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The Little Things – PTSD and the Preemie Parent

There have been numerous studies showing parents of preemies suffer from PTSD. Makes sense – you go through something so full of trauma, guilt, fear, anxiety, living minute-by-minute – you’re going to have ongoing emotional and psychological fallout. Most days, I don’t think about what we went through; it has been sixteen years after all since Little Man was born so early. But all it takes is one little sound, smell, sight and I am right back in those moments. I feel it, all over again. I forget we’re where we are, and I’m back in those days of fear, highs and lows, two steps forward and three steps back, having everything out of my control.

My mom had open heart surgery in 2009.  I went up shortly after the surgery itself to be there for her. She was in the critical care unit. I was in her room with my sister, all of us talking, when someone in a room nearby must have dropped oxygen sats and heartrate. The bonging alarm went off. My heartrate accelerated, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I heard that bonging every single day in the NICU, often coming from my own son’s monitors. You go into panic mode every time you hear that sound. I can still hear that sound in my mind. I will never forget that sound. I doubt I will ever hear it without reacting with panic.

I shave my legs almost every single day (TMI – sorry not sorry). If I go more than 48 hours without shaving my legs, I get twitchy. The reason? When I was on hospital bedrest, I went over  a week at a time without having my legs shaved. I can’t stand that feeling. It reminds me of laying helpless, lonely, bored, and terrified in that hospital bed. Same goes for washing my hair. I can barely make it 48 hours without washing my hair because it takes me back to those 16 days in that hospital room.  Seemingly little things, yes? But still – little things that can set me off all over again.

I spent months reaching for the foot pedal every time I went to wash my hands. If I smell that antiseptic soap ever, I’m back in the NICU, washing my  hands before I walked through the double-doors into the NICU pods. Half the time when I wash my hands, I still mentally sing the ABC’s as we were taught early on the NICU – because that’s about how long you’re supposed to lather and wash to make sure your hands are really clean. If I come across a foot-pedal sink, I’m back in the NICU too.

Seeing pictures and videos of preemies in the NICU send me right back to Big Man’s early days. There’s a distinctive way NICU babies move with all the wires and tubes connected to pretty  much every extremity. I’m reminded one of the things I hated the most – that board strapped to his arm or leg to keep the lines straight. God I hated that board. I hated the mass of tape over and around his mouth to hold the ventilator and feeding tube in place. I hated the nurse who ripped the tape off his face one night, tearing off layers of his too-thin skin, leaving him with a dark splotch on his face he carries to this day. I hate that I still cry when I think about this.

We played music for him throughout the day as soon as he was able to tolerate the stimulation. I had to toss those cd’s when we got home from the NICU. I couldn’t stand to hear those songs anymore. When I heard them, I could smell and hear the NICU again. I still get the sweats when I hear any of those songs, which blessedly isn’t often at all, but still.

Most days, I don’t think about the NICU, or hospital bedrest, nor all the attendant fear, grief, anxiety, pain, heartache, stress. But those little things, man, they’ll do  me in in a heartbeat. PTSD for parents of preemies – it’s a real thing.  Just ask a preemie parent.

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