The nurse asked me if I was ready before taking me downstairs to meet my daughter. I wanted to tell her that I had been ready for the last 10 hours, but I nodded, gave her a weak smile, and took my seat.
I knew what she really meant: Are you ready to see what a baby born 14 weeks premature looks like?
Are you ready to see her thin, frail body? Are you ready to see machines, tubes, and monitors connected to your little girl? And most of all are you ready to see your child through the thick walls of the Isolette, her new womb?
I nodded because I was—the NICU wasn't new to me, I'd walked those halls as an intern less than two years prior. This time I was being wheelchaired in; me and my Codeine IV, my C-section wound and my broken heart.
It was just as I remembered; almost a lab, cold, dimly lit, lined with open pods to my left and private rooms on the right. I braced myself because nobody wants a private room in NICU.
She was at the very end of the hall, to my left, her face red and barely visible under the massive bubble CPAP machine pumping oxygen up her teeny nostrils, her eyelids still sealed shut, her skin so thin I was able to outline her veins.
There were wires attached to her tiny body, a crucial monitor wrapped around her foot, and a thick square of gauze wrapped around her right hand, beneath it a tube connected to her own IV fluids. A clear plastic film was draped over her, "For humidity," explained the nurse. "The goal is to mimic the environment of the womb as much as possible." I nodded and asked to touch her.
After sanitizing my hands, I opened one of the four round "doors" of the Isolette. The air felt warm and smelled sterile, and I gently tapped her left hand with my index finger. Her skin was moist and her palm was the size of my nail. I stared at my little girl, my head throbbed and one by one, the tears slowly and silently began streaming down my face.
"I'm sorry," I whispered to her. I rested the top of my finger on her palm, and she curled in her own, wrapping her tiny hand around my index finger. I laid my forehead on the warm plexiglass and apologized to my daughter, for failing her so terribly, for my body's betrayal, and for what we were both about to endure.
"Hi baby, it's mommy. I love you and I'm so sorry, I'm so so sorry," I repeated between tears and heartache.
Everything in the NICU is timed, 30 seconds later I closed the door and sat back in my wheelchair, staring at my baby. "She's a tough one," said the nurse, "She came out crying and breathing on her own that's amazing for a 26-weeker!"
I continued to stare at the wires and machines but smiled as she spoke. They were comforting words nonetheless. Inside the Isolette, I watched her chest rise and fall, her chest cavity clearly visible with every breath.
I turned to face the nurse, "When can I hold her?" She pursed her lips and after talking about thermal stability and oxygen levels, didn't answer my question. My nurse hinted that I needed to go back upstairs; I had to be in my room for the change of shift, my catheter had to be removed and the sitting position was not ideal for my wound.
I nodded, as they assured and reassured me that I could return later on, that the NICU is open 24 hours for parent visits and I could also call to check in on her—all the things I already knew. I knew not to open the door again. I tapped the plexiglass, "I'll be back in a few," I told her.
Before making our way back to my room, the NICU nurse went through a quick round of information with my partner and me. We continued to nod our heads, the day's exhaustion finally creeping up on us both.