“Okay, just leave her here and call me when she no longer has a heartbeat,” the resident ordered as he left the darkened room, just as quickly as he’d arrived.
I could see it wasn’t going to be a usual night at the “Baby Factory”. It was one of my first nights team leading and it was to be a night that would change my life…forever.
Standing alone, peering through the Plexiglas walls of the incubator, I was immediately taken aback and could not help but to let out a soft gasp.
The baby before me was dying.
Life in her mother’s womb had come to an abrupt ending. The membranes that had surrounded her, protecting her, had failed and ruptured. The fluid, that cushioned her and helped her development, flowed out. Contractions soon followed and within hours she was expelled from her mother’s uterus, out into a harsh, cold world. It was a world she was not prepared for.
Born too soon…much too soon. She was 20 weeks gestation, having made it only half way through the time she should have spent growing and developing within her mother. There was no hope for her survival, no medical miracle to save her, just the harsh reality of her impending death.
Reaching into the clear walled isolette, I gently unwrapped her seemingly lifeless body, freeing her from a jumble of moist and bloodied blankets.
She was so perfect, she took my breath away for a moment.
Tiny, yet perfectly formed.
She may have gasped weakly at birth, but her lungs were not yet ready to expand and exchange air. It was too early for her to sustain her own life. Her chest was still.
But on closer examination, there was one small sign of life that could be seen. If I hadn’t been careful I would have easily missed it. In the reflection of light on her chest, I saw the small pulsation of her heart within, just a tiny flicker of movement, the slightest motion of her delicate chest wall. Suppressing a blink in order to catch a glimpse, I had to hold her in the light, just right, to be able to see that faint sign of her life. A stethoscope could not hear this subtle motion, it could only be visualized. Her heart was definitely beating. However, it was a slow, agonal rate.
She was so similar to a healthy newborn, yet so different. Her skin was bright red, shiny, and gelatinous, with very little fat beneath, revealing fragile blood vessels. My fingertips caressed her fragile form as I carefully examined every centimeter of her body. Finding myself drawn to her little hands, the perfect size to grasp my fingertip, I started counting… one, two, three…ten itty-bitty fingers. Her little feet beckoned, and I discovering ten teensy toes. These little features were so normal. As surreal as it was to see a human life so early in development, those diminutive hands and feet made it so clear to my mind that she was just a petite babe, a tiny little child. She was a pretty baby, with dainty little nose. I wanted to see the color of her eyes, but it wasn’t possible, the lids were still fused, not yet able to open.
Taking her gently into my hands, she fit perfectly in my palms, with her arms and legs curled up at her chest and tummy.
“You should be kicking, floating, fluttering,” I thought as I gazed upon her, “gracefully tumbling within the warmth of your mother’s womb.”
At you may recall, at this hospital, no newborn was left with it’s parents in the delivery room, especially not a dying newborn. This miniscule baby had been whisked past rooms full of healthy babies and sequestered into the recesses of the Newborn Nursery. A dark little examination room held a single incubator, reserved for dying babies. She had been brought there, the place of no hope, the place of abandonment, the place to die…alone.
But she was alive, she was a human being, she was her daddy’s little girl, her mother’s dream. She deserved dignity, to be valued, to be honored.
Things were going to be a bit different at the Baby Factory that night…this baby was not going to die alone. Not on my watch.
Since I was the nurse in charge that night, I was in control of what happened to her. Hours had already passed in my shift, before she’d arrived, and I had completed the bulk of my assigned duties. Visiting hours were long over, so the public was no longer peering into the fishbowl-like nursery. There was no reason that I couldn’t attend to her as I saw fit.
Gathering layers of warm blankets, I swaddled my little cherub with care and cradled her into my arms. Spreading out an extra blanket, I draped us discreetly. This wasn’t a progressive hospital and I had no interest in discussing my decisions with anyone.
Then, I went about my shift, answering questions and overseeing the unit. Nobody had any idea that she wasn’t just another fussy baby I was calming. Gently rocking her, stroking her sweet cheeks, and whispering words of love into her tiny ears, I made the most of her short time on this earth.
Every half hour or so, I’d walk her back to her isolette and checked to see if her heart was still beating. Over and over, it was still present, confirming that she was still alive.
After about four hours, her heart finally stopped. She had died.
But not as so many had, before her, in that newborn nursery.
No, she had died with dignity. She had died being held and loved.
She had changed my path in nursing. She would influence the care I gave and continue to give to bereaved families in Labor and Delivery. In turn, I have had the privilege to influence hundreds of nurses in my role as a bereavement nurse and educator.
Her life has had tremendous value, as each life brought into this world does.
It still breaks my heart still that it could not have been her parents who held her .
I will, like them, hold her in my heart...forever.