Being a Not So Stay-At-Home Mom

This was it. My life dream was about to be fulfilled. Me. Brooke Norton. A stay at home mom. As scared as I was to be completely on my own with Evan for the first time, I was excited to enter into this new season of life. Me and my guy, all day, every day. We would read books, sing songs, cuddle, nap (maybe even at the same time), and let’s be honest–watch a lot of Netflix.

Day One: Evan did not sleep at all without needing to be held that first night before Alex went back to work. I assured him we would be fine all night so he could get a good, solid night’s rest. I hadn’t slept more than an hour and a half when he left for work that day, but I was still thriving. I cleaned, kept up with dishes, did laundry, stuck to Evan’s strict feeding and medication schedule, did his G tube dressing changes, and kept him happy all day. When Alex got home that night I think we were dancing to “Brown Eyed Girl” in the living room. It was everything I had ever dreamed. I was exhausted, but I was doing it. I was actually getting to be a full-time mom. So much of our life up to this point felt like part-time parenting which is excruciatingly painful–ask any NICU parent. This simple joy of being with my baby and being all he needed was incredible.

Cuddling whenever we want!

Day Two: Things fall apart. Evan had been congested the day before, and I wasn’t able to get much of anything with the bulb syringe or the electric snot sucker we bought. I called the pediatrician and they said to keep an eye on it and call back the following day if he seemed worse. We had gotten an Owlet Sock for him at one of our baby showers. For peace of mind and to make the transition from constant monitoring easier, we kept it on him all but four hours a day (when it had to be on the charger). It doesn’t alarm like the monitors in the hospital. It won’t go off until the baby’s oxygen saturation reads 79% or lower (normal is in the 90s- preferably the high 90s). Evan’s went off five times by 1PM that day. Something wasn’t right. He was pale and lethargic. He needed to be stimulated to bring his oxygen back up. I took his temperature. 100.5. I knew what this meant, but I wanted it to be wrong so badly. So I called the pediatrician’s office as a last ditch effort to be told something different from what my gut knew to be true–I had to take him to the emergency room.

We lived 40 minutes from the pediatric ER. I couldn’t drive with him so unstable in the back seat this whole way. I called everyone I knew who worked in the medical field to come drive with me to take him in. I was on my last person, and if she didn’t pick up or couldn’t come quickly, I would have to call 911. This was NOT the stay at home mom life I signed up for.

Amy was able to ride with me. While I waited for her to come, I packed up everything I could think of that we might need if we got admitted which seemed highly likely to me. I let Alex know what was going on and told him to meet us there after work. When we got to the ER, Evan’s temperature had spiked to 102.5 and his oxygen saturation was 77%. He was dusky looking at best and barely moving or opening his eyes. They got him on oxygen immediately and waited for the pediatric team to decide if he needed to be in the PICU or regular peds floor. This would be the first of many ER visits for us over the next few months.

When Alex arrived, Amy left, and I let myself cry. The worst part of Evan being sick was that I knew how it happened. I caught a cold the week before and did EVERYTHING possible to keep him from germs aside from moving into a hotel. I washed my hands a thousand times a day, used hand sanitizer constantly, wore a surgical mask so I couldn’t breathe on or near him, limited my contact with him when Alex was home, slept separately from him when possible— the works. But it was inevitable. I blamed myself for us being in this situation. For only making it 18 days out of the hospital before being right back in it.

We got admitted that evening and spent the next six days waiting for Evan to recover and be able to breathe consistently without oxygen. This is what happens when a NICU baby gets a simple cold.

Sick little boy.
Exhausted but so glad to be able to spend the night with Evan in the hospital.

In the midst of Evan recovering from this cold, he also had some other mishaps. He screamed without stopping all night every night that we were there. It was his pain cry (which is actually his only true cry–everything else is just fussing). Eventually one of his doctors figured out that with the malformations in his brain, it was likely that he was having phantom nerve pain, so she prescribed a medication to alleviate this pain. It took a few days to kick in, but it worked! Evan also had his first G-tube button change while we were there. Not scheduled. At 3am one night, the balloon that keeps his button in place busted and his G-tube came out leaking stomach contents all over him and his bed. We had to wait forever for surgery to come fix it. It was miserable, but his night nurse stayed with me for three hours while Evan screamed in both our faces (we love you Loganne). Surgery also discovered that Evan had bilateral inguinal hernias that would need to be surgically repaired as soon as possible. Great….another surgery. Just what we wanted to hear.

Sweet, super pregnant Amber rocking our boy so I could just lie down for a few minutes.

During our stay, I went 62 hours in a row without sleep. Getting to stay the night with Evan was new for us since he had only ever been in the NICU before. It was wonderful but also so hard. Evan’s palliative care doctor had to get Alex to kick me out to go home and sleep. We were lucky enough to have Amber get pulled down to the PEDS floor while we were there, and we more or less demanded to have her as his nurse. Our NICU family was still taking care of us. Several of his nurses, doctors, and therapists came in to see him and check on us while we were there. We also started building our PEDS family that week. The nurses we had that week would become our regulars in our future PEDS visits.

My guys.

Evan was finally weened completely off the oxygen again and was ready to go home with follow up appointments scheduled to plan out his hernia surgery. This discharge was a lot happier than the last. We had gotten used to home and wanted to be back there.

HOME.

It is crazy to think about how chaotic that week was. Anyone who saw me could tell you I was a mess. I feel like I was “that” mom on the PEDS floor who nurses dreaded because I was so strict about Evan’s schedule. Even though I was a disaster, I am thankful for that admission because it helped me find my voice in advocating for Evan’s needs outside of the NICU. When we were on the 14th floor, I often didn’t have to advocate for him because he had a team of dedicated nurses who knew him just as well if not better than we did and loved him so much. They did it for us. Now we were in new, uncharted waters. The 11th floor was just different. Being outpatient was different. All of it is good, but we needed to get used to a new normal (again). I’m happy (and maybe a little sad) to say that we now have a sense of normal and routine in being on the PEDS floor or in going to over a dozen doctor and therapy appointments a month with Evan.

For me, being a stay at home mom has been a lot of being a stay at hospital mom. This was just the first of many admissions we would have in the months that followed. But I wouldn’t trade it. I am certain that God chose me specifically to be Evan’s mom, and I thank Him every day for that undeserved blessing.

NICU: Mischief Managed

We moved back to D pod at the end of July. I had some pretty negative emotions towards it because I hated the three weeks we had spent in there previously, and we had a really good carespace in C pod. We needed to get out of there quick! Or so I thought…

We had been prepared to be parents. We were prepared to bring home our baby, get little to no sleep, feed at all hours of the night, handle some spit up, poopy diapers, you name it. This is what we anticipated the majority of our pregnancy. NICU life was kind of outside of all of that if that makes any sense. Our life there was confined to the walls of the fourteenth floor. Now we were actually getting ready to bring Evan home. We’d be at home, by ourselves, with a baby who had been getting around the clock medical care for the past 80 some days. This was not what we prepared for when we were waiting for our sweet guy to arrive.

I recently read a post somewhere called “Welcome to Holland.” It’s about being a special needs parent. Essentially it says that it’s like preparing for a vacation to Italy. You plan and plan. You learn all the places you want to sight see, book your hotels, plan where you will eat, etc. But when your plane touches down, the attendant says “Welcome to Holland.” This wasn’t where you planned to be. You have to learn all new places to see, book new hotels while cancelling the ones in Italy, research new restaurants, etc. Holland is great. It is beautiful and wonderful, but it is not Italy. This is the sad paradox of being a special needs parent. You are overwhelmed with love and gratefulness for this little life before you, but there is still grace to grieve the life you had expected.

Bringing Evan home finally put me in a dark place. This was it. This was supposed to be the best moment of our lives. It was supposed to be nothing but joy. But, I suddenly was overcome with doubt, anxiety, and fear. What if I can’t do this? What will I do without monitors, alarms, and nurses here? What if something goes wrong, and I am home alone? I spiraled into full blown Post-Partum Anxiety, but by the time I called my OB to get medication, we were too close to discharge for it to kick in before we left. I couldn’t function. Remember before when I said I throw up from any strong emotion? Well, anxiety is a very strong emotion. Every time Evan cried I had a panic attack that led me to vomiting. I could barely eat. I couldn’t sleep.

We were supposed to go home on a Friday. Evan just had to pass his carseat test. Martha tried not to let us be there for it because she knew I would just stare at the monitor the entire time…she knew me so well (and still does). I convinced her to start it while we were still there though, and we left about an hour into it. He passed on the first try! I was SHOCKED.

Every time I called that week during the night, the nurses said “he’s been a little fussy.” Then he would sleep all day. Something felt off to me. His night nurses that week were ones he hadn’t had before, so they didn’t know him or his personality, and we were in a different pod now, so the rest of the nurses in there hadn’t really seen him much either. It wasn’t until Thursday night, the night we were rooming in (staying overnight in a special room for parents whose babies are about to go home) that someone else realized it wasn’t right. Brittany was back that night, and she could tell that Evan’s “fussiness” was not him at all. He screamed from about 6pm-1:30am at least that night. Something wasn’t right. To top it off, I came down with a stomach bug that night (different from my anxiety pukes) and we had to call off rooming in and go home. The next day, to protect Evan from germs, I couldn’t go to the NICU at all. I cried the entire day while Alex sent me pictures, and Amber reassured me that she wouldn’t let them send us home without assessing Evan.

The next day, I was alone with Evan the whole day while Alex went to Richmond for his brother’s wedding. It killed us that we couldn’t both be there, but we couldn’t leave Evan alone especially since something felt wrong. The new plan was to leave on Monday. However, his temps were low that day, and he was having more desaturations than normal, so his nurse asked the doctor to run some labs. They did a septic work up on him. They started him on antibiotics to be safe and they tweaked his feeding schedule a bit to try and help him be more comfortable. We didn’t go home that Monday, because we were waiting on labs and for him to be more himself still. Tuesday night we roomed in again, and things went much better. We got practically no sleep at all, but Evan was more himself. Wednesday morning we would be able to take him home! When the doc walked in that morning, I could see it all over her face. We weren’t going home. His blood cultures came back with MRSA (not at all surprised, but that will be a post all by itself–cue laughter from any of his NICU care team reading right now). They were pretty sure it was just a contaminated sample, but they couldn’t send us home without rechecking. Evan also got genetics labs pulled that morning too that we would follow up on outpatient. The new plan was Friday…again.

Evan and Addie
Evan and Brittany
Evan with Amber and Maegan

Friday came. Alex worked a half day because with all the back and forth, he had taken off too many days. He wanted to be able to spend two weeks at home with us as we adjusted before going back. Addie was working days now, so she was our nurse for discharge. It was so nice having one of his “people” there for this moment. It was even better that his other primaries came in just to see him off. Brittany, Maegan, and Amber all came in on their days off just to celebrate this moment with us. Like I said before–FAMILY. They have loved our sweet boy unconditionally from the moment they met him, and they continue to love and care for him (and us).

Maegan has presented Evan with a sock. Evan is FREE!

I was terrified, but so excited. We put Evan in his “discharge onesie,” and got all the paperwork signed, packed up his things, and got him in the carseat. It was really happening! Maegan even gave him a sock to free him from the NICU. It was such a fun moment.

Headed home!

The drive home was scary, but we did it! We walked Evan around the house to show him his new home (he was unimpressed), and then we just enjoyed being alone. It was surreal. We had a bunch of medications to keep up with and a rigid feeding schedule, and Evan still had his days and nights mixed up. Add in my PPA that was still not alleviated by my medication, and you get a rough transition. Alex was my hero in those first days home. I was still unable to control my panic attacks, and I would have to leave the room often. He took care of both of us that first week home, and I have no idea how he did it. Well, I do. It was Jesus.

Tummy time AKA nap time.

Discharge was such a picture of the gospel to me. I was in my time of most need. Evan is always in his time of most need. And there was Alex laying his life down for us. Sacrificing sleep and sanity to love us in the ways we needed expecting nothing in return.

Our first outpatient appointment!
Evan always looks so snobby. Turning his nose up and side eyeing everything. Still the cutest.

By the end of Alex’s two weeks off, we had tackled more doctor’s appointments than I can count, celebrated Evan turning three months old AT HOME, and kept the baby alive and mostly happy. He still wasn’t sleeping right, but we will take whatever victories we can get. Oh, and my medication finally kicked in, and I felt like myself again.

Tomorrow, I will tell you the triumphs and woes of my first days of stay at home momhood. I’ll tell you this: it’s not boring. That’s for sure. Life with Evan never is.

Our Life in the NICU: Part Two

We were blessed. Blessed to know ahead of time that we would be spending time in the NICU. I always told people that, and I believe it. Knowing something hard is coming gives you time to prepare for it. By June, we had truly accepted that NICU life was our normal. This was how we would experience the newborn stage. This is where we would navigate the uncharted waters of parenthood.

Sweet boy with his daddy.

Alex was lucky enough to be able to take six weeks of FMLA when Evan was born, so for six weeks, we spent every moment together. We had never done that in our whole married life. I don’t actually know any married couple, aside from those retired perhaps, who can say that. It was a dream. I fell more in love with my husband in the months we spent in the NICU than I knew possible. We were a team in all things. Alex showed me Christ’s love in ways I had never really experienced from another person before. He sacrificed for me and for Evan daily. He always put our needs above his. He was the quiet strength I needed on my darkest days. Our marriage was strengthened by crisis. This is one of the many gifts the NICU gave us.

My whole heart outside of my chest.

As I said in my last post, June threw us curveballs. Evan was throwing up roughly 30-40 times a day, and honestly, that may be a conservative number. Through all the extensive testing his doctors did to establish a cause, all we could find was acid reflux. “The worst case of reflux” one of his doctors “had ever seen in any NICU patient.” This doctor has been practicing for decades. I told you. Evan is special. He has to do everything in a dramatic, over-the-top manner. We got to the point where we just didn’t put clothes on him anymore because changing his outfit at every single caretime just to change it again five seconds later was irritating him so much that he would throw up even more. To this day, I cannot hear another parent say their child throws up “a lot” or has “really bad reflux” without rudely thinking “you have no idea what acid reflux is.” (I know that each child is different and everyone’s experience is their own. But comparison, that nasty thief of joy, comes at me and leads my mind to these sinful and inconsiderate thoughts. I am human, and I am sorry.) Evan did not gain any weight at all in the first two weeks of June. Our team decided we would place a G-tube, a more permanent way to tube feed that goes directly into his stomach, in hopes that this could relieve some of his reflux since he wouldn’t have a tube going down his esophagus. He was put on the surgery schedule for June 13, a day when, thank God, Maegan would be with us.

In the midst of all of this vomiting, I should mention that we were also working with speech therapy to teach Evan how to suck-swallow-breathe, a combination necessary for eventual PO (by mouth) feeding. He did not have much of a swallow reflex when he was born, so if he had food, vomit, or even spit in his mouth/throat, he would choke, hence all of his desaturations. When Sam, our wonderful speech therapist who we still work with today, would come to work with him he often said “no, thank you” by dropping his sats and turning blue. How rude of him. Thankfully, Sam didn’t take too much offense and stuck with us even though Evan was pretty mean to her during our time in the NICU.

“No pictures, Mom. I don’t feel well.”

Even though Evan was throwing up constantly, dropping his sats often, and turning blue so frequently it seemed like it was for kicks and giggles, we started to get comfortable. Good NICU nurses are ones who teach you how to be calm in chaos, because life with a preemie will be chaos at least for a while even if you go home. We had great ones. Maegan knocked in the cardinal rule of the NICU: If we don’t freak out, you don’t freak out. It took some time for it to sink in, but it did. Martha taught us a second one: It’s okay that it’s not okay. I don’t even know if she knows she did this for us. But it was one of the most impactful lessons I learned.

We now knew what beeps mattered and which ones we could ignore. We knew when to ask for help. We knew Evan well enough to know something was wrong even before the monitors told us. We knew to breathe and stand aside when nurses needed to rush to his aid. We knew that when his blood oxygen was reading 9% and his HR was 31, his God would save him through the hands of his guardian angels. We knew that this would be temporary. We knew that our God is a faithful God who redeems all things.

Waiting for the surgeons to come get him.

June 13, surgery day, finally arrived. Evan wasn’t allowed to get any food until his surgery so he was just getting IV fluids. That was the happiest and calmest day he had had his entire life. No food. No vomit. We were worried he would scream in hunger all day, but he was so sweet and content. Our hearts were equally broken and joyful. Our sweet boy was made happy in hunger. But maybe this is a lesson…our time with a sick child has been a time of intense hunger and need for Jesus, and because of that it has been one of the most joyful. Wow, I am still learning.

We said a prayer as they wheeled Evan away and decided to go for a walk outside to keep our heads clear. We barely made it 20 yards from the hospital doors before we got a call from the surgeon. “There’s been a complication…” I honestly cannot remember everything he said to me on the phone because we were sprinting back towards the hospital. I remember “CPR,” “epinephrine,” “we got him back,” and “we will meet you in B pod.” Our boy was NOT okay. This was NOT the way this was supposed to go. We rushed back into the NICU, and a group of nurses and CNAs were getting all of our things from D pod to move to his new carespace in B pod. You don’t bump back up in the alphabet. That’s not how the NICU timeline is supposed to go.

We stood and watched as they rushed Evan in. He looked lifeless to me. He was pale. He was limp from medications. He had a breathing tube keeping him alive. I remember his temperature was way too low, so they had a heating pack underneath him. I think there were at least six people in his carespace frantically working on him. “They are freaking out,” I thought. “What am I supposed to do?” They drew blood and called out numbers. They ordered blood for a transfusion.

So swollen.

All of this was happening while the surgeon explained what happened to us again in person. You know those risks they tell you about before any surgical procedure no matter how small? How there are things that happen in less than 1% of people, but they still need to mention it? Well, Evan is that less than 1%. His airway spasmed when they tried placing the breathing tube when putting him under. It completely closed. No air could get in. They had to give him epinephrine and do chest compressions to keep him alive and get his airway open again. Once they could place the breathing tube and get his vitals up, they couldn’t risk proceeding with surgery or extubate with him being so unstable. I don’t know if I was stepping up and being the “strong one” or if I was just in too much shock to react, but I just stood there and said “okay” while Alex reacted the way I think I was supposed to. Once things settled, the respiratory therapist pulled a chair up beside Evan’s bed and told me to go hold his hand. He didn’t look like himself. He looked like he had lived a thousand lives since I last saw him just an hour before. Where was my sweet tiny baby? Why did this happen? Where do we go from here?

We stayed late that night. It felt even more wrong than usual to leave him behind as we went home to get some “rest” (you never truly rest when your baby is in the NICU). Maegan had picked a nurse for him that night since he was supposed to be post-op. Her name was Brittany; she would later become our night primary and a dear friend. When we got home, I came undone. Alex held me and kept reassuring me that Evan was okay now. I didn’t believe him.

The next few days were hard. Evan stayed intubated for 36 hours and was so irritable when he got extubated. They had to place a new PICC line for TPN since he was going back to the beginning with his feeds. This was a major setback for him. Not only was he too unstable to reattempt surgery for at least a month, but he also was back where he started in May with his feeding. His doctors came up with an alternate plan. His NG tube needed to go past his stomach into his intestines. This could stop him from throwing up as his food would never be in his stomach. They fed the tube further in and checked it with an X-ray. It was in the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine; he could safely get feeds now. As they weened him down from TPN and up on his continuous ND feeds, something crazy happened. He started to grow. Not only did he start to gain weight, but he also got hair!

ONE MONTH.
Hey, brown eyes.

Things started to turn around. Evan turned one month old, and as a special surprise, on his 33rd day of life, he opened his eyes for the first time! Only for Maegan, of course, that little flirt. But she snapped a picture for us because she knew I would kill her if she didn’t. He didn’t really do it again for a while, so this sweet picture meant the world to us. Just when we didn’t think he could get any cuter!

Now he was growing to be strong enough for another attempt at surgery and beginning to ween his respiratory support.

“You’re allowed to be here now!”

“My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42:5) This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. Job says this after years of tragedy and hardship. He knew God before and even trusted Him, but it wasn’t until he had been in the depths of the valley that he felt he had truly experienced God. True intimacy with Christ can often only be gained after being in the pit, a place where our need is greatest. I have seen the pit several times in my life, and every time I come out more in love with my God despite the outcome of my circumstances. I thought of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego going into the furnace when I considered Evan’s life before he was born and there was so much we didn’t know. I thought about them when I watched my son fight his way back from the brink of death on multiple occasions. I think of them now when so much of his future is uncertain. “And if not, He is still good.” A mother’s love is a force to be reckoned with, but God’s love? There’s no comparison. I am not the one who loves Evan most. I never will be. His Heavenly Father loves him with a reckless, never-ending love that I cannot even fathom. So even in the valley, I will trust and praise Him.