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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Four Weeks

     Thank you for all the positive and heart-felt responses about my last post on our birth story. Many of you said that it made you cry. I get it, it was emotional. I cried while writing it. I'm not sure what emotions this post will stir but it may cause some tears; tears of joy, relief, and a little fear. If my memory of Felix's birth is painful why do I choose to not only remember it but also immortalize it in writing? Shouldn't I let go of the past and live in the present?
     I write about it so that I can't forget about the little things that kept me going when, otherwise, I didn't know how I was going to make it. Like the cloth hearts some hospital volunteers made that were always somewhere on his body - his head, stomach, or back. Those little hearts that, one by one, day after day, I'd fold and place into my bra by my heart so that they'd smell like me when they'd be placed on my baby, hoping that they'd give him some comfort and a semblance of bonding through the sedative induced sleep he was in. And vice versa, so I could carry the scent of Felix around with me when we weren't together. Every night before falling asleep next to an empty crib, I'd pull one of those little hearts out from my bosom, hold it up to my nose, and deeply inhale his smell. Incidentally, they also worked well at wiping away tears.
     I write down the memories so that I don't forget that for the first nine days of his life he was exclusively fed through a skinny orange tube in his nose due to having a breathing tube in his mouth. Then, when the tracheal tube was removed, he began to occasionally nurse from me and drink pumped milk from a bottle so the feeding tube wasn't used as much. And then, on July 23rd, the feeding tube was removed entirely because his suck-swallow-breathe coordination was strong enough that he no longer needed the tube to help him eat. I write about this difficulty so I can remember the challenges he overcame. That way, when my nipples are sore to the point of cracking and the last thing I feel like doing is breastfeeding, I'll remember to grin and bear it (okay, maybe not grin) because we are lucky he was able to latch on in the first place!
     I write down these difficult memories so that on the nights I'm frustrated that he's waking every two hours I'll try to remember to focus on the weight of his small body in my arms instead of the sleepiness in my eyes. A weight I longed to hold and couldn't until the tenth day of his life and a weight I literally ached to nurse and couldn't until the third week of his life. Before that, the only touch we were allowed was a little pressure on the top of his head and on the soles of his feet, which you can see us doing in several of the photos in this post. So remembering what wasn't possible helps me be grateful for what became possible, thus, these sleepless nights.
     I write to remember the machines that kept Felix alive and filled up his room. And the alarms that came with the machines which went off with unwavering (and unnerving) consistency seemingly every five minutes. Whenever a medication was running low - beep, beep, beep - or his oxygen saturation wasn't right - beep, beep, beep -  or his heart rate was too high or too low - beep, beep, beep - or his food was done being administered - beep, beep, beep - and on, and on, and on. And with every beep I grew a gray hair. Then the machines and their noises began to disappear, one by one, and we knew it meant our time at the NICU was coming to an end. Now when I'm at home with Felix and it seems too quiet and I'm getting restless I'll remember those alarms and immediately be thankful for the peace.
     I write to remember all the wonderful support we had during the hardest time of my life. Like my wonderful friends and co-workers who created a meal train so that my family would have fresh meals waiting for us when we'd arrive home late after a long and stressful day at the NICU. It was such a blessing to open the cooler we'd leave on the front porch and find pizza, pasta, enchiladas, taco bowls, beer, wine, and more. Food is such a comfort during difficult times.
     Then there's my family, Team Felix, who spent the long days and nights by our side and helped us pull through. My sister, who canceled her flight home twice and drove my mother and I back and forth from the hospital every day for two weeks. My mother, who canceled her flight and stayed an extra month to give us extra support and to give Felix extra love; who kept our stomachs full, washed my pumping accouterments, and maintained the house decent; who kept my extended family in the loop, and who bathed me in my recovery room shower a day after my c-section when I was too weak to do it myself.  My mother-in-law, who understands trauma and is calm in emergencies, who always stayed at the NICU late and arrived there first thing in the morning, and who, on one of those early mornings, decorated the room with a banner and small balloons to celebrate my 35th birthday. And Chris, my God what would I have done without a partner like Chris? Who had to balance the weight of both my distress and his, who spent fourteen hours a day by Felix's bedside, who advocated for his son tirelessly by asking all the right (and sometimes wrong) questions, and who managed to remain an optimist through it all.
     I write about the painful past so that when I'm feeling bad and being hard on myself I can remember how strong I am. The strength I had in dealing with infertility, to overcoming the grief I experienced for the beautiful birth I had planned, to treading that tightrope between despair and hope, to finally making it through with just a couple of battle wounds: the physical one that brought my son out into the world and the emotional one embedded into my soul. Wounds that heal a little more each day as they evolve into tough scars. Misfortune aids resiliency.
     In writing these memories I'm forced to reckon with how fragile life is because I've witnessed its fickleness. So when motherhood has me entrenched in dirty diapers, fussiness, and clutter to the point where I'm too overwhelmed to leave the house and cranky because of it all, I can take a deep breath and remember our history. Remember that life is short so I need to be grateful for every day and try to forget the stuff that ultimately doesn't matter - the messy house, the unwashed hair - and remember what's important - the little boy who almost didn't make it, who now counts on me to sustain his life, whose every breath is a reason to celebrate the present, and who, in writing, has become immortal.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Unicorns - A Birth Story

The day I found out I was pregnant I felt weightless and wonderful. I dressed myself in a long, strappy dress and took my first bump shot in the mirror. Of course there was no real bump, just the slight puffiness of a belly made bloated by IVF medication. But I was so excited at finally being pregnant that I wanted to document every moment, as if my pregnancy was somehow unique among the billions of others that have occurred since the beginning of time. Why did I have the urge to snap and share personal photos of my body during pregnancy when I'd never even exposed my midriff before? What was it about my changing form that compelled me to admire it so much?  Is there still magic in something that happens millions of times around the globe every day? Am I a unicorn? After my birth experience I can confidently say that, yes, there is indeed magic in something that happens all the time and, yes, I am a unicorn.
One morning in early July, five days past my due date, I woke up feeling...different. It's hard to describe but it's like there was a slight tingling inside of me, a tightening, noticeable but not intense. I ate breakfast with my mom and Chris while my sister slept upstairs. The tingling sensation got a little stronger, like period cramps, but nothing that impeded me from finishing breakfast and drinking coffee. Around 9:00 am Chris and I took a walk around our neighborhood and it was then, standing on the sidewalk a block away from our house, that a cramp came on strong enough that it forced me to stop, hang my head, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. We hadn't started timing them yet but after a few more intense moments like that during our walk it was clear that I was experiencing contractions. 

When we arrived back at our house I went straight upstairs and laid on the bed to prepare my mind for the unmedicated labor for which we had planned. Chris came up with a big glass of water for me and his computer so he could do some work. Less than ten minutes into his work I had another contraction, this one stronger than the last. I drank some water and continued to try to rest. A few minutes later, another surge. That's when we knew these were real labor symptoms and not Braxton-Hicks. Chris promptly closed his laptop and texted our doula, who told us to time how far apart the contractions were happening. By then I felt like they were happening every minute but Chris assured me they were seven minutes apart. Still, there was no doubt that our baby was coming.
Chris alerted our mothers that I was in labor because they had previously been instructed that they should leave during labor so that Chris and I could work through it together like we had learned in our classes. Then he ran a bath, laid a couple of outdoor pillows in the tub, helped me in, and poured me a glass of champagne. We were in the so-called "wine window", a sexy, exciting time during labor that we learned about in our Hypno-birthing class. The premise being that contractions (or surges) are far enough apart that mom can relax in a warm bath with a celebratory drink while dad rubs her feet. Sounds beautiful, right? I was so looking forward to the wine window. Except once I got in the tub the contractions came on stronger and more frequently so the only thing I could do was grit my teeth and breathe through them. Enjoying some champagne was far from my mind, though I did manage to get down a few sips. 

My doula arrived around 11:30 am. At this point the surges were less than four minutes apart with an intensity of an eight on a scale of 1- 10. I told her I felt a lot of pressure on my lower back so she told me to hold my belly up during each surge to help relieve some of that back pain - which worked. She suggested that I get in the shower because it helps with contractions, the "water-dural" as the natural-birth circle refers to it.
It was while I was in the shower that my doula noticed what I had assumed was blood dripping onto the shower floor. She said she was worried that it might be meconium mixed with amniotic fluid. I told her that I hadn't thought my water had broken yet and that I thought it was blood, which, in retrospect, didn't make too much sense because blood is red and this liquid was brown. She took a photo of the liquid and texted it to another doula who said she wasn't sure what it was, either, but that it would probably just be best to take me to the hospital. By then my contractions were about three minutes apart so it was time to go anyway. 

At 12:30 pm we were in the car. I wore my Bucky sleep mask and listened to relaxation music on wireless headphones in order to focus on myself and to block out external stimuli, like sunlight and traffic. Thirty minutes later we arrived at the hospital, checked in, and were swiftly taken to our labor and delivery room where I was outfitted with a fetal heart monitor and then given a quick vaginal exam to see how things were progressing. Baby's heart rate was good and my cervix was eight centimeters dilated, about the width of a donut.  My obstetrician was promptly notified that the baby would be ready to come out any minute and he said he was on his way. The nurses didn't seem concerned about the brown liquid that was dripping out because the fetal heart monitor showed that baby was fine. I was then allowed to move freely about the room in order to continue working through my unmedicated labor - only two more centimeters to go and baby would be arriving soon!
About thirty minutes later, just before they were about to remove the fetal hear monitor from around my waist, one of the nurses noticed that the baby's heart rate was dropping. They had me lay on the bed again to check my dilation. I was ten centimeters, ready to push! But baby's heart rate continued to drop so they thought it might just be a matter of positioning that was causing the distress. They had me try out different positions - all fours, side-lying on my left, side-lying on my right, etc. At this point the intensity of the contractions had reached an all time high and I told my doula I was ready for an epidural. She whispered into my ear that I was almost done, that they were already prepping the baby's bed, and that all I had to do was just hang on for a few more minutes. But then my baby's heart rate had dipped even further and, suddenly, the room began to fill with more nurses and doctors who were discussing what needed to be done. My OB had not yet arrived when I heard my doula whisper in my ear, "Your baby's heart rate is really low and they need to get him out. They're going to take you to the operating room for an emergency c-section. Your doctor isn't here yet but they can't wait for him so the hospitalist is going to deliver the baby." 

A minute later, at 1:45 pm, my OB arrived in the nick of time to a chaotic scene, was updated on the situation, and rushed to prepare himself for surgery. In a daze I was swiftly wheeled into the operating room, desperately squeezing Chris' hand before leaving his side in alarming recognition that our birth plans were unraveling. The brief memory I have of my time in the operating room is a nightmarish blur. The lights were extremely bright, there were people in blue gowns everywhere, rushing around me, and the tension in the room was palpable. Then I saw my doctor's face and he asked if I could try to push my baby down as much as possible because he wanted to see if he could vacuum him out, thinking that might be faster than cutting me open. I pushed two times as hard as I could and it wasn't enough. That's when he said, "Okay Ana, this isn't working. We need to get your baby out." I was put under general anesthesia and then a stillness washed over me and the lights went out.
I'm told my son, Felix, was born at 1:52 pm, after a fast, intense, and unmedicated six-hour labor. I wasn't conscious for his delivery so I didn't see my obstetrician pull a lifeless baby boy out of my body. Unlike we had written in our birth plan, he wasn't placed on my chest for immediate skin-to-skin bonding where we would make eye contact for the first time; there was no breastfeeding, no golden hour, and the placenta cord was clamped immediately so that he could be transferred to an incubator, whereupon a respiratory therapist, whom we will always refer to as Felix's angel, performed chest compressions on him for nine minutes until he finally took his own shallow, little breath. Then a plastic tube was inserted through his tiny mouth and into his tiny trachea so he could receive oxygen support. Following that there were more procedures, more tubes, more medicine, and more machines. Chris bravely stood by - terrified, confused, and sad - taking photos because he thought these were the only moments he'd have with his first child. 
Meanwhile, a few rooms down, I was waking up from the anesthesia, alone and confused, due mainly to the pain medication. I was not yet aware of the situation with Felix until Chris and my OB walked in and, somehow, calmly explained what happened - he'd aspirated on meconium towards the very end of labor. They told me that Felix was about to be taken by ambulance to the children's hospital because he was very sick. Everyone was positive about it all and I would learn later that they were doing that for my benefit, no one had any idea if Felix would actually make it through the night. Before the departure the EMTs wheeled him in next to my bed so I could see him and hold his little hand. And in that brief moment of touch, holding my sick baby boy's tiny hand, my mind hazy with drugs and my eyes blurry from tears, my life was forever changed.
Felix spent the first twenty-eight days of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). During that time I learned a great deal about myself and about life. Felix has been my teacher without uttering a single word. He has taught me about patience; he has taught me about the capabilities of my body; he has taught me about priorities; about confidence, self-worth, and self-love. Felix has also been a coach, challenging me and pushing me in ways I never imagined: like in the ability to repeatedly inject myself during all the IVF treatments, then dealing with the physical and mental changes during each trimester of pregnancy; afterwards, the marathon that is labor, and, later, in overcoming the nearly debilitating emotional distress that comes with having a traumatic birth and a sick baby in the NICU . He is my silent tutor, teaching me about life. That's why I think of our pregnancy - pre, during, and post - as magical. The journey we have taken, first as one and now as two, has earned us the right to feel like unicorns.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Portland Babymoon: The Sights

Portland is a hip, bustling city that offers something for all tastes: loads of live music in every genre, tax-free shopping, national sports teams, hikes and trails, river activities, museums, bicycling - they even have a vegan strip club (full vegan menu and the dancers and employees don't wear any animal products)! While we did not make it to Casa Diablo we still found ourselves completely entertained just within the downtown area, where we stayed in a corner room on the 8th floor of the elegant Hotel deLuxe.
Instead of renting a car we chose to rely solely on Portland's public transportation and our own two feet. We grabbed a train from the airport that was direct and delivered us a block from our hotel - it couldn't have been easier and we saved about $40 a day in parking fees. At times a car would have been nice because we could have explored more of Portland, and also because walking for miles with a human inside of me got a little tiring sometimes, but I still don't regret not having the car. We used Uber or Lyft whenever I felt too exhausted to walk or wait for the bus or train. But mostly we walked, which afforded us the ability to get to know the city a little more intimately by seeing the little nuances that make a place unique, which would be missed zipping by on wheels.
It was walking around that led us to the Portland staple bookstore, Powell's, where we spent about an hour meandering through the four floors. On the fourth floor we discovered a small, well-secured room of rare books. We were given badges which allowed us to go inside and meander some more. Walking back to our hotel from Powell's we happened upon a narrow cafe attached to the corner of a hotel, shaped like a blunted arrow's edge - the Ringlers Annex. Curiosity got the best of us so we walked inside and and down a flight of stairs to a wide open basement cellar with a full bar, lots of seating, and live music. Then we hung out for awhile - Chris enjoyed a couple of beers and I slowly sipped on a tiny glass of wine while listening to soothing acoustic renditions of Bad Religion songs. 
After breakfast one morning we took an Uber up to the Portland Japanese Garden. It was a lovely way to continue our day and immerse ourselves in the plethora of beautiful outdoor activities that nature-loving Portland has to offer. We left feeling tranquil and peaceful (which I believe is the point of a Japanese Garden) and the desire to recreate our own zen garden at home. But with Baby almost here, not to mention the California drought, our dreams of having a lush, harmonious garden will have to wait. 
The following morning, after being smitten with the Japanese Garden, we decided to check out the Lan Su Chinese Garden in the urban Chinatown neighborhood in downtown Portland. The garden was designed with the collaboration of Portland's sister city Suzhou, China, so it is architecturally and culturally representative of Chinese ideals. This garden was also very beautiful and tranquil but, it being situated in the middle of a busy area, there were a couple of school groups and many more visitors than at the Japanese Garden. We made the best of it, though,and escaped the field-trips by having tea and dumplings at the tea house on the property. 
I really enjoyed Portland. If it weren't cloudy and gray so often, and maybe if my family was near the area, I could really see us living there. It's diverse, liberal, green, artsy, and funky. Also, it's vegan heaven. So, actually, maybe one day we will end up there...

Thanks for reading! Have a wonderful week and remember - despite all the sadness and fury elicited from the Orlando Nightclub shooting - these words from Lin Manuel Miranda , "Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside". May this be our mantra until it becomes part of who we are.