If you read yesterday's post, you know that when Emily was 21 days old, she contracted a high fever and we had to take her to the ICU. Looking at my daughter now, who is 11 years old, strong (and very strong-willed) it seems like a lifetime ago. And it was. But those early days are so tender, everything is magnified. In the rear view mirror, knowing it will all be okay, it's a lot easier, but back then, it was terrifying.
Spinal Tap, originally published February 10, 2010.
The nurse over the phone was direct: “Your daughter needs to get to the ER. It’s probably just a bad virus, but we can’t be sure. At this young an age, she’s got to get to the hospital.”
Emily was 21 days old.
At barely eight pounds, Emily was a little bundle, and she was burning up fast. I had suspected something was wrong earlier in the day. While Emily and I had only “known” each other three weeks (unless you count the 39 weeks she lived inside me), she didn’t seem herself. While Emily tended to be fussy at night, she was pretty personable while the sun was shining, but that day things were different. She was cranky, irritable. She was taking lots of long naps punctuated by fits of soft whimpering. She sounded like a sad wounded puppy. And it was scaring me. And so I did what I did every time I was nervous about something to do with Emily, I took out one of my parenting books. There, indeed, I found some relief: At around 4 weeks babies start to go through their “adaptive” stage, waking up to the world, and this can cause more crying,” wrote the baby expert author. I felt better. Nothing was wrong, she was just adapting. Plus, her appetite seemed fine. And I thought, well, babies cry a lot, right? I didn’t want to be an alarmist. But throughout the day, something was nagging at me, that this was not right. She did feel warm, but then, I thought, it is May after all. It was warm out. Maybe that was it. But it wasn’t.
Finally, sometime around 8:30 that night, I realized she wasn’t just warm. She was hot. Craig and I decided that maybe we should take her temperature. Novel idea. Baby’s warm, why not? But we had never taken a temp before and had no idea what to do. I knew where it had to go, but she was so small, and I was nervous. So, I read my book. It said to lubricate the tip of the thermometer with some Vaseline and just gently push the tip inside. It warned me not to go to far in. You’d have thought I was performing brain surgery I was so nervous. But I didn’t want to hurt her. Craig lifted her legs up, and she stared up at me with her big gray-blue eyes. “It’s okay Emmy, Mommy’s not going to hurt you,” I said, more to myself than to her. I probably put enough Vaseline on the tip of that thermometer for ten tushies, but I wanted to be sure. She didn’t flinch. And then the numbers started climbing and fast. Her temperature went from 98 straight up to 100, 101, and stopped at 101.4. Oh, God, I thought. Something is not right here.
We called Dr. T, our pediatrician and the answering service promised someone would get back to us right away, which they did. Within minutes the phone rang. It was Liz, their nurse practitioner. We expected her to say, “Don’t worry, this is normal, babies get fevers a lot. Just watch the fever, give her some infant Tylenol, and call us in the morning.” But what we got instead was a very calm but clear order: take Emily to the ER, stat.
I was nursing at the time, so we didn’t have much to bring, no bottles, no formula. We thought we’d be home soon so we just packed her a few diapers and swaddle blankets, grabbed the car seat, and called a taxi and within a half an hour we were off to NYU. By the time we arrived, Emmy felt even hotter. As soon as we made it through the doors to the waiting room, we checked in and were thankfully taken rather quickly to triage. Emily’s temp had already climbed up to over 102. I was getting really scared. Being at a hospital just makes me feel like bad things will happen. Maybe if we had been in Bloomingdale’s I’d have felt better, but in the ER, I had a feeling things were going to go downhill and fast. I was right. They took us to a private room and asked us to wait. Soon, a doctor who would probably be played by Tom Hanks in the movie version of this episode arrived. He wore blue scrubs and a weary smile.
“So, your pediatrician did tell you we’d have to admit Emily, right?” Craig and I looked at each other in disbelief. “No, Emily just has a fever. Can’t you just check her and send us home?” He smiled and shook his head. “Naw, can’t do that. Wish your doc woulda prepared you. You see, when a baby this young has a fever we have to observe them for three days, and do a bunch of tests to make sure it’s not bacterial. Viral is fine, bacteria, not good.”
“Okay,” we said, reluctantly. “What do you need to do?”
“We’ll do a spinal tap and blood cultures and then we’ll start her on aggressive antibiotics treating her as if it were bacterial just in case it is.” He said spinal tap like he was saying throat culture. Like it was nothing.
“Did you say spinal tap?” I asked, pretty sure I must have heard wrong.
“Yes, we have to rule out meningitis.” I felt numb. Was this really happening? Could my baby be dying?
Perhaps sensing my stress, Emily started to cry, her little voice cracking and whimpering. Clearly she was not interested in a spinal tap either. I picked her up off of the examining table, and held her close, rocking her against me. I pulled the curtain around us and nursed her on the gurney, trying to calm her. She was so hot. Her little finger curled around mine. “Don’t worry Emily, Mommy will take care of you,” I told her. “It’s gonna be fine.”
Meanwhile, it was not fine. I was not fine. I was about to unravel like an old rag doll on its way to the trash. I had probably gotten about six hours of sleep in the previous 36, and I was not functioning with a full deck. I was weary, exhausted, and emotionally raw, and soon I would watch that Tom Hanks lookalike insert a needle the size of a sundae spoon into my daughter’s spine, and then stand by as nurses tried to locate veins to draw blood for the cultures (stabbing and prodding her little arms until they were purple with pain), and then wait as an IV nurse hunted for a different vein for an IV to keep her hydrated. I wanted to grab her away from them and run from the triage room screaming: “Leave her alone, it’s just a fever, she’s just a little baby, let us go home!!!” Instead, I held onto Emily’s little hand and never let go. I knew if I did, I might just break in half. As long as I was holding onto her, I knew we would be okay.
After the tests were done, we were taken upstairs to the room where we’d spend the next three days. Emily was given a “crib”—really a large Tupperware container attached to tubes and beeping machines—and I was given a chair. “It reclines,” the nurse said, as I sat down. I pushed back and it sure did recline, but then it snapped back up in a ricochet motion so I pretty much had whiplash. I never did recline that chair again for fear of breaking my neck.
With room for only one parent to stay over, Craig went home and brought an overnight bag with him the next morning so I could brush my teeth and take out my contacts which had glued themselves to my eyes the night before as I “slept” sitting up in that ridiculous chair. Really, there was no sleep to be had. Poor Emily was sobbing in her plastic tub, and the only way to get her to stop was to hold her. But the only way to hold her was to stand over her tub. If I moved her, the tubes started to yank at the IV in her arm. Finally, realizing I could not stand for the next 24 hours, I moved the IV pole, rolling it over to near the “recliner” so I could safely pick her up, and get her to sleep, without pulling anything out. I rested her little body against me, where she was soundly asleep within minutes, her chest rising and falling quietly.
As I sat there in our room, listening to the dings and beeps of heart rate monitors (I was sharing with a half dozen other babies in the ICU), I felt the weight of the day pressing into me. Could I lose her? The thought left me wild with fear, breathless. I had to pull myself together. I stared out at the dark night, at the East River, lit up by the lights of the 59th Street Bridge. I took a few deep breaths and stared down at little Emily, sleeping, fighting. There was nothing more in the world I needed more than Emily, this baby I had known for 21 days. How was it possible that I could love someone so much? It was as though in those precious moments where Emily emerged from the womb into the world, my soul had somehow been reengineered and rewired. I had become a mother, a different species. In my arms was my life, my love, my child. I could not lose her. I wanted nothing more than to fix her, to make her feel safe and loved. I kept her in my arms, watched her sleep, promised her everything would be okay, whispered all the things we would be doing together when she got older, and told her how we would be home soon. I made myself believe it. I had to. I watched her sleep until the sun rose up over the East River, filling the room with the glow of morning. We had made it through the night.
The next two days were a blur of test results, antibiotics, Tylenol, nurses, fever spikes and fits of crushing worry. Why was she still feverish? Shouldn’t she be better by now? She didn’t have cold symptoms. What was going on? I wanted answers, and all I was getting was, “As long as it’s not bacterial you don’t have to worry. It will pass.” I wanted it passed. I wanted out. My baby was sick of her Tupperware container and I wanted out of my “recliner.”
Seriously, by now I was ready to expire. I had now been up for almost two days straight, lord knows when I had last eaten, and I really wasn’t feeling so great. Physically, I was delirious from exhaustion and stress, and emotionally I was crashing, spiraling down into a pit of worry that seemed to be sucking me into a dark hole. Sensing that I might actually crack open, Craig sent me home that next night, volunteering to stay in the “recliner” instead of me.
I dreaded leaving Emily, but I felt like I needed to save myself. I remember a piece of advice someone giving me about motherhood: “You know how when you are in a plane, they tell you to put on your mask before you put on your child’s mask? Well, you have to remember that when you are a mom. Especially in those early days you need to be well or she won’t be. Take care of yourself.” I took that advice as a license to get some rest. I left Craig with a supply of pumped milk and went home to bed for a luxurious five straight hours.
I raced back to the hospital around 7am the next morning. Craig was out of milk and she was hungry. I practically had my boob out in the elevator and fed her as soon as I walked in. I was feeling a little better from the rest the night before, but Craig was exhausted. We traded places, he went home and I spent the day with Emily while he slept and we reconvened that night to good news. The test results were back and were negative for meningitis and all bacterial infections, and we were cleared to leave. We tucked Emily into her car seat, secure in my mom’s car, and drove back to Brooklyn. Soon, we were home.
Emily’s fever lasted a couple more days, and we treated it simply, with Tylenol. Eventually, the virus vacated her system. Soon, it was like nothing had ever happened. Babies are remarkably resilient. Me? Not so much. I remember feeling like I had come through a war, but not really knowing whether I had survived it. I should have been bouncing off the walls with glee, but instead I felt sad, tired, stressed, and quite frankly, depressed. Part of me tried to write the feeling off as a passing phase. I thought, Hey, you just went through a trauma with Emily, you’ll be okay. But deep down I knew something just wasn’t right. And soon I learned it wasn’t a passing phase. It was official. I had Post-Partum Depression. Grand.