November is Prematurity Awareness Month. According to the March of Dimes, 1 in 9 babies is born prematurely in the United States every year. Worldwide, that number is 15 million. It’s the leading cause of infant death in the U.S. and each year costs society $26.2 billion.
Those statistics are scary for sure. But it’s hard to make those numbers mean anything unless they are attached to real people, to real parents staring down at their real babies, some of whom weigh less than a can of coke.
I was in the NICU yesterday doing parent rounds, which I try to do every month. I peek into room after room, and if there is a parent present, I squirt antibacterial liquid into my hands, and knock gently on the window. I introduce myself as a former NICU parent, ask about their babies, then listen to their stories—stories of babies born way too early, of complications, sometimes of death. Some babies have been there for months and months and their families have been faced with possible, sometimes probably death. Some look exhausted, others resigned, others hopeful, still others relieved. Each story is different, of course, but they all share commonalities that connect them one another, to me.
Each time I visit the NICU I’m brought back ten years, to the fear, the uncertainty, the anger, the hope—all those emotions swirling together under the surface of new motherhood. I remember that first day I visited Stella in the NICU and how I realized that I’d gotten it all wrong—she wasn’t beautiful at all; she was yellow. I remember touching her miniature ankle, tickling her without meaning to, because who thinks of having a baby too ticklish to touch? I remember watching her on the television in my hospital room a block away, weeping, not being able to make the connection between that tiny thrashing creature on the screen and the baby that had been inside me doing her flips and twirls just days before.
Yesterday, after I told one mother that Stella is a healthy ten-year-old, she smiled widely and said, “Oh, I hope I’ll be back here in ten years doing what you’re doing.”
I hope so to. Because I can imagine this woman stopping by room after NICU room, sharing her story and listening to the stories of the parents who are exactly where she once was. But my hope is also that those NICU rooms will stand mostly empty in a decade, that we will have made monumental strides in research, in prenatal health, in health care access. I hope so.
Until then, I’ll keep rounding, keep listening, and keep really seeing each of those parents who stand watch over tiny lives.
To learn more about March of Dimes’ Prematurity Campaign, click here.
I’m happy to announce that copies of Ready for Air will be shipped out next week to all 60! of the hospital NICUs and special care nurseries that were submitted as part of the Ready for Air NICU giveaway thanks to the generosity of the University of Minnesota Press and the Sustainable Arts Foundation! Thank you all for submitting your suggestions!