I don't remember when I first learned the story of my birth. As long as I can remember, I've known that I was born ten weeks early, weighing 3 lbs 1 oz, in a hospital which had no neonatal unit; that I was rushed across town in an ambulance and lost half of my birth weight before I made it to the neonatal unit at Santa Rosa; that I spent six weeks in an incubator because I had hyaline membrane disease, a terrifying diagnosis because it had recently taken the life of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.
I knew in a distant intellectual way that many premature babies born as early as I was didn't survive. I remember taking penicillin every day until I was about six, when suddenly tests showed that I had developed surfactant, to everyone's surprise. (Developmental insufficiency of surfactant, and underdeveloped lungs, are among the problems of hyaline membrane disease, now called infant respiratory distress syndrome.) But as a kid I took my own survival for granted, as I think most children do.
It wasn't until my nine months of clinical pastoral education, in my first year of rabbinic school, that I started to understand just how scary my birth must have been for my parents. One of the places where I made the rounds, at the hospital where I served as a student chaplain, was the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). There I saw impossibly tiny babies, babies whom one could hold (as my father had always reminisced) in the palms of cupped hands. Babies struggling for vitality. And I saw their parents, by their sides, hoping and praying and yearning for their babies to thrive until they were healthy enough to bring home. When I could, I ministered to those parents. Sometimes I told them that I myself had been one of those NICU babies. I think -- I hope -- that they took some comfort from that.
While I was in San Antonio visiting family last week, my childhood pediatrician took me to visit the NICU at the hospital which saved my life. As a kid I knew Dr. Wayne as the tall man with the gentle voice who took care of me when I was sick (which was fairly frequent -- perhaps a legacy of my premature birth.) He used to give me tongue depressors on which I could draw puppets. Now I know that since then he's had a broad and illustrious career which includes teaching medical students, serving as an administrator for Christus Santa Rosa Children's Hospital, and being honored there with the creation of the Richard S. Wayne Distinguished Chair for Pediatric Cardiology. And he was gracious enough to take the time to give me a tour of the NICU which once saved my life.
Dr. Wayne began by showing me photographs from the early days of the hospital, starting with the three Catholic Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word who began caring for the sick there in 1859. (My favorite photos were from the 1920s: the doctors with bushy mustaches and white coats, the nuns standing in the background of the operating room in their dark habits, and of course no one was gloved or masked because that wasn't yet the norm.)
Then we went to the place which had been the NICU in 1975 -- a small squarish room, now a storage room filled with disused hospital beds. (On some walls, remnants of yellow duckling wallpaper remain, a faded imprint of the room's former life.) He showed me where the neonatal cribs had been. I could see how little space had been available for anyone else in the room; parents couldn't stay with their kids, there was no place for them to be. He told me about what they had at their disposal back then, much of it retrofitted adult medical equipment.
And then he showed me today's NICU at Santa Rosa, with its brightly-colored floor cemicircles denoting each two-crib "pod," the headwalls filled with places to plug in monitors and medicine-dispensing pumps, gentle lighting for the babies' comfort, floors and ceilings designed to mute the busy hospital's sounds. To my amazement, we met someone on the neonatal transport team who's been working there for 41 years, and when told my birth year and situation, remembered me! We walked slowly around the unit, and as we passed different babies, Dr. Wayne stopped to chat with their caregivers or to remark quietly to me about some detail of their situation and their care.
Visiting the modern NICU moved me deeply. I saw tiny babies: some resting in their specialized cribs; some cradled in nurses' arms, in the wooden gliding rockers which sit alongside each crib, taking bottles; some attached to specialized preemie ventilators. Dr. Wayne showed me some of the equipment they use in truly dire cases, including cases where they have to mechanically bypass both heart and lungs. (That's extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, and the Santa Rosa NICU is one of the places where this procedure is done with neonates.) We visited the pediatric intensive care unit, too (where I thought, with quiet grief, of Superman Sam and his family as they move into hospice mode). Everywhere we visited, I was struck, as always, by the kind and gentle caring of the pediatric nursing staff.
When I was a student chaplain, I was married but had not yet taken the leap into parenthood. My chaplaincy colleagues told me that having a child would be a profound theological education. And they were right. Many of the poems in Waiting to Unfold reflect how becoming a mother has changed my sense of God. As I toured the NICU and PICU at Santa Rosa, I found myself thinking not only about God's limitless compassion, but also God's limitless grief when Her children suffer. I suspect that ministering to pediatric patients and their families would challenge me in a new way now that we have a child. It would be all too easy to project my own fears of loss and grief onto the parents and children in need of care.
The modern NICU at Santa Rosa is gorgeous -- and as the hospital is reconstructed in its new form, it's going to be replaced by a new NICU which will be light years ahead of this one, as this one was light years ahead of the one I once inhabited. (For more: see Children’s Hospital of San Antonio to work with Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital to elevate pediatric care in San Antonio, about Santa Rosa's plans to collaborate on a new facility.) But before that renovation takes place, I'm grateful for the opportunity to walk through these halls and to offer silent prayers for healing for the babies who are growing there now -- and to offer my spoken words of immeasurable gratitude to those who every day do the work of keeping kids like me alive.
Black and white image: NICU "isolette" from 1984, nine years after my NICU years, from a history of the March of Dimes. Second image: from an Express-News article about the Santa Rosa NICU.