Our Night in HellFebruary 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.