I lost it today.
At 12:30 this afternoon, you could have found me hiding in a bathroom deep in the bowels of the hospital, weeping into a sink, staving off dry heaves and shaking. Phone in hand. Dying to text my instructor and tell her that I couldn’t do it anymore, that I had to go home.
I was not okay this afternoon. I wasn’t okay because of the NICU.
The nursery, where I was doing my clinical rotation today, was quite slow. My instructor came to the nursery, saw nothing was happening, and took me to the NICU so I could see what that was like. When we got to the NICU, the nurses were friendly. They told me to scrub in, and to stay a while. They assigned me to a nurse I was supposed to follow for the next few hours.
That nurse was assigned to a 1 lb. 6 oz baby.
Have you ever found a bird on the sidewalk? A baby bird, even? When they are so teeny, they don’t have any fat or feathers or fluff or anything? This baby looked like that bird. Barely human. I could count each one of her ribs, each of which were no larger than toothpicks and had no cartilage between them. Her entire foot was no bigger than the tip of my pinky. And then there were the ten smallest toes that have ever existed.
I’d been assessing babies all morning in the nursery. There are two reflexes you test on the foot of a newborn. Run your finger from heel to toe, and all the toes should spread out. Nestle your finger on the base of the foot where the toes join the foot, and the toes should curl under, grabbing your finger.
Without even thinking about it, I reached up and ran my foot along the base of the 1 lb. 6 oz. baby’s foot. The toes spread out. I nestled my finger at the base of her toes. Her toes curled to hold my finger.
And that’s when I realized, this is no bird. This is not some creature that has fallen from her nest. This is someone’s child. Just like the ones I’ve been assessing all morning. But this one has no developed muscles, no developed lungs, and eats meals of 1/2 a teaspoon of breast milk at a time. I immediately felt sick. I excused myself from the NICU, explaining that I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and that I was in desperate need of some food.
I made it out of the NICU before the first sobs broke out. By the time I got to the bathroom, I was wrecked. My glasses soaked, mascara burning my eyes. I tried to sneak past the congregations of entire families desperate for news from their loved ones in the waiting room, but it’s hard to sneak past anyone when you’re a blur of purple scrubs and sobs making a bee-line for a bathroom.
It took me 30 minutes to pull myself together. I finally emerged and went back to the blessedly boring nursery, only to find my instructor, who promptly saw I was a mess and asked me if I was okay. And I broke down again. She ushered me into the supply room, and listened to me desperately try to process what I’d just seen. And when she found the supply room to be without any Kleenex or paper towels, she handed me cotton balls, one by one, so I could wipe my tears away.