"Life is all about how you handle plan B", read the sign on the door. There couldn't have been better signage for those parents entering the rooms of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Swedish Hospital on First Hill, Seattle. I was one of such parents.
After a HELLP syndrome diagnosis—hemolysis (breakdown of red blood cells), elevated liver enzymes (liver function), low platelets counts—I delivered my baby via an emergency C-section that saved both our lives. I was 30 weeks pregnant.
When I first entered those NICU doors, I was still wheelchair-bound, on observation and recovering from surgery, but that sign made an immediate impression on me. I often come back to its message, as life continues to throw our plan-As out the window.
My daughter stayed in the NICU for 105 days. For a week, I cried every time I saw her. The recurring scene went more or less like this: I would roll my wheelchair into her NICU room, someone would help me get up, and then the nurse would lift the blanket covering her incubator. I would watch her through the glass for as long as I could bear, then I would sit back and cry.
I didn't know exactly why I was crying. I felt an enormous sense of joy and love. I knew I was lucky to be alive, and that my daughter's life was nothing short of a miracle. But the reality before me took some time to get used to.
When I look back at this experience, I see it as a lesson on the power of images and the expectations that they form on our minds. Expectations are hard to erase, they take time to withdraw from our consciousness—if they ever do so at all—and we all have images of what our babies will look like. Will it have mommy's nose, or daddy's large forehead? How about that dimple on your left cheek that appears when you smile? It's only human for expecting parents to draw images of their unborn child. I did that too. Based on my own baby photos, I expected a chubby infant, with leg rolls, full cheeks, big eyes, and hands with fatty dimples on the knuckles.
An underdeveloped baby, however, looks more like a fetus. An illustration you remember seeing in a maternity book somewhere.
When my daughter was born, she was the size of a bottle of wine, and weighed less than a large can of peeled tomatoes.
Her skin was so transparent that you could see the blue veins running down her bare chest, and so fragile that it would tear with the smallest friction. I had to remove my engagement ring to avoid an accident. Her tiny face, the size of a tennis ball, was mostly covered by a CPAP mask. And because her body didn't have enough fat to fill the skin, she had wrinkles on her face, feet, and neck. A wrinkly baby. If that is hard to imagine, it's because it is. Babies are not meant to look like that. Nevertheless, this is what I saw every time the blanket was lifted from the plexiglass incubator.
Then, slowly, day after day, she started to look more like the baby from my imagination. When we took her home, she was still very much below what is considered a normal size, but we just kept moving forward—the only path there is.
Fast-forward to today, and you see a perfectly healthy girl playing in her room, going to school, and asking Alexa to play fart jokes. As normal as it gets for a six-year-old. A beautiful plan B.