Picture yourself in the month of December. Around you the smell of spruce trees in the air, lights are twinkling and people bustle around you happily. Now imagine, during this month of the year, you are inside a hospital ICU waiting room. When you're in that moment, waiting for the other pin to drop, it feels like everyone in the world is experiencing the joy of the holiday season....but not you. As you learned recently, the woman in the hospital waiting room while other's decked the halls around her, was me. I spent my weeks inside of the hospital at my Mother's bedside or inside that appropriately named purgatory, the waiting room. Waiting for her to take a turn for the better, or the worse. Just waiting.
In the waiting room of the hospital, everyone is involved with your private moments. So it's no surprise that all heads turned when the elevator door opened. One day a few weeks into this journey, the doors opened to reveal a woman, more noticeable then most, because she was pushing a stroller. She looks around trying to orient herself and I see that no one comes to meet her as she pushes the stroller filled with carseat, diaper bag and other belongings forward. I realize that she still looks pregnant in the way that many women do when they are freshly postpartum. From the stroller the distinct cry of a young baby erupts. The woman doesn't try to quiet or comfort the baby, but stands continuing to looking overwhelmed and lost. My fellow occupants of the waiting room begin to look annoyed with the crying baby, and it's Mother. Finally, the 'concierge' comes over and ushers the woman away to her destination, the Surgical ICU.
Soon after seeing the woman in the waiting room, I visit my Mother in her "pod". The Surgical ICU has sets of patients in a single area so that nurses can be constantly present for all of them. This means, of course, that this is another area without much privacy, at most a curtain to give you visual privacy. As I sit with my Mom, I can't help but notice that the young woman and her baby are with a man inside of the same pod. The baby is being given a bottle inside the stroller, with the woman standing in between the stroller and the man's bed. The nurses are visibly frustrated with the woman and her setup. I overhear them discussing the man's condition, he is stabilized but is suffering from organ failures and possible brain damage. Soon after, the nurses suggest it is time for the woman to leave. They explain that the pod isn't an area for the baby and stroller, and though she looks unhappy, the woman acquiesces and exits the area.
After sitting with my Mom for a while I venture back out to the waiting rooms, specifically the quieter of the 3 available. This waiting room is small, with only 16 chairs or so. There I discover the woman again. The baby, still in the stroller, is quiet now and covered up. This quiet space is filled with people just killing time, waiting for news, and this woman is no different. She camps out in her chair, and again I can't help but to notice her. As she interacts with her baby, who has started to cry, there is no joy...no light...no normal motherly reaction. She appears to be in complete shock. Many of the people in the waiting room are 'long timers' who like to pass the day telling the stories of their loved ones struggles in ways that that remind me of a competition to have the worst story, and it is one I have observed day in and out for weeks but never engaged with thanks to my trusty headphones. Headphones I have never plugged in, but provide me a since of dulled privacy here where time stand still yet passes all the same. These ICU veterans are casting judgement on this Mother and her lack of reaction to the baby's fussing, or maybe on the fact that the baby is present at all. It's then I realize that I have to help if I can, that I have in me the capability to help ease her burden. I feel morally obligated to at least try, and also compelled forward with a different need, one where I can actually make an impact.
I stand up, and walk over. I touch her gently on the arm and hand her the always hidden box of tissues and say "Do you need a hand? Maybe some water?". As the words leave my lips, she looks me in the eyes, comes to life and begins to cry. Instantly, the baby stops crying, seemingly already in tune with it's mother and giving her the gift of unfettered grief, if only for a moment. She begins to apologize to me for crying, and I try to empathize with her, "it's ok to cry, it can be good to cry." I give her a moment by sitting down again. I find myself starting again with an offer of help "I notice you haven't used the bathroom, this one by the elevator has a big handicap stall." She looks both surprised and overwhelmed in this moment, as if the bathroom ws far from her mind, and mumbles something I can't really understand but take to mean, "I don't know how." if you'd like I can go into the bathroom with you and make sure no one enters so you can leave the stall open?" She pauses for a moment and then gratefully the words tumble out "Oh my goodness, thank you. Yes. I really need to use the restroom". So I ask someone to watch over our seats (precious commodity here), and we head off to the bathroom.
In the bathroom, she is nervous to hand me the baby. We make small talk, during which I learn that the baby is a little girl, we'll call her Baby Jane, and the woman is her Mother, we'll call her Mama. Baby Jane is just 37 hours old. I start to wonder if Baby Jane was born at home, or how she and her Mother are already out of postpartum care. The woman seems hesitant at first but asks if I will hold Baby Jane. To make her feel more at ease, I offer to turn my back and let her use the restroom with the stall door open, so that she can still see Baby Jane. She gratefully accepts, and I hold Baby Jane so her face peeks over my shoulder into the open stall. As I hand Baby Jane back to her I try to start conversation with her again, asking her if she has family to come and help her. Immediately her face and body changes and she shuts down. I apologize for being so forward, but the moment seems broken by my question about her family.
As the days pass I see the woman in the POD several times a day. I overhear the nurses give her a hard time about bringing Baby Jane into the unit. In condescending tones, they tell her that the ICU isn't a place for a baby, and that Baby Jane should be left with someone else if she wants to visit. Mama stands up for herself, telling the nurses that she needs to see her husband, and that both her and her husband are alone that their parents are dead, there is no where for her to leave Baby Jane. I realize why she shut down after my question about her family. I know now, she has no support structure, and I again feel compelled to offer her a helping hand.
Time passes and we have small interactions. She hears bits about what is going on with my Mother, there is no way not to hear. I learn that her husband was injured in a car accident on his way to meet her while she was in labor with Baby Jane. Our small group struggles with the loss of one of the men inside the same POD as our loved ones. Everyone is extra frayed around the edges, and I am sitting in the waiting room, a bit overcome by the happiness of the holidays buzzing around while I am left so sad. The Mama comes over and touches my shoulder, and sits and commiserates with me. We giggle and chat for a moment about the inaneness of it all and decide to head downstairs together to listen to a choir of carolers.
As we head down together in the elevator Baby Jane starts to cry. Mama mentions that Baby Jane seems to hate the elevator and bathroom, and always begins to cry there. I am instantly intrigued and ask her a few questions while I look closely around the elevator. I mention the work I do "in real life" and mention a training I did with the Brazelton Insitute, and without getting too technical ask if she would like me to share with her some of what I learned in that training and us see if we can discover a little bit about Baby Jane. She readily agrees, so we skip the choir and head to the cafeteria and settle in. In the course of watching, observing, and discussing Baby Jane, we discover she doesn't habituate well to light and very quietly under all her clothes will get quite red when she is stressed out. Her Mama is so stunned and very happy to have an explanation for why Baby Jane hates the bathroom and the elevator. Mama figures that covering up the carseat will solve the issue, so I take a moment to chat with her about what Baby Jane might be expecting. That her biological expectation is to be close to Mama. As we chat and delve deeper, I realize that I am in the middle of a consultation. Shockingly at this stage we don't even know each other's names. She shares with me that she really wanted to breastfeed but couldn't make it work. I suggest maybe we can seek out one of their lactation consultants since we are in a hospital after all? She seems excited, like she is starting to see me as part of her team, and says "Let's do it!".
We take the elevator to Labor and Delivery, and on the way up we share names, and a hug. In this desperate scenario, we finally each have a friend. When we reach the desk, the nurses are empathetic and agree the Lactation Consultant is a great idea! They get things set up and I leave Mama with a helpful lactation consultant, who helps get Baby Jane latched and off to a better start. Later when we meet again in the waiting room, I ask Mama if she ever tires of holding Baby Jane and if she'd considered a baby carrier to help? She mentions they didn't get the carrier from their registry and though she wants one she just can't spend time going to the store with everything going on.
The conversation tapers off, and in my mind I start to plan. The next day, I stop at a store and enter the carrier section. Whew, it had been a long time since I shopped for a baby carrier in that way! As I stand looking over the carriers, I think about what this Mom really needs in a carrier at the moment. Hmm..well, she can't really take the baby on and off in the hospital easily, She needs something comfortable with no learning curve, because she just really does not have the time or mental energy to learn a new skill at the moment. I need the carrier to be easy, with skin to skin as an option, and for it to work for now, this moment. As I look over the carrier options, I settle on a babywearing shirt. Because really, I know she can put on a shirt. I know she'll be busy and making time for washing will be hard, so I purchase two.
As I sit in the car in the parking lot, I start to feel awkward about my purchase. Will it make her feel obligated to wear the carriers? Will this make her uncomfortable? So I don't give them to her. I don't want to pressure her, or be too much of an advocate for my passion. The day passes quickly. The next day, I see her again. We talk for a while about Baby Jane and the nursing. After a bit, she mentions that she is worried about her husband and feels torn about needing to be with him, but also with Baby Jane. The opportunity to tell her about the carrier opens itself up, and I say "I bought you something, a baby carrier. I hope I'm not being too forward." Her reaction seems to be a mix of fear and gratitude. I let her know there was no obligation. If she likes it, she should keep it, and if she doesn't we'll find her something else! She still seems a bit guarded, but agrees.
I head out to the car and get the carrier. As I show it to her she seems a bit taken aback that the intention is for her to be skin-to-skin with the baby. I explain about how being skin to skin with Baby Jane will help her body to increase it's oxytocin levels to help calm both her and the baby. She seems a bit unsure, but when I ask if she'd like to go to the bathroom and see if it fits, she agrees. She asks me to come with her, and It's exactly like that first day I met her, she goes into the stall leaving the door open. She puts on the shirt and mentions how heavy she is, I remind her that she's freshly postpartum with a body that just did something incredible! "I don't know if Baby Jane is going to fit" she worries. Together we worked on getting Baby Jane positioned and all of the sudden, it all clicks. Baby Jane settles down perfectly against her Mama. I see that visible sigh of relief that everything is working just right. Mama is still a bit nervous and ready to get into the belt for security, and once she tests it to see if she feels secure she starts to settle in a little more. Still she worries that I won't be able to return it if it doesn't work for her. I tell her to use it and see how she likes it.
Not long after, Mama is ready to go in to see her husband in the pod, and I offer to go along in case she needs any help with the carrier, plus I want to visit my mom anyway. As we enter, the nurse asks where the baby is. As Mama points out the baby inside the carrier, the nurse smiles and says "That's clever". The normal reaction of frustration and annoyance at Baby Jane's presence seems to be nowhere in sight.
It's a bad moment to be inside the pod, and we can't stay for long. So we step out and stand in the hallway. Another nurse comes by, and is excited to see Baby Jane in the shirt. "What a fantastic idea" she compliments, and I agree; "Yes, so fantastic for Baby Jane and her Mama too. She's in there skin-to-skin so she's getting that great immune support, which is so wonderful here in the unit". Both the nurse and Baby Jane's Mom look surprised, but intrigued. We chat with more people there in the hall, some giving the carrier compliments, and some not taking much note of Baby Jane's presence. Soon, we head back into the pod and the woman visits with her husband, still wearing Baby Jane. I sit with my Mother, quietly there as backup but giving them space, and I tell my Mom the story of what is happening.
Another nurse comes by and wonders why no one else thought of using a carrier. I tell her that the Mom needed to be with both her husband, and Baby Jane and that the carrier is just the right tool to make that happen. Baby Jane is quiet and everyone is looking at them differently this time. There is no judgement in the room. This is the day that Mama also learns that her husband is going to make it.
Once out of the pod, Mama realizes that she's been able to keep Baby Jane quiet and happy for two hours. She gets her changed and fed and heads back to the waiting room. She reveals that she is completely on board with the carrier now, and feels like she has found a solution that allows her to be with both Baby Jane and her husband. I give her the second Nuroo Shirt, for which she immediately offers to pay. I refuse and tell her that this is a gift to her, and that her being able to stay close with her family is more important then the cost of the carriers. Besides it really was a gift to me. She gave me the gift of purpose, of selfless act of kindness for another. She gave me more than I ever gave her.
I know that this is a long story, but the conclusion is quite short. Kangaroo care and babywearing didn't change the outcome of what happened to this woman's husband but they did change the perspective of many people in the surgical ICU. More importantly, they offered this Mother a chance to lower the stress in her body and really connect with her baby, and with those around her. They helped break through the shock and build a shield for her and Baby Jane, letting her step into the pod with confidence. All of this was a reminder, that Kangaroo Care, and babywearing, have an incredible power. The knowledge of these tools allowed me to play a small role in bringing a family together, and I can't imagine a better way to live my life.