The End

While I’ve talked about the frequent weight checks for Big Man, I haven’t really talked about all  he’s been going through the last few years, and part of the reason for all those weight checks.

It wasn’t something entirely unexpected, but it was frustrating nonetheless.  Back in late-seventh, and eighth grade, nearly all his friends started their growth spurts. While Big Man didn’t stop growing, he didn’t spurt. Suddenly, most of his friends were significantly taller, while he stayed much the same height. My brother grew late. Spouse grew late. So did my BIL apparently, so we weren’t too worried. But then he fell far off his own growth curve….like REALLY far off his own growth curve. It was enough his pediatrician called in the troops – ordered blood work, and started all the referrals to any specialist applicable. We’ve spent the last 2+ years getting follow-up testing, blood work, bone age scans, visiting endocrinology a few times.

What it came down to is the fact he is just constitutionally delayed – by a bit over 2 years. That means his body is two years behind his chronological age. That’s kind of a big deal for a fourteen/fifteen/sixteen year old. He took it in stride initially, but then when even the “small” kids in his friend group grew taller than he, the struggle began. He never said much about it, but I knew it was hard for him. It was miserable for me to see the difference, to see my little big boy walking around, significantly shorter than most of his peers. I prayed continually for him to grow. Like when  he was in the NICU, we began to celebrate every ounce gained, every part of an inch grown. We watched for any sign he was entering his spurt. Days, weeks, months passed, and nothing.

He’s nearly seventeen. He’s grown almost three inches since January 1st. I really have to look up to him now. His voice has changed. His face looks different – more adult, more defined. He sleeps constantly. He eats when he isn’t asleep. He’s shot up three lines on the growth curve. His ADHD doctor now says he can’t even guess how tall Big Man will be (just a year ago, he was telling me Big Man would maybe end up at 5’9″ or so).

I can’t express my level of relief – moreso for him than anything. I don’t have to see that look on his face anymore. He’s catching up to his friends. We saw his pediatrician last week and she was surprised, but not really surprised. We’ve reached the end of this particular medical journey. He is fully in his growth spurt. Whew. We do have one more visit with endocrinology in September, just to dot that final i and cross that final t.

I’m once again reminded of his NICU days…..in the beginning, in the middle, and even towards the end, it seemed we would never see the day he would come home. The last few years, it seemed we would never reach the end of this delay, we wondered he would ever grow. This child has always done things in his own time, on his own terms. This shouldn’t have been any surprise to me at all, yet it was. But now this too will be put behind us, and I will look up at my getting-taller-every-day big boy, and be thankful.

It’s his, but he doesn’t remember

I met with a  new local March of Dimes staff-person last week. As is typical, I shared why we volunteer, told our story – how we’re connected to the mission of the organization. She asked if Big Man does his own fundraising, tells his own story. Um, no. He walks, but when it comes to the talking, he leaves that to me. Why? Well…..it is his story,, but he doesn’t remember it, thank the good Lord. He knows my version of his story. He’s heard it a billion times. He did live it, but he has no memory of it. The baby in all the photos is him, but like any other baby, he has no memory of his early years, much less his too-early, dramatic entry into the world.

He does get why  his story matters. He does  understand prematurity was, is, and always will be part of who  he is, but all the emotions attached to his premature birth belong to others, not to him. Does that make sense? He lived it, but we lived the fear, guilt, pain of having failed him in any way. He was the feisty fighter who made it while we stood by, watching and praying. He did it, but we are the ones who remember.

He compared it to when people say I’m strong for having gone through all we’ve gone through.  My response always is, “You never know how strong you are until you have to BE strong.” He just lived – he doesn’t see anything amazing in that coming from him, but instead places the credit upon us, his nurses, his doctors. I say he had a strong will to survive right from the very beginning.

I keep encouraging him to own his story. I think he’s there now. He  had to write his own obituary in his psych class recently.  He did include his premature birth in his narrative. I was a little surprised by the inclusion. If you don’t know his story, you’d never guess his story. You can’t look at him and say, “Oh, yes, he was a preemie.” You can’t tell by looking at him, in other words. Well, I have to edit that a little bit – many preemie moms I know can tell by looking at a kid, but we know what to look for as we see it in our own preemies. The general population can’t look at him and know, without being told, he was born 3.5 months too soon.

I’m thankful he doesn’t remember at all, this story of his. I’ve always said I remember enough for both of us. But I’m glad he’s owning it, making it his, because it is his, even if he doesn’t remember one second of it.

I Hit My Knees

I grew up in the church.  It has just always been a part of my life. I don’t remember a time I didn’t believe in God, pray, know that Jesus died for me. My faith is a part of me.  I developed a more personal relationship with God as I grew into my teens and college years. Life was not perfect…my Daddy had heart issues, my parents went through a divorce, our family suffered through severe financial struggles. But it was not until Big Man was born that I ever found myself falling to my knees.

When I was admitted to the hospital, just over halfway through my pregnancy, prayers went up at our church, throughout our family and spread through friends.  Once Big Man was born, the network expanded literally around the world. I didn’t realize the extent at the time. We were so caught up in the world of prematurity and the NICU. When you find yourself with your child in the NICU, you enter a new place, a new normal. I prayed continually, but not many of those prayers were very complete. They often came in brief sentences, or parts of sentences. My thoughts were so scattered, the emotions so intense I could not formulate complete thoughts. Sometimes, oftentimes, I was reduced to just saying, “Please,  God.”

When Big Man was about three weeks old, I came home from visiting him with a feeling that something just wasn’t right with him. He didn’t look right. He wasn’t acting the way he normally did.  He had more episodes than usual of apnea/bradychardia. He was fussy. He was too sensitive for me to hold him that day. I tried twice and he dropped his heart rate and stopped breathing both times. So the entire time I was with him that day, I stared at him through the walls of his isolette. When I got home that night, I went into his bedroom. I rarely went in there while he was in the NICU. It was just too hard to see a room all ready for a baby who would not be home for months. It was too difficult to think I should still be pregnant with him. Seeing his empty room brought home the fact I was a daily visitor to my tiny infant in a NICU world full of lights, beeps, alarms, IV lines, sickness and even death, rather than being a complete family under one roof. But that night, I went into his room and stood before his crib. And I hit my knees. I found the words to bargain with God for my son’s life. I cried for all we had lost. I sobbed in fear. And after a long while, I felt some small peace steal over me, like warm, comforting arms wrapping around me. I was not completely at ease, but I had someone stronger than myself to lean on.

We went back to the NICU at 10:30 that night because I was still unable to rest. Turned out Big Man had his own staph infection. It was agonizing news to receive, just when we had begun to think we were out of the woods as far as the scariest time in the NICU with a micro-preemie. Three days later, just before he was scheduled to have a spinal tap, he turned a corner. Within seven days, he’d beaten the infection.

I will never, ever forget that night. I will always remember with such clarity that moment of complete surrender. I can’t say that I never tried to negotiate with God for my son’s life again, but I knew he was not in my hands.  I’ve not hit my knees that way since then, but I know I can.

Weight For It

When you have a micro-preemie, how much he weighs is an obsession from day one. Every ounce, or part of a ounce gained, is a huge win, a step in the right direction on a very long journey. We waited, so very anxiously, to see his weight on his chart each morning he was in the NICU. It seemed to take forever for him to get back up to his birth weight of a whole two pounds. We had a mini-party when he reached three pounds. When he came home at 6 lbs 7 ozs, he seemed huge compared to the day  he was born, that is until I took him to the pediatrician for a weight check and initial visit a few days after he came home from the NICU. Surrounded by “normal” full-term babies, he diminished.

Weight checks have just been part of his life, his entire life. He received synagis shots October through April the first two years of his life to fight him getting RSV. That meant we were in the pediatrician’s office much more than other infants and toddlers. And he was weighed every single time. I always had anxiety on doctor-visit days, and would hold my breath until his weight came up on the scale. His growth chart didn’t look like any other I’d seen. He had his own way of doing this, his own growth curve.

When he was diagnosed with ADHD, and we began medicating him, regular weight-checks were re-introduced. Blessedly, the medication didn’t seem to affect his appetite. But then he fell off his own growth curve a few years back. Bloodwork, visits with specialists, bone-age scans, and even more frequent weight-checks ensued. We pushed calories, good calories, as best we could. I could still wrap my hand around his upper arm. I found myself back in that place, the one I’d been in while in the NICU…breath-holding every time he had to get on the scale or be measured. Failure to thrive, malnourishment (oh yeah, that one really pissed me off at the same time it nearly broke me), constitutional delay….all those words were thrown at him. Few asked what dad had weighed at the same age. And every time, I felt like a failure. I hated to see the look on his face when there were no gains, or the gain was too little, when he hadn’t grown since the last visit three months previous.

He has a weight-check appointment today.  I know he’s grown, thank God. But has he gained any weight? We’ll find out in a few hours. I’ll be holding my breath, and my heart will get that little hitch. Even knowing how much and what he eats every day, I wonder if it’s enough to make a difference, to make it so I don’t have to hear those words from the doctor, see that same number on the scale.

Send some heavy thoughts this way. And weight for it.

The Hand We’ve Been Dealt

Some might say we’ve been handed a less-than-stellar parenting hand. Trust me, before we got pregnant with our oldest, I didn’t intentionally sign up to have a micro-preemie nor an autistic child. And I know well too many parents who live a much more difficult parenting road, some too painful to even think about. So I don’t complain, much. Are our lives easy? Nope, but there’s never a promise of easy when you start down your life path.  You deal with the hand you’re dealt. That’s my take anyways.

I suppose we did have a choice. We could have told the doctors to not take any extraordinary  measures to save Big Man.  We could have quietly let him pass, fears of what his future might  hold taking precedent over his chance of survival. We could have walked away. We could have chosen not to fight. But I knew him – I knew his fight, even before I saw him face-to-face. I’d felt him within me, I’d heard his strong, fast heartbeat. I’d seen his tiny arms and legs on the ultrasound screen so many times. I knew long before he took his first breath we would fight as long as he had fight within him. We didn’t  know, even when we brought him home from the NICU, what his future might hold, but honestly, do you ever know what your child’s life is going to be? Life holds no guarantees. We took him as he came. We loved him, we watched him, we cried, prayed, laughed. We continue to advocate for him, raise him, fight with him and beside him.

The day (and admittedly for a few days afterwards) we found out we were pregnant with the Princess, I cried, so not ready to face pregnancy again so soon after Big Man’s birth. He was 3.5 months old. Our babies would be just a year apart, if I made it to full-term this time. I fretted, I worried, spent days full of anxiety, so sure we were going to end up back in the NICU again. I eventually reached a place of knowing our family was going to look a bit different than I’d planned, but we were blessed. And oh  how I fell in love with that little girl.

I recall so clearly the drive home from the psychiatrist’s office the day Little Man was diagnosed autistic. I called my friends. How would I do this? Why was this happening to him, to our family? What had I done wrong? Why did my baby have to suffer? A wise friend reminded me my baby was still my baby – a diagnosis did not change who he was. I would have to fight for him at times, I would have to find the strength inside to deal with the hard parts. I would go to the deepest depths when my nine-year-old told me this was too hard and he didn’t want to live anymore. I’d have to remind myself all the amazing things he’s capable of when it seemed all I was hearing was what he couldn’t do.

I guess I could have walked away, said this was too hard, too much, could have chosen not to fight for him and his needs. But I  never saw that as an option. I’m not amazing. I’m not extraordinary. We aren’t special because we continue to parent him. We deal with the hand we’re dealt. Our hand  may not look like yours, but you take what you’re given and you deal, or you don’t.  We just never imagined there was a choice for us, never considered any other option than loving our babies.

I Found My Voice – Prematurity Awareness

I wasn’t much for causes as a young adult. Oh, I had opinions, and I respected people who fought for what they believed in, but I just never spoke out. Nothing drove me to that point. I participated in walk-a-thons and read-a-thons for MS and other things, but I wasn’t engaged. Nothing mattered enough to move me that far.

And then I had a very  premature baby. Life as I knew it was upended, changed forever. All my dreams were shattered. I had a baby fighting for his life, dependent upon me to advocate for him. I prayed, I begged God to save him, I watched him battle for every breath, every second of every hour of every day. I thought to myself, “If this tiny boy can fight this hard, I can fight just as hard for  him.” I discovered a voice I didn’t knew I had – a strength in myself I never knew existed.

Fast-forward four years, and my discovery of how research funded by the March of Dimes had essentially saved his life. Add to that their providing of an online support community in which I found others who spoke my preemie-mom language, who understood my fears, my anxiety, my grief, my pain. And then an outlet, a focus….we formed a family team to fundraise and walk in that organization’s annual March for Babies. I haven’t looked back. We’ve served as a local Ambassador Family, speaking at numerous events, participating in radio, news, and print interviews, my precious boy’s photos splashed across all sorts of media.

Then there came the autism diagnosis for Little Man, four years ago now. I had to again learn to advocate for my child, reach down deep inside and gather a strength I didn’t know I was capable of, to fight for my child’s needs and a place in a world completely NOT designed for him.

My voice – both written and spoken – was found through my children. I didn’t choose this path. I didn’t choose these battles. But they are our story. I speak out. I write. I advocate. I research. I help others just starting similar journeys. More than this, I’ve been given the courage to use my voice in other areas of life.

Today is World Prematurity Awareness Day. I’m wearing purple in honor of my beautiful survivor, for all those other precious babies who have come out the other side of a too-soon birth, and those for whom their early birth took them from this earth. We in this house are perfectly aware of Prematurity. We’ve lived it. But the voice I gained sixteen years ago, and the voice I have continued to develop over those same sixteen years, enables me to reach out and help others around me be aware of the severity of the problem of prematurity.

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.