Breathe



I wrote this nearly a year ago and never published it. My daughter is creeping toward two and is as healthy as can be.

***

My daughter is exactly nine months old today.

My chest feels tight today, and I’m having a difficult time focusing on work. It’s not due to the love that I feel for her – which does make my heart swell. Instead, I’m feeling anxious because today she woke up with a fever and it has since climbed to 103 degrees.

My anxiety rises and falls with her temperature because we had a difficult first few weeks together. We almost lost her, twice. And in between her near-death experiences, my then two-year-old son, was also hospitalized more than once.

It began one day while working from home.

“Mike,” my wife nervously calls up the stairs. I immediately know something is wrong and run down. She had just woken up from a nap, and blood had soaked through her jeans and onto the bedsheets. Our daughter wasn’t due for another five weeks.   

A quiet calm came over us. I quickly fed our son and packed a few things while my wife put on clean clothes. We said little to one another, both fearing the same but not wanting to say it out loud. 

On the drive to the hospital, my wife drank juice and soon after felt a kick. A huge weight was lifted, despite the fact that she was still bleeding. 

She was diagnosed with a partial placental abruption and was deemed too at-risk to leave the hospital. We stayed there together for the next three weeks until our daughter was induced at 38 weeks. The delivery was perfect, albeit extremely painful for my wife, as medicine-free natural birth is.

We stayed at the hospital for an extra day dealing with jaundice, which our son also had, so we’d seen that before. Though within a day or two of being discharged, my wife had to bring our daughter back for another overnight at the hospital as her jaundice was rebounding.

After being discharged again, we hoped we were in the clear.

We were very wrong.

A few days later, I’m in bed and am awoken by the sound of my then 2.5 year old son mumbling. I go and check on him – he’s burning up. The thermometer beeps and then reads 106 degrees. He’s panting like a dog. Soon thereafter, I’m about to pull out of our garage into a snowstorm when I look in the rearview mirror and his eyes roll to the back of his head. He has a febrile seizure and I have to call 911.

No sooner are we discharged from the emergency room, do we find ourselves back at the hospital with him. This time, he’s working too hard to breathe and his oxygen is low. My wife stays at home with our newborn daughter, and I spend a few nights at the hospital with our toddler son. 

One night he is yelling and crying and has to be restrained in order to get his antibiotics down. The nurses get firm, and I have to yell “PLEASE STOP!” I immediately begin crying. I apologize to the nurses and to my son. We both just want to be home.

We’re discharged the next day. On the phone, my wife mentions our newborn daughter is now working to breathe. 

I get home and I see what she is talking about. She’s stuffed up, and she’s using her belly to breathe. We call the doctor and explain that our son was just in the hospital with a respiratory illness. She said to go get our daughter checked out now. It had been less than two hours since returning home with our son.

My wife brings our daughter to the ER, and they are admitted almost immediately. My inlaws come to help with our son, and I head to the hospital.

A few days pass, and she’s only getting worse. “There’s nothing else we can do for her here,” says the doctor. We cry. I apologize to my daughter. We were beginning the mourning process.

We end up at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at our local Children’s hospital, where she ended up on pressurized oxygen and a feeding tube. Day by day she got better, and within a week, we were finally home.

In total, my family spent 43 virtually consecutive days and nights between three different hospitals. Each of the events and resultant hospital stays was scarring on their own, but together they’ve amassed to one deep wound that will take time to heal.

I haven’t yet talked to a doctor or therapist about it, but I believe I may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to research, somewhere between 8 and 33% of fathers (and higher rates for mothers) that end up in the NICU end up with PTSD.

And fevers, I think, are my trigger.

The rational part of my brain understands that my daughter’s fever tonight is her body’s natural defense system kicking in. It’s working as it should and she’s fighting just one of the many bugs she’ll face through her childhood years.

But the rational part of my brain turns off when she or my son gets a fever.

When my son’s temperature rises, I now find myself dragging a small mattress into his room to sleep beside his bed. It’s not likely that he’ll have another febrile seizure, but having experienced the first one, I have trouble shaking the thought.

When my daughter begins to get a fever, my wife and I obsessively chart her temperature throughout the day as it fluctuates. We breathe a sigh of relief when it falls by a degree, and we start getting heart palpitations when it rises by a degree.

One of the ways doctors and therapists suggest coping with PTSD is writing about one’s experience.

Putting words to the anxieties as they creep up is helping to dispel the downward spirals I’ve been sucked into so many times this year.

So tonight I’m at home with my son writing out my worries, while my wife is at the doctor’s office getting our 9-month-old daughter checked out.  

The rational part of my brain knows she’s going to be fine. That same part of my brain is telling me that my wife and I will be OK too.

One of my resolutions this year is to see a therapist and learn some additional skills to cope with this.

***

The pandemic hit not too long after I wrote this, causing a whole new wave of anxieties and fears. Fortunately, we are all healthy and doing well.

One thought on “Breathe

  1. Pingback: Parenting During a Pandemic | Mike Munsell

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