Our Night in Hell

February 15, 2009


Having a new baby in your life is just an amazing thing. It’s also terrifying and stressful beyond all imagining, and involves delivering yourself into the hands of the medical establishment for long periods. Our baby was premature- 35 weeks, not so bad, and he seems to be quite healthy, except for one thing which I’ll get to in a bit. But he’s our first child; when he screams we’re worried, when he doesn’t scream we’re worried. The first night we slept on either sides of the bassinet in the hospital, both jumping up whenever he made the slightest noise. The hospital had given him a colorful cap to wear; during that night I saw the blue and purple and thought for a horrifying second he’d gone cyanotic. The fact that he was early also means we didn’t have the time to prepare that we thought we would, which really amps up the fear as well. But I’m sure it would be there anyway; he’s such a tiny fragile creature. What this means is that my wife and I have had very close to no sleep all week, making us disoriented and sometimes clumsy; the other day I shut my thumb in a car door. Fortunately it wasn’t broken, since it was my drawing hand, our source of income right now.

 As I was saying, Ulysses has had one health concern, by all accounts a fairly common one: infant jaundice. Medical professionals measure this by testing the blood for elevated counts of bilirubin, which he has had for the last four days. So after coming home from the hospital, we’ve had to take him to be tested every day since then. The jaundice has also been making him overly sluggish and difficult to feed; as I said, it’s not too serious, but it does need treatment, or it could lead to other problems. Friday evening our pediatrician told us we would need to go to a certain Brooklyn hospital to get him checked again, first thing Saturday morning, and if necessary they would treat him. If I’d known then what I know now…

Being punctual people, we arrived at the hospital before 9 a.m., the time of our interview. I could tell we were in big trouble just from the waiting room, which was right next to the emergency waiting room. Both had institutional TVs turned to top volume. The nurses had to call us several times before we heard them over the car crashes and rock music. It became quickly obvious that, although at least some of the people were well-intentioned and professional in intent, the entire hospital was so badly-managed that it almost didn’t matter. If you’ve seen the TV show “St. Elsewhere,” you would have seen a glamorized version; call this place St. Hellhole. Everything was broken, everything took hours, most staff seemed groggy and bewildered, if not downright hostile. After the test showed elevated bilirubin levels (bad), it took a mere five hours to get our son prepared for treatment upstairs. Unfortunately, we were put in a room in the pediatric ward, which meant the staff were not used to dealing with what would be a common situation in the ICU or maternity. What needed to happen was that our baby would be put in an incubator under powerful lights overnight; they told us that one of us could stay in the room overnight, seated in a chair, to be near him. Since logically that person would be my wife, we had to fight with them- repeatedly through the evening- to be allowed to have a bed for her in the room, seeing as she was a thoroughly exhausted woman who had given birth five days earlier.

As they got him ready for the treatment, they mentioned that his eyes and genitals had to be kept protected, or else he would become blind and/or sterile. His diaper would protect his lower regions- no problem- but they put a bandage across his eyes that was visibly loose and could slip down at any moment. “You have to watch him, make sure his eyes don’t become exposed,” both the nurse and doctor told us. “So I have to stay awake and watch him all night?” my wife asked, alarm rising. “No, you must get your sleep,” came the confusing reply. 

I insisted they improve on the eye protection. The nurses clearly had no idea, trying to adjust it different ways, and in fact became openly resentful. “These people….” I heard one muttering. They would put baby in the incubator under the bright lights, and I’d watch that bandage slip, exposing his eyelids. Three times, at least. Finally I had to take charge, and fashioned an arrangemnt with a cap, some gauze, the original eye protector, and a small piece of tape. Need I mention that at this point we were both thoroughly freaked out? My wife said there was no way she was going to be able to sleep, so then I had to put up another real fight- voices were raised, etc.- to be allowed to stay as well. It was a fight which I had no intention of losing, and I didn’t.

Muire managed to get at least a little sleep, while I sat in a chair all night and watched that baby like a hawk, adjusting his headgear if it moved a millimeter. I’m good with exhaustion- it’s in my job description- but by 9 a.m I have to admit I was hallucinating slightly. The same nurse from yesterday came in and introduced herself again, as if we had never seen her before.

Luckily, the treatment turned out to have worked the way it was intended to, but the attendant terror that had been injected was almost too much to take. We finally were released, and are back in our home, but it’s going to take a little while to stop shaking. I have to have a very serious little talk with our pediatrician on Tuesday; she needs to understand we’re not going back to that place, ever. If I am shot in the face right outside the front door, I will demand to go somewhere else.



  1. Didn’t know you had a blog! Tell your friends!

  2. Oh, man. . .preemie, bilirubin levels. . .gaw. I try hard to forget about those early days with my son (born at 30 weeks for no apparent reason. . .impatient, I guess, heh).

    Hell is a good word to describe what you went through, but you should always ALLCAPS it when it concerns how you feel with a newborn and hospitals (especially when problems/issues arise). If possible, type while standing on a desk, shrieking. It adds a great deal to the overall effect. It’s also an accurate depiction on the outside of how your insides are feeling.

    He looks beautiful and content in your vid, and I’m so glad that things are slowly returning to a more normal state of “freaked out parents in first weeks of sleep deprivation and baby raising”. Thank goodness babies are worth it!

    RE: Blogtastic!
    My husband clued me in to the fact that you have a blog now. Yessss! He has loaned me several of the Thrizzle comics, and they never fail to make me practically pee myself with laughter. I don’t know if that’s high praise or disgusting to note, but there you have it.

    Here’s to Ulysses continuing to do well, and to you guys getting a little more sleep. . .in 2010. I know, it’s a while yet. It will happen. 🙂

  3. Michael,

    My daughter was just born a month ago, six weeks premature. She had to be kept in “special care”, for otherwise healthy preemies, for a week. (My wife was pre-eclamptic, which was a whole other can o’ worms). Like Ulysses, Penelope (hmm) was under the bili lamp, but she actually had proper eyegear and attentive nurses. I can’t imagine what a nightmare that must have been for you two.

    I know that terrified feeling so well…sometimes I’ll jolt awake and look around to make sure the baby hasn’t fallen somewhere.

    Still, it’s mostly fun, especially since I have a pretty even-tempered baby so far, even though she’s had to deal with a cold and acid reflux. Now that she’s better, she’s quite cheerful all the time. Enjoy!

    –Rob Clough

  4. Michael – My wife and I went through the same thing. Do you have insurance? We were able to change hospitals, though insurance didn’t volunteer that info to us.

    Congratulations on your most amazing creation yet.

    -Tom Daly

  5. We have Freelancers Insurance these days. We went through another medical/hospital adventure a couple of years ago, so we tried to be prepared this time, but this latest thing caught us by surprise… The birth, though, was at St. Vincents, which is excellent.

  6. The medical profession is a fraud and should always be approached as such.

  7. Mike! You’re a good dad. Your pediatrician should really hear it all, like you said. Pete was born at St. Vincent’s too, btw. It is a good place.

  8. Peter and I had the same problems with our first son, Simon. He was a few weeks early and as I was struggling at home to keep him awake so I could figure out the whole breastfeeding thing we got a scary call from the doctor telling us to go the hospital immediately because our son’s billirubin was “26” and he was in serious danger. Of course as new parents you’re freaked out and don’t know what the fuck is going on or what danger they’re talking about. Other people had told me jaundice wasn’t a big deal and now the doctor in the hospital was telling me my son would get brain damage if I refused a blood transfusion from the public blood supply. I later learned that the brain damage the doctor was talking about, kernicterus, is extremely rare or perhaps nonexistence in the absence of blood incompatability between mother and child, even if the bilirubin level is extremely high. (And my son and I didn’t have the blood incompatibility issue). But anyway, Simon’s blirubin dropped quickly under the lights and he didn’t need the transfusion after all. I wasn’t even given the option of a chair near the baby in the Brooklyn hospital I went to (don’t remember the name, I think it was in Brooklyn Heights) and had to camp out in the waiting room three days post-partum and wait until they let me see him every four of hours when I would and attempt to breastfeed, (This was an instance of the bizarre mixed messages that you mentioned they give you — breastfeed the baby every two hours, they told me, then said I could only see him every four hours!!!) Between visits I would walk two or three miles back to our apartment and collapse for an hour or two, then get up and walk back to the hospital because we didn’t have money for a cab (this is all immediately post-partum when a mom is exhausted and her hormones are raging.) When he was discharged a day or two later I was terrified Simon’s jaundice would come back and my son would end up with brain damage! They doctors and my pediatrician we giving us confusing information. They had given Simon a lot of bottles in the hospital to flush the bilirubin out of his bowels and he had a nipple confusion which made our breastfeeding even more difficult and I almost gave up, but did persevere and everything ended up fine. Anyway, as an RN I can totally agree that the healthcare system sucks! Your story is only too common.

  9. Oh man! That’s terrible! It’s true, the mixed messages they give you can drive you crazy.

  10. On a somewhat lighter note, are you familiar with the popular Latin American song “Me sube la bilirrubina” — “My Bilirubin Level Becomes Elevated”?

  11. Hell it is. Being a limey I’m shocked at the state of the healthcare system here. I fear that ours is going the same way though. Here’s wishing you both many more happy times with Ulysses.

  12. How utterly blecherous.

    No one noticed my brother’s jaundice until I, all of six years old, arrived at the hospital to see him and Mom, and commented, “He’s yellow!”

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