We had a very encouraging sign on Andrew’s second day in the NICU, which was his fourth day on intravenous antibiotics. On that day, he finally opened his eyes! Seeing his sweet brown eyes for the very first time moved me almost to tears. He was eight days old.
After that, he continued to improve little by little every day. They gradually decreased the flow rate of his oxygen, carefully watching to see if Andrew was able to keep his blood oxygen levels high with lower rates of oxygen flow. He was, and after several days, they were able to remove the bulky garden hose of a supply tube and replace it with something much smaller. That was a wonderful day! I reveled in being able to pick up my baby and cradle him without help or hindrance. He still had a bunch of wires and tubes attached to his body, but I hardly noticed them now. They were wonderfully thin, designed for use with premature babies, and they hardly got in the way at all!
The removal of the high-flow oxygen tube also meant that Andrew could start taking a bottle again, and they removed his feeding tube. It was precious to be able to hold my baby and give him a bottle. It felt so much more nurturing than squirting a plastic syringe of milk into a tube coming out the side of his mouth. And he ate a lot! The hospital staff wanted me to continue to pump and bottle feed, because they wanted to be able to keep track of how much Andrew was eating, in order to ensure that he was getting enough nourishment. They needn’t have worried, however, because I was purposely pumping more milk than they required, and Andrew was routinely taking more than they expected!
Andrew continued to improve daily, gaining weight and becoming stronger and more alert. On his fourth day in the NICU, they were able to wean him completely off the oxygen. He continued to be monitored around the clock and to receive antibiotics twice a day. After seven days of antibiotics, blood tests showed almost no sign of infection in Andrew’s body, and on his sixth day in the NICU, the neonatologist approved his discharge! A nurse came to undress Andrew and remove all the wires from his body. Throughout his stay in the NICU, Andrew had been wearing clothes from the hospital’s seemingly endless supply of cute newborn footed sleepers and swaddling blankets. Now it felt both strange and momentous to be dressing him in his own clothes in preparation for leaving.
We were sent home with instructions to take Andrew to the doctor in a few days for a blood test. There was still one marker on his blood work that hadn’t returned to normal, so we needed to make sure that stabilized before assuming that he was completely well. But everything else was good news. He was a very different baby than he had been when he was transferred to the NICU by ambulance.
In fact, when we checked out, the nurse practitioner on duty personally came to congratulate us. She told me warmly how relieved and pleased she was to see Andrew doing so well. She said that she had been on duty when he was admitted. “I was really worried about him, because he was so lethargic and unresponsive,” she confided. Her words had an extremely sobering effect on me. Throughout the entire time that Andrew had been hospitalized, I had never once doubted that he would make a full recovery. In fact, when I saw the other parents in the NICU, with their pinched, haggard faces, I had felt like an intruder on sacred ground. I imagined them keeping vigil over tiny preemies fighting for life in incubators, and I believed I didn’t have the right to be included in their ranks, because my baby was in no real danger. But here was this woman, a specialist in treating very premature and very ill babies, and her professional opinion was that my baby’s situation had been especially precarious. I was at a loss for how to respond appropriately. I just thanked her, internalizing my shock without taking time to process it.
The next day I had a panic attack. Having never had one before, I genuinely thought I might be dying. I was calmly going about my business when suddenly my pulse spiked so high that I couldn’t count quickly enough to keep up with it. My heart seemed like a separate entity, a wild animal thrashing inside my chest and threatening to break out. I felt faint, short of breath, a little nauseated, and very frightened, half expecting my heart to either burst or simply stop beating. I had just buckled Andrew into his car seat, and I got into my own seat and reclined it as far as it would go and employed the calm breathing and full-body relaxation techniques I had used when giving birth. After about five minutes, my pulse slowed to normal, and I went on with my day as if nothing extraordinary had happened. When we consulted with a doctor about it later, he said that it could have been an arrhythmia, but the more we thought about it, the more we believed that it was a response to the strain I’d been under during Andrew’s hospitalization. Although I’ve never had another full-blown panic attack, ever since that day, I’ve been vulnerable to anxiety attacks, and I’ve learned to recognize the early warning signs that tell me to stop what I’m doing, quiet my mind, and practice deep breathing.
When we took Andrew to his government-assigned pediatrician in Indianapolis for his follow-up blood test, the phlebotomist at the government clinic was unable to find a vein on Andrew’s already IV-ravaged arms, and she suggested we come back the next week to try again. Thankfully, my mother-in-law had a better idea, and we convinced the government clinic to refer Andrew to the largest children’s hospital in Indianapolis to get his blood drawn by a pediatric phlebotomist. So almost a week after being discharged from the NICU, Andrew was finally able to get the blood test he needed. The result showed that he had fully recovered from his illness. At last, we were able to relax. Our baby was healthy, and we could begin to focus on other things besides his issues.
Throughout all the time that Andrew was ill and recuperating, thoughts of my terminally ill friend in California were never far from my mind. However, as much as I wanted to see her, I knew I had to make sure it was safe for my baby to travel first, especially since we were planning to drive to California, a four-day trip through long expanses of deserted countryside with no hospitals. The decision about when to travel with Andrew was complicated by the fact that we would only have emergency health insurance after we left the state of Indiana, so he would not be able to have any follow-up visits with a pediatrician once we headed to California. Besides that, our four other kids needed to get routine check-ups and blood tests before we left the state, and we had a full speaking schedule at churches throughout the region that supported us as missionaries in Ukraine.
We briefly considered having Andrew and me fly to California a little bit ahead of the rest of the family, but I didn’t like that idea, and in the end, I chose to wait and head west with the whole family. And then, three weeks after Andrew was discharged from the hospital and just days before we were to begin our trip to California, my friend lost her long battle with cancer. I had been secretly mourning and anticipating this day from the time I first received news of her diagnosis, so it wasn’t a shock, but it seemed like especially cruel timing. Suddenly, I was even more grateful for the extra time I’d been able to spend with her during our last visit to the States a year and a half before, and the memory of our final, tearful goodbye gained profound significance. Though neither of us voiced it then, I know that I thought it would be the last time I’d see her on this earth, and looking back, I think she sensed it too.
In the intervening years, I’ve had ample time to reflect on the events of that unforgettable summer. It has gotten a little easier to reconcile the way things happened with the way I thought things were supposed to go, but sometimes it’s still difficult to accept that I was actually in the same country but unable to see my dear friend before she died. There is still an ache in my heart when I think about that time. I think there always will be. But there is also gratitude. I am thankful that God gave my friend and me the chance for a meaningful goodbye while she was still healthy enough to interact with me and even give me a long farewell embrace. Her mom told me that even if I had made it to California before she died, I might not have been able to see her, because she was so ill at the end. I am also grateful for how God saved Andrew’s life through the skillful intervention of all the medical personnel at both of the hospitals where he was a patient. The fact that we were even in the United States to receive such expert medical care was largely due to the fact that my friend was dying, otherwise we probably would have given birth in Ukraine, where Andrew would very likely have died at home during his sleep. I thought seeing my friend was the main purpose of our trip to the United States, but maybe in God’s plan, the purpose was to save the life of our yet-unborn child—and how can I not be grateful for that?
After she died, I was tempted to feel guilty for not being with her at the end. Even though it seemed like God had used circumstances to prevent me from traveling to see her until it was too late, I couldn’t help wondering if I should have done anything differently. And I struggled to understand the proper balance between enjoying the new little life that had just joined our family while grieving the death of my friend. It almost seemed wrong to have moments free from grief in the face of that tragedy, and yet how could I not be joyful when I had a precious new baby to love and cuddle?
I admit that I still have more questions than answers, but I’m okay with not knowing all the answers. I know and trust the One who has the answers, and I’m content to wait until He chooses to enlighten me. In the meantime, there is so much beauty in the world and so many blessings in my life, and I choose to focus on those rather than the ever-present tragedy that would overwhelm us if we let it.
If you enjoyed this, you can subscribe here.
I would be honored to have the privilege of encouraging you on a regular basis!