June 8, 1987 began like any other Monday. I got up, went to work, my co-workers and I discussed our weekend and I started moving folders from the in basket to the out basket. A day like any other day until about 2:30.
The call came in from one of my wife's co-workers at the travel agency. Your wife started hemorrhaging, the boss took her to the hospital. Thirty-one weeks into the pregnancy this was not good news. Within 5 minutes I was in my car on the way to the hospital.
We were about halfway through baby class and had just completed the lesson on all that could go wrong. These were the images that ran through my head as I drove.
I got to the hospital about 4:00 PM. My wife was in a room in the "Women's Center" in the oldest wing of the hospital building, hooked up to a baby monitor. Her doctor was there and so was the ultrasound technician. They were looking at the screen as the ultrasound probe passed back and forth across my wife's belly, a familiar sight.
We think she's had an "abruption", a condition where the placenta prematurely separates from the uterine wall. The ultrasound was equipped with a doppler feature that allowed them to measure the rate of blood flow through the umbilical cord. Rate of flow is a primary indicator of whether the fetus is receiving sufficient oxygen.
The doctor, a middle aged Indian woman in a sari, left the room. I was alone with my wife. I cannot now, nor will I ever, be able to adequately describe the distraught look on my wife's face. I tried to reassure her that we were in the best place we could possibly be; a highly regarded hospital surrounded by good doctors. While my presence and words may have offered some small comfort, they did nothing to alleviate the trepidation.
The doctor returned. She had been on the phone with other doctors. A consensus was reached. It would be necessary to perform an emergency C-section. She began to run down the list of potential complications as we were asked to sign the consent forms, as though circumstances actually allowed us a choice.
The surgery would be performed using an epidural, a local anesthetic administered through a spinal tap to the lower back. My wife was taken away to prepare her.
I went to find a telephone and called my mother. I wanted someone to know where we were and what was going on. I waited.
About quarter past six, the doctor found me and asked if I was going to come into the operating room. It hadn't occurred to me that I would have that choice. "Yes, if you think it will be OK," I replied. "You're not going to pass out on me, are you?", she asked. "No, I don't think so."
I was given a gown and a masked and was shown how to wash up. Someone led me into the already crowded operating room. My wife lay on the table. The anesthesiologist stood at the end of the table, near her head. I was shown to a stool placed by her left shoulder. I held her hand.
The sheet was pulled up like a tent, preventing my wife from seeing her belly. My vantage point allowed me to see everything. The doctor completed the cleaning process and began to cut. My wife's abdomen opened like a gutted fish. Not expecting to have surgery that day, my wife had eaten lunch. The effect of the anesthesia was making her nauseous and she began to heave. I helped her turn her head toward the vomit tray I held in my other hand. The anesthesiologist began to administer anti-nausea medication through the IV. I could see her intestines jiggling, looking like they would erupt any minute through the gaping incision. The surgeon grasped the sides of the incision and pulled them together preventing my wife's insides from spilling on to the floor, as my wife continued to heave.
The anti-nausea drugs began to take affect and the doctor was able to continue. The uterus was pulled up so that it protruded through the incision. I thought it looked like an eggplant. Another incision, hand reaches inside, tiny legs appear. Baby pops out and is immediately turned over to the neonatologist. I can see him doing his thing on a nearby table but I can't see exactly what that is. The doctor begins to put my wife back together. I hear a cry, see smiles on the faces of the operating room personnel. It is 7:05 PM.
Crying is good. Crying means breathing, a serious question when a baby is born at 32 weeks in 1987. I am summoned from my post to the baby table, where I get my first good look at her. She is tiny, 1154 grams, just over two pounds. She is wrapped up tightly in a hospital baby blanket and they have placed a tiny little knitted cap on her head.
The doctor picks her up and hands her to me. I carry her over to the operating table and hold her where my wife can see. She seems to smile but even though she is awake the drugs have taken her to some far off, cloudy place. The neonatologist takes the baby from me and places her in an isolette on wheels and is off to someplace unknown. The doctor tells me I should leave as she begins to close up my wife.
As I exit the room, I too, am in another place. The memory is vivid but I feel detached as though I have just watched one of those doctor shows on TV. I exit into a corridor and I am alone, the corridor is empty. For the first time, I feel light-headed, a bit faint. I finally understand the doctor's question about passing out.
I look up and see my mother and sister coming around the corner. I was never so glad to see a familiar face in my life. We embrace and I catch them up on what has happened.
Before too long, the neonatologist comes to fetch me. I am led into the anteroom to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or NICU. A nurse fits me with a new surgical gown and shows me how to wash up with Betadine. I am led into the NICU and shown to my daughter's isolette. I look down at her, naked now except for a tiny diaper, and the knitted cap and the ever present wires and tubes. I am encouraged to reach through an opening in the isolette and touch her. Loving touch is of critical importance at this time. As I do as I am told, I look up to see my Mom and sister watching through the observation window. As I hold her tiny hand I am struck by the observation that she could wear my wedding ring as a bracelet, with room to spare.
Soon it was time to leave. As I left the NICU, I saw I had another visitor. My best friend from college, Michael, had called my house and after getting no answer, had sensed something was wrong and come to the hospital looking for me.
I stopped in to check on my wife. She was trembling from effects of the epidural wearing off and dopey from the painkillers. She told me to go home.
Michael and I stopped at a local bistro on the way home. I needed something to eat and the beer went down easily. We talked as if celebrating, just as any first time father might, imagining the journey ahead. But I had no idea where that journey would lead or how long it would take.