“You’re her mother.” 1983 Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, All Children’s Hospital, St. Petersburg, FL

imagesWe had to return our baby to the hospital, not to the hospital where she was born five days earlier but to the children’s hospital next door.  The first hint we were in an emergency situation was noticing how calmly and quickly everything was happening around us.  I was immediately separated from my husband, ushered away to a small office to fill out some financial paperwork. (I didn’t know where they were taking him and I was feeling abandoned).

It was a Florida August day and the freezing air-conditioning felt good when it hit me.  It calmed my nerves for just a second until I saw a small kid, attached to an IV pole, being pulled in a little red wagon by a nurse.  The kid was wearing a helmet.  It could have been Mars, everything in this world so foreign and frightening.

It was 1983, a few years into the AIDs crisis. The news that day was that the first baby known to die from the virus, reported in the Miami press.  The newspaper headlines were in our faces;  “No longer a gay man’s disease.” Worried about my baby, none of this was sinking in. I was concerned about the seemingly reckless, almost suicidal behavior of my gay friends (and former roommates), but now I had a baby to worry about.

*****

To see our baby in the NICU, we had to scrub. I didn’t understand the chemicals  we were using and scrubbed my hands raw the first day.  I looked down at the floor on the way to the back of the unit, our baby seemed giant next to all the preemies. (Here is a great blog post captures some common feelings about this area of the hospital).

The second day my mother and sister came and they were the opposite of me when walking by the little babies.  I had to stop mom from stopping  at every isolette, asking whoever was in earshot “How ‘bout  this one? Will this baby be alright?”

I didn’t think about how all these babies were affecting my mother, who had lost her own full term baby a few years before adopting me.

I like to see my doctors in clean, white lab coats. The woman before me, it took time to realize, was the head doctor here. She had on a sheath-type dress and a beautiful, trendy belt. I remember the belt so much because over the next few days I would see her in multiple dresses with similar belts. I remember thinking that she was dressing to cheer up the moms. Ridiculous, right? Her heels were unbelievably distracting, loudly announcing her presence before the heavy doors to the unit opened automatically.  Her appearance fooled me for a second but she was all business (and no comfort) when she spoke.

Your baby’s Bilirubin count is 29. We have to do a blood transfusion right now.

I knew what Bilirubin was, and I thought the treatment was to put the baby under some special lights. This news sent me reeling. Blood? Transfusion on my baby? Right now?

What?

A nurse put a clipboard in front of me and inserted a pen into my right hand. My left arm was being occupied by yet another nurse, tying a rubber band around it. It was all happening at super fast speed, and my understanding was operating in super slow motion.

We have to do what’s called an exchange transfusion. We have to cross-match her blood and yours. Do you have any allergies?

You’ll feel a pinch.

I didn’t feel the needle, I was too out of it with panic to know someone was taking my blood.

I’m signing the paper now.  Where is her father? Doesn’t her father have to sigh this too? Me, almost screaming: Why doesn’t her father have to sign the consent form?

My baby, 5 days old, and the answer hit me for the first time:

Because you’re her mother.

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