through similar situations to you. It’s hard for me to imagine what mothers and their newborns had to go through back then. There is no doubt that we are very fortunate to have the health system that we do today.
Hope your daughter is doing well and who knows, maybe she will become one of those amazing nurses or doctors who helped you!