Breakfast at Victoria Park

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NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit)

My friend’s wife, Maria, was on bed-rest for the last few months of her twin pregnancy. They live in Cyprus. I’ve been checking in with them on Skype, every other Thursday. It gets down to numbers – be it weeks, days, weight, length, or contractions.

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“30 weeks. Woooo hooooo!”

“So far so good! Maria is doing well. Bored, but fine.” he replied.

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“32 weeks – great news! What’s the latest?”

“Doctor says all is good. We’re aiming for the 22nd of December; 36 weeks.”

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And last Thursday: “34 weeks, how’s it going?”

“We’re scheduled for a C-section in about 3 hours.” They were at the doctor’s clinic, waiting. “The smaller one has plateau’d at 1.7 kilo; the bigger one is 2.4 kilo. The smaller isn’t growing anymore.”

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Friday on the phone with my friend: The little one is doing well. It’s the bigger one though, he cried when he was born, and then suddenly stopped breathing. I was asked to leave the delivery room at that point. They held him upside down. He was blue…I panicked.

I remember the worry that gripped me every time I was asked to leave the NICU. Either Rahul had gone into yet another sleep apnea; for what seemed like a little too long, or they had to set, and then re-set an IV into an already rebellious Leila’s miniscule, 1.2kilo body-weight, hand or foot. The screaming, the suffering you hear from a creature as tiny as she was, through the thickest hospital walls, is heart-wrenching.

My friend and his wife seem to have their emotions under control. I clearly remember that it wasn’t easy to stay level. But I had to, no matter what. I seemed unemotional, distant, “strong”, because otherwise I would break down. That meant I barely spoke to anyone, other than minor, somewhat polite interaction with the medical staff and with my parents and mother-in-law, who had moved to Hong Kong to help me during those 6 weeks, and after. I managed it the best way that I could. That’s it.

I hated my phone more than ever before. I couldn’t stand to see Maher on his. It had to be off in the NICU. And if I wasn’t at the hospital, and it rang – it was one of 3 options: Maher, someone I didn’t really want to go into any detail with, or the NICU. Luckily for us, it was never the last option.

Regardless of the calm my friend has portrayed, I’m contacting him daily, but apprehensively. You never know with this: one day the milk feeds are up, the next day they’ve been stopped because it seems there is a fatal infection brewing in the intestines. One day Twin 1 is moved out of the NICU into the slightly bigger babies room, the next day the baby in the bed next to Twin 2 dies.

One of my initial, harder moments was on a Wednesday afternoon, the third day after the birth. It was the day I left the hospital. I walked out, free after months of bed-rest; but I was leaving my babies behind.

Maria will only see her babies on Sunday, after she is discharged. On Thursday, she gave birth at the clinic, and the babies were rushed off in an ambulance, to an NICU. I realized that what my doctors did, what seemed obvious then, makes much more sense – they put me in an ambulance at the private hospital where I’d spent the last two weeks of my pregnancy, waiting out contractions, so that I could give birth at 31 weeks, at a major, public hospital, that had a state of the art NICU on its 6th floor.  I didn’t see my babies until they were 17 hours old, but they were in boxes, safe, somewhere in the same building.

In the hour after I saw them for the first time, when I saw and heard Rahul cry out – in pain – and I couldn’t do anything, not even just pick him, I realized that I would have to find the deepest of my strengths, love, and compassion to get through this.

She was 2 weeks old when we saw Leila’s face for the first time; Maher and I happened to be next to her incubator when a nurse changed her sunglasses. Both babies had jaundice when they were born, which is quite normal. Leila’s dragged on for a while though. It is treated by phototherapy – a light that shines on the babies – front and back. The babies wear a white mask to protect their eyes. On most babies in this ward, the patches are as big as their faces.

I tried to spend every moment possible with my babies, visiting hours for parents only, were from 9am to 12:30pm, and then from 2pm to 8pm. I spoke to L and R, sang to them – out of tune, and during the week, when Maher was back in Chengdu I played an Mp3 of him singing for them. I caressed them, and when they were stable enough, I clumsily changed their diapers, and even attempted to breastfeed them.

The medical team of this hospital, The Queen Mary, HK, knows what it’s doing. From the moment we arrived – me contracting and making guided decisions in labour, Maher figuring out the administrative details, we knew we were in good hands.

But the NICU staff didn’t always explain a lot to us, nor were they particularly nice. Of course the team is very busy giving life to babies; giving them a second chance. They don’t have time for frantic, lurking parents; at least that’s how we felt at our NICU. They deal with immense fragility scientifically; they attach ventilator’s to tiny babies, insert IV’s, measure and inject milk feeds into a tube that goes straight into the baby’s stomach, and then suck out and measure the undigested material through the same tube, they monitor and record every minute change on a tight, 24-hour schedule. Not easy for any parent to handle. And oh yeah, they let the babies cry.

There was one nurse though, who made the difference. She always smiled. She not only encouraged me to breast-feed, but she also advised me and gave me pamphlets about it. She’s the nurse who organized a parent support group one Sunday afternoon. That meeting opened us up. Her kindness and compassion made my visits a little easier.

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At the NICU in Cyprus, my friends are only allowed to see their babies between 1 and 2 pm, and then again between 5 and 6pm.

A friend of mine had to send her 2 month old baby to an NICU in Chengdu, for pneumonia. No one was allowed in. Full stop.

On the other hand, a friend of mine in the UK would go in to see her baby in the middle of the night be it because she was gripped by anxiety or because she had a strong urge to stay close to her baby.

The NICU rules everywhere seem to differ. What was your NICU experience like? What were the visiting hours? Was the staff pleasant, and helpful towards the parents? Did they encourage breastfeeding? Who was allowed in?