My water broke on Sunday, August 21, which was also my husband Doug's 37th birthday. My labor was easy and short, and the delivery uneventful, if unusual, in that it was attended by a rather large group of people and would be seen by over 10 million people on national television the next day. (It was on "Good Morning America" in the morning; and then rebroadcast on "Oprah.")
Charles Brett Myers was a beautiful full-term baby, weighing in at seven pounds, two ounces, and perfectly formed. Doug had gotten the birthday present of a lifetime and I was tired but profoundly happy. We called our friends with the wondrous news. Hours later, after everyone left, Doug and I sat together talking and eating pasta with the contentment that comes of shared experience while Charlie slept in a bassinet in the corner of the room.
The labor nurse, Barb Silver, came in to check on the baby. She hung over him for a few minutes and said nothing, then left. Moments later, she returned with another nurse. They were soon joined by a third. As a doctor, I knew immediately that this much attention was not a good thing. His color was fine but he was starting to breathe too quickly. Charlie was moved to the Intensive Care Unit as a precaution.
The pediatrician came back with the results of the baby's chest X ray. Instead of clear, black images, his lung fields were fluffy and white. This was a life-threatening newborn infection called Group B strep. Babies can be colonized with strep as they pass through the birth canal, and in a matter of hours, a deadly infection can take hold. The only way to treat it is with aggressive use of intravenous antibiotics.
I tried to reassure myself that they would just hold him for 48 hours while the antibiotics took effect and that, once the blood cultures came back clean, we would all go home as a family.
Doug went home to our daughters, Kate and Rachel, that night, and I tossed and turned, sleepless. By Monday afternoon it was clear the baby would not be going home anytime soon. If anything, Charlie's condition had worsened.
Slowly, joy gave way first to shock and then later to fear.
I went home in an emotional limbo that I still can't really put into words. I tried to keep my fears at bay. I pumped my breasts and froze the milk in anticipation of Charlie's homecoming. I did my best not to analyze why Charlie was not getting better. We drove back and forth to the hospital to see him, touching him lightly through the porthole. And we fussed over Kate and Rachel. We had told them as little as we could about why their brother wasn't coming home.
Doug and I were standing side by side in my office at home when the hospital called at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. Charlie was breathing so quickly that the lining of his lung had popped, allowing air from outside the lung to get in and depress the lung tissue. The condition is called pneumothorax, and left untreated it can cause respiratory or heart failure. Treatment is invasive. A needle is stuck into the infant's chest to draw off the excess air. If the procedure fails, the next step is to put a tube into the baby's chest.
I gave my permission and, totally undone, burst into tears. I knew all too well that complications rarely resolve themselves easily and often snowball. A dark window opened in my soul as I allowed myself to realize, for the first time, that my newborn son, a scant three days old, might possibly die.
I felt myself unraveling bit by bit, the stress of Charlie's immediate crisis compounded by a flood of postpartum hormones. I was at once both numb and rubbed raw with feeling. Doug stayed calmer on the outside than I, though inside he grew angrier. The fast reversals were too much for both of us. Each of us reacted to the crisis at hand in different ways and, in doing so, we began to be of little help to the other. I talked a blue streak about superficial details but became uncommunicative about all that really mattered, out of superstition more than anything else. If I didn't talk about it, then the worst couldn't, wouldn't, happen.
Doug was adamantly opposed to my plan to bring the girls to the hospital and into the ICU. He thought the experience would be too much for the girls, that they were too young to handle the bells, the monitors, and everything else that is frightening about an Intensive Care Unit. I prevailed but had only convinced Doug on the surface.
The girls drew pictures for the baby with the words "I love you" written in crayon, and brought him a Peter Rabbit toy and a teddy bear. We all went to the hospital on Thursday afternoon and into the ICU. The girls put on gowns, washed their hands, and walked to the isolette where their brother lay. Their faces lit up and I felt a wave of gladness wash over me. They put their hands into the isolette and touched him.
And at that moment, all of Charlie's monitors went off. Excited by the girls' presence, his heart rate and breathing accelerated dangerously.
The nurses ushered us out of the ICU quickly and firmly. I saw the confusion etched on the girls' faces give way first to dismay and then to tears. Doug stood there, glaring, furious. I turned to face him. "I told you this was a bad idea," he shouted at me, his finger pointing, and his loud voice echoing through the hospital halls. His face was stricken and angry at once, it was clear he thought we had risked Charlie's recovery. He stormed out and I ran after him, to no avail.
I took the girls to the waiting room and went back to the ICU alone and stood by Charlie's isolette, watching the nurses rearrange the monitors, feeling devastated and utterly helpless. One of the nurses pulled me aside and suggested I tell my husband to come back alone. I told her I was sure he wouldn't; for one thing, he was too angry and, for another, he honestly believed we were harming, not helping, Charlie by our presence. She pressed me to try anyway, suggesting I tell him it was "nurse's orders." But the girls and I drove home alone. I had no idea where Doug had gone.