It was 3 AM.
The green telemetry line flashed across the monitor. Though I knew better, I could not help but stare and attempt to analyze it, vigilant to detect even the slightest irregularity. The patient, my newborn son, lay sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware of the context and circumstances leading up to his arrival. I sat there in the still silence, utterly helpless.
For the past three and a half years of my life, I had spent countless hours in lectures, simulations, seeing patients, reading textbooks and doing seemingly infinite amounts of practice questions. All of this aimed towards my goals of becoming a pediatrician, dedicated to using my acquired knowledge to improve the health of children. However, I don’t think another ten or twenty years of training would have changed how I felt at that time.
Early that evening, the obstetrician came into the room and informed us that our son would have to be in the NICU for antibiotics after my wife spiked a fever during labor. Just a couple weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital was fairly strict on its procedures for visiting patients. This meant my wife and I could only visit my son separately. After he was born he had some brief but joyous skin to skin time with his mother and was brought over to the warmer to be assessed by the NICU staff. After this, he was wrapped in a blanket, placed in a bassinet, and wheeled off to the NICU. I briefly glanced back at my wife, tired from her tremendous feat of labor, and she gave me the nod that said she was okay. I quickly tailed the NICU team, keeping a close eye on my son. Racing through the hospital hallways – definitely an unusual first few moments—he stopped crying and began to look around, likely taken aback by the newfound motion. His joyride was interrupted on arrival to the curtained NICU room where he was transferred to another warmer. With the efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew, nurses and techs began hooking him up to the monitors. EKG leads on his chest. A blood pressure cuff on his left leg, pulse oximeter on his right toe. An IV was inserted in his left arm which was wrapped in an arm board. The curiosity he displayed during the bassinet ride was quickly replaced by a soft newborn cry of obvious annoyance, as it became readily apparent to my son that this was far cry from the sheltered darkness of the womb. I couldn’t help but recall times throughout my rotations when family members mentioned the challenges of seeing their loved one hooked up to machines – having just met my son I was already struggling with these feelings. Having finished their tasks, the staff slowly exited the room leaving me alone with my son, who had decided to tolerate the recent disruptions and return to sleep. I sat there in the silence, this new, living breathing human in my arms who was so vulnerable and made me feel as if everything else around me had paused. He was born at the onset of a global pandemic, in a world full of uncertainty and yet all of that was put on hold in that NICU room as my life completely changed.
The hours passed into the next day. My wife and I continued to alternate shifts with my son, desperately waiting for the moment when we would be able to have the whole family together. That morning, the NP came in and delivered additional news – with continued hypoglycemia and hypothermia, my son would have to continue to stay until he met certain thresholds. Throughout the day we watched updates closely and grew more desperate, hoping he could make it to us soon. That afternoon, with growing anticipation and desperation, I was holding him in my arms, silently pleading to him. As we sat there, his eyelids fluttered open. Staring at me for the first time in a while were his deep brown eyes. Running on a few hours of sleep and flurry of emotions, I couldn’t help but be drawn in. Despite my level of exhaustion, I could tell he was looking at me with a look that said,
“Relax dad, I got this”
I will never forget that moment.
A few hours later, he met all of his required thresholds, and was able to spend the rest of the hospital stay in our room. We discharged from the hospital the next day, our lives forever changed. That newborn boy is now nine months old at time of writing, his days of mostly blissful sleep replaced with relentless curiosity and a constant desire to climb up our bookshelves. The ignorant bliss of the first time I held him in my arms has largely been replaced by the chaos of residency applications, interviews, graduation, current events, and life stresses. Sometimes though, I get lucky – before a nap or bedtime when he starts to be overtaken by fatigue, he will look up at me and remind my often-stressed self of the same message he sent me in that NICU room.
Relax dad, I got this.