NICU nurses are not angels

NICU nurses aren’t angels. I told them that they were, of course. I told them as if my life depended on it, even though it was my boy who really needed them. But even then, even when all I could do was to repeat how grateful I was, how I thought they were incredible, as if somehow if I were the politest person on the planet then that would make everything different and better, I noticed their reaction, the slightly awkward shuffle and deeply sincere “thank you” as they glanced among each other and tried not to roll their eyes. They weren’t being unkind, of course, more just slightly jaded, waiting for this next set of dazed and bemused parents to catch up and settle in.

As I spent more time there, I saw the same scene unfurl over and again. The terrified parents, the shuffling, pain-racked, hormone-crazed mothers and the gray-faced, stooped but still slightly defiant dads, blinking into a new reality that hadn’t been possible only days before. A new, neon-lit terrordome, filled with tiny bodies and enormous equipment, where the line between life and death wasn’t even the breadth of a hair.

We had the sickest baby in the NICU. I’m all for awards, but this was one accolade I could have done without. And it seemed impossible when we saw the other tiny creatures lying, catatonic in their hot boxes. Ours wasn’t so tiny. He was twice the size of most of them. Yet there we were, learning a whole new language and meeting new people for whom this little life was an excellent challenge. And that’s when you realize that NICU nurses and doctors aren’t angels. They’re just people. Highly trained, incredibly skilled, often wonderful, infinitely patient people. Yet science is an art, and only some doctors are da Vinci.

And how funny and curious that this alien environment turns out to be more familiar than we laypeople could ever have imagined. Group dynamics still apply, and some professionals play better than others. The NICU’s a stage like any other, and not everyone remembers that they’re on parent cam at all times. Those who ran, giddy, when a code was sounded, a siren call beckoning them to come revive a poor baby who’d forgotten how to breathe, didn’t know that this terrified parent was watching them laugh as they sprinted down the corridor. But I was. The resident chewing gum during rounds didn’t know that I wanted to cause her bodily harm to make her shut her goddamned mouth. But I did. The nurse who scrounged a rocking chair when I could finally hold my tiny son didn’t do it for gratitude but because she thought it would be more comfortable. And it was. The doctor who spent hours answering the same questions again and again, never faltering as I continued to fail to understand how the answer could be “we just don’t know” herself didn’t know how helpful this repetition treatment was.

And none of them had any idea that the best thing of all was when they stopped showing up. When the crowds who’d throng during rounds to pore over X-rays or argue about medicines slowly thinned out as the boy got better and less interesting, leaving only the residents who had to be there and the nurses who were always there. That was the best of all. I love those nurses for being there then, and while they might not be angels, they’ll always be my heroes.

[[Note: I just found this file on my desktop. It’s dated November 7th, 2014, when we were happily home from the NICU and my son was nearly three months old. I have absolutely no recollection of writing it, but it feels right so I thought I’d put it up here.]]

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