As previously mentioned, I had this grandiose plan for the blog posts leading up to the boys first birthday where I would chronicle each of their first 11 months with a post. I was going to cover the birth and first month in the NICU with the first entry before rattling through the next 10 months as a tribute to the big 3-6-5. Piece of cake.
And then I tried writing it.
I don’t mind admitting that I may have bitten off a bit more than I can chew and will be making some adjustments on the fly, starting with this first entry. I decided not long after I sat down the first time to write this that I was going to have to devote the first post to February 18 and 19 to give the significance of that experience its just desserts. That being said, I have now rewritten this post eight different times out of fear of too much information or not enough and have come to the conclusion that there are certain topics – specifically anything that happened in the first two months – that need more realistic timelines.
Now that I have finished with my disclaimer, I would like to tell a story that begins on the morning of February 18, 2016.
At that time, I was the manager of a T-Mobile store and had to go in on my day off to cover for a call-off. This was often a point of contention between JheriAnne and me, but it was part of the cost of doing business when running at a retail store. We had planned on going to Babies R Us that morning to pick up the cribs we had ordered before going to next ultrasound appointment. By the time my afternoon coverage made it in, we had missed our window before it was time to head to the doctor. JheriAnne was thrilled.
Once the initial eye-rolls and completely justifiable attitude had passed, I was able to spend the rest of the ride anticipating the appointment. I was particularly excited for this one because I had to miss the previous three appointments because of work and this was always something that I felt extremely guilty about. It was important to me that I was an active participant during these appointments, so missing that many in a row meant that I had ground that I had to make up with this visit.
From my experience, a soon-to-be-father runs the risk of being ignored when it comes time to discuss the specifics of the pregnancy and can quickly fall into the background during these visits unless he makes it a point to ask questions. It seems that a pregnancy is medically treated – and rightfully so – as follows: if you don’t have the child inside of you, you’re not technically on a need-to-know basis. Or at least not on a need-to-be-acknowledged basis.
The visit was pretty standard at first and appeared to be going the way that it had gone every other time. The ultrasound technician would find one of the boys and essentially go through a checklist measuring the size of certain body parts and verifying that certain things were functioning properly.
NOTE: I understand that what I just said is probably a disrespectfully simplistic explanation of what these techs do. I’m just saying how it looks to an ignorant bloke who knows nothing about what they do. The fact that they can decipher anything with the grainy views they often have to work with is a mystery to me.
Dominic popped up on the screen first and the tech was able to run through his checklist seemingly without issue (remember those italics). Once she got to Isaac, she made a note that he had not seemed to grow nearly as much as his brother since their last appointment, which had been three weeks prior. As she progressed, she got to the umbilical cord and let out one of the worst sounds that a medical professional can make in front of a patient.
I have not fully relaxed since she made that noise.
She was reacting to the lack of nutrients and fluid traveling through Isaac’s cord, which she said explained why he had grown so little over the course of three weeks. It was as if someone was kinking it. Having been prepped and informed of a common phenomenon with multiples called “twin-to-twin transfusion,” we optimistically asked if it could be that. After a few moments of silence, the technician left the room to grab a doctor.
Then it was just us.
One thing I always liked about these appointments was that there would be extended periods of time where the ultrasound tech would leave the room to get a doctor or run a report. This gave us pregnancy-mandated alone time to focus not on school or work, but on each other and the boys. You’d think that a few 10-minute stretches over the course of a doctor’s appointment shouldn’t be considered a couple’s “bonding time,” but if being married to a med student has taught me anything, it’s that you take your moments of undivided attention when you can get them.
It was during this particular intermission that I got the first of many reminders throughout this process of a major difference between my wife and me: I know nothing about medicine and – for someone not wearing a lab coat – she knows too much. When confronted with the things we were about to face, I honestly don’t know which one is worse.
We nervously talked about how it’s probably just the transfusion thing and about how Dom was just being greedy and about how Isaac would get him back later on by stealing his toys as retaliation until the doctor made it in. After a brief introduction, she took the ultrasound tool and found the area in question almost immediately (I’ll never know how one gets good at performing an ultrasound, but there are definitely different levels of skill). She maneuvered the device around to get views from different angles and determined that there was definitely an issue with some sort of resistance in the cord.
After making her way back to Dom to compare, she also made it a note to stop at his heart (italics). While his umbilical cord checked out fine, there appeared to be an issue with blood not flowing properly on the right side of his heart. Seeing both of these issues was enough for the doctor to immediately admit us to the hospital.
Once admitted, I made the necessary calls to get my shifts covered and strapped in. Actually, no. Technically, I did not strap in, but JheriAnne did. Literally.
Our course of action was to monitor the boys overnight to see if there was any improvement with either issue and to discuss next steps after running a few tests in the morning. The way that we were going to monitor the boys was by crudely attaching a pair of fetal monitors (hockey pucks that monitor heartbeats) with “straps” that had the staying power of a 12-year-old ACE bandage without the little metal teeth. Every time one of the pucks moved, a monitor would start beeping for a nurse to come readjust. I don’t know exactly how many times this happened, but I think I stopped counting at 387.
Having developed a commitment to comedy before ever seeing the light of day, the boys decided to add to the fun and showed an uncanny ability to troll us from inside the womb by synchronizing their heartbeats. Most people thought this was really adorable when they first heard it.
“Oh, that’s just twins for you,” they incorrectly said. “Get used to it! They’re just so in tune with one another!”
The reason we did not find this phenomenon nearly as cute was based on the fact that every time the beats synchronized, a nurse would rush in to nervously start adjusting because they only hear “one” heartbeat. They did this roughly once every 11 minutes. It was just as awesome as it sounds.
After a night devoid of sleep, but filled with the “beeps” and “boops” of monitors and nervous conversation, it was time to check on any progress that may have been made overnight. Things escalated quickly from here.
After 24 hours of uncertainty and worry, the tone flipped immediately from wondering what would happen next to being told exactly what was going to happen next. JheriAnne had just gotten another ultrasound and, after the results went to the doctor, we were set to run a fetal echocardiogram (fancy heart ultrasound). The maternal-fetal medicine doctor entered the room and quickly described that based lack of improvement overnight, she didn’t think the fetal echocardiogram was necessary.
“We need to get these babies out,” she said.
“Ok, when do you think we’ll start prepping for this,” asked JheriAnne.
“Within the next hour,” the doctor replied.
I’ve thought a lot about bedside manner with situations like this since she finished her explanation and walked out of the room. The ability to deliver a tragic diagnosis or an aggressive and unexpected course of action with such undeniable confidence is a skill that I still can’t wrap my head around. She floored us within three minutes of speaking to us and did it with the emotion of someone reading off a grocery list. This is not a complaint. This was not the time for sympathy or consolation. She had a job to do. It’s actually admirable…after the fact.
We didn’t have much time to react. Immediately after the news was delivered, nurses began prepping JheriAnne while doctors came to describe what was going to happen step-by-step once the delivery began. During that hour, JheriAnne’s sister and best friend both showed up after driving to Chicago from Michigan. I greeted them in the hallway while she was finishing up prep with the anesthesiologist. Once he left the room, I let them enter to be alone with her while there was still time. I made it a point not to listen.
I wasn’t allowed to go into the delivery room with JheriAnne while they prepped her, so a nurse gave me a pair of scrubs to change into and said that they’d come get me in 20 minutes once it was time to begin. We shared a teary-eyed embrace that – along with everything else over the last 24 hours – was rushed and she was wheeled away. The next time I saw her, she would become a mother.
After she left, I sat and talked for a few minutes with her sister and friend and they shared some words of encouragement and support before eventually giving me some time to myself. I made a few phone calls to family and friends to let them know that it was happening before finally taking a few moments to myself to process what was going on.
I sat on the ironing board (they called it a cot…agree to disagree) that I had occupied the
night before and sat with my head in my hands staring at the floor. At first, there was nothing. Not a single thought. It was a very strange sensation. It was as if every thought that I could have was trying to come out at the same time in a way that is similar to combining all colors to create black. It felt like I wasn’t thinking when, in reality, I was trying to think of everything.
Once the thoughts got into an orderly, single-file line, they came with amazing speed. It’s hard to remember a lot of specifics, but I do remember a number of things that popped up multiple times:
- Is this really happening?
- I’m going to be a dad.
- We’re not ready for this.
- 29 weeks seems really early.
- The doctor said that they’ve dealt with this sort of thing a lot.
- Seriously, is this really happening?
- The doctor seemed confident.
- We should probably be confident.
- We’re going to be parents.
- JheriAnne is going to be OK.
- They’re going to be OK.
- They have to be OK.
- …but what if they’re not OK?
That last thought eventually took over and overshadowed the others. I began to get worked up over the idea that after 28 weeks and 6 days of what had been described as a “picture-perfect pregnancy,” that our boys were going to be taken from us.
This went on for minutes that seemed to last for days until finally – and mercifully – someone else spoke.
“Ok, Shane. We’re ready for you.”
And then it stopped. Nothing had ever mattered more than the stuff that was going through my head for those 20 minutes and with six words from a nurse, it was all moot. My head from that point forward was a blank slate that just awaited my next order from someone in a white coat.
This was my first actual parenting lesson. The thoughts and the fears and the worries and the emotions…they all matter. They shape the person you are and who you want to be. They alter your beliefs and change the way you plan and prepare. They are a representation of you. They are you.
But it’s not about you anymore. The thoughts and the fears and the worries and the emotions all matter, but not nearly as much as the ability to move around, over or through them when it is time to do your job.
Instinct eventually kicks in and there is an “act now, worry later” trance that takes over once you “clock in.” Once the nurse summoned me, the mental fireworks ceased and I immediately reprised my role as husband. I entered the room and sat on a metal stool by JheriAnne’s head as she lay on the operating table. The bottom three-quarters of her body were blocked off by a sheet and she seemed surprisingly lucid based on the amount of meds she had probably been given.
“How’s it going, good lookin’?” I asked. Seemed like an appropriate ice-breaker.
You can’t really have a casual conversation in these sorts of circumstances, but we did our best to keep it light. Much of what we talked about revolved around our appreciation of just how efficiently the different specialists worked together. It was incredible to watch a group of people who not only knew how to do their job backwards and forwards, but seemed to also know the next step for each of their colleagues.
As our apprehension shrank and the anticipation grew, it started to resemble what I thought I would feel during the delivery.
It wasn’t about 29 weeks or complications or the things that had gone wrong. It was finally just about the boys getting here. Even if it was just for a few moments, I was finally able to turn back into my true self, which is the most impatient man on the face of the Earth.
It was Christmas morning. It was the day before you go on that vacation you’ve been waiting for all year. They were coming and it became the ultimate “are we there yet?” situation.
At 11:37 and again at 11:39, we – well…more accurately, they – arrived.
We were reminded relatively quickly of the severity of the situation once the boys were out. There was no crying. There was no umbilical cord cutting or bringing the babies over for us to hold. Each child had a team of five or six hovering over them to check vitals and keep them heated. No one was panicked, but there was also no wasted motion.
This was when I got my second parenting lesson.
As we watched a dozen medical professionals treat our premature kids, we realized that we had an arduous and trying road ahead of us, whether we were ready or not. As hard as it was to not strictly focus on that road, this is when I began to focus and cherish solely what was in front of me before all else and to celebrate the victories of the day.
On February 19, 2016, we had a pair of victories that we have yet to stop celebrating.