I am forever looking at numbers. Mainly I am looking at heart rates, blood-oxygen levels, blood pressures and O2 percentages from his ventilator. When I get tired of looking at numbers I look at narwhals, or if he’s fussy or if they’re working on him and the blankie curtain is pulled back, I look at eyes, I count toes, I count yawns and blinks, and all this counting reminds me of numbers, and I go back to looking at his numbers again.
As part of my suddenly necessary wardrobe additions, my wife has taken to expanding my arsenal of daddy clothes. I now have a Papa bear sweatshirt, a Papa bear t-shirt, and this fun guy:
I took a turn by myself while my wife caught up on her sleep, yesterday. We do a lot of the hands-on care when we’re here, now, so when it was time I changed his diaper and took his temperature and then prepared to do the mouth swab. Sometimes we swab with breast milk, sometimes with saline water just for cleaning. This was to be a cleaning. He was fussy during the diaper and the temperature, as per usual, but the moment I got the wet cotton swab between his lips, he pursed and latched on, and his body froze, and his eyebrows relaxed, and for a moment he rejected all notions of his science project existence and was just a baby. Nothing otherwise. Just my baby child, calm and happy, actually happy and not just momentarily unperturbed. I tried to move the swab around to clean his breathing tube and moisten his lips and because he is barely a pound of person he couldn’t stop me but at every opportunity his mouth found purchase again. I swabbed for too long, perhaps. It was something he wanted that I could give to him and make him happy and so I did it as long as I thought wise. That may be the happiest I’ve ever been.
There are other babies in here, in this room. The hospital is remodeling the NICU, rebuilding it actually, there’s construction currently in the works that will give each baby their own room, but right now there are eight pods per bay. So even though Alex’s voice is still blocked by artificial plumbing, I am getting used to being around baby cries. The baby next to us has tiny little whimpers for cries, which I actually didn’t know were cries until I turned to her yesterday after the noise she was making seemed to intensify and saw tears. Her grandma told me today that she’s only got one lung. So that makes sense.
In other news, another number: zero. Alex’s blood culture has shown zero bacteria growth after almost 36 hours. So the antibiotics appear to be having the desired effect. This is good because yesterday morning, an overall down day despite my happiest moment ever, they told us Alex’s particular bacteria is “not showing sensitivity” to all of the expected antibiotics it should. Meaning the bacteria has developed a resistance to some of its poisons. Good news is, some of them are still working, but hearing your son has a mutating enemy inside him sounds like sci-fi/horror, artificial intelligence, a mercuric terminator sent from the future. It doesn’t sit well. In any case, this development means everyone who even stands next to Alex now has to wear the surgical gown, and everyone not his parents has to wear surgical gloves. I even see some of the nurses wear the surgical face mask for some of their interactions with him. I don’t see how this change can help with an infection he already has, but the overall effect is this environment is much more E.T. than it used to be.
The other sucky part of yesterday: during Alex’s head turn—which I was looking forward to because his head was to the left in the morning, but our chairs are on his right, so if we want to sit with him we can’t see his eyes—there was an issue. His numbers started to drop almost immediately after his head was reset.
The head turn takes two people, usually a nurse and someone from respiratory, because the head turn jostles the intubation and you want someone who knows that system backwards to be here for that. The nurse told me later she noticed his color changing, which she called both “pale” and “purple” during separate recounts, and she was quick to call the issue to the respiratory helper’s attention. Something was blocking the tube. I was standing there, two feet away, watching, motionless, my hands up and away from my body because I’d just sanitized them again in case I wanted to reach in and calm him after the head turn. The respiratory therapist switched on the bedside respirator, the “Infant T-Piece Resuscitator,” which title has all the required markings to belong in my specific uncanny nightmares, and the nurse said something about “going in sterile,” and she pulled out some secret gloves wrapped in secret paper and carefully put them on while the respiratory therapist switched tube connections with impressive speed and familiarity.
And then started giving Alex air manually.
I still didn’t move. In fact I think I managed to not move even more. I was statuesque. The gradient impossibility “really still.” This is what they used to refer to on the hit television show E.R. as “bagging him.” It’s how you knew shit was getting real. In this case there was no bag. The resuscitator’s plastic tube basically had a continual air flow that changed according to whether or not her thumb was over the exhaust valve. So with a practiced, almost absent-minded rhythm, her right thumb gave him air and ushered his oxygenation levels back upward while her left hand scurried about preparing other things for the nurse to run conventional suction through his intubation, conventional meaning by hand, as close to the source as possible, meaning right at his mouth, the stiff plunging rod sent deep into his chest and pulled out again, clearing the road, once and twice and back up damp into her fingers, no wonder she wanted the gradiently impossible extra-sterile gloves.
After the suction, they kept giving him manual air while they tested his chest tube to make sure it was still in where it needed to be. For a half a second, listening in, it sounded like something was wrong because the color indicator they were looking for didn’t come up immediately, but then it did, it was yellow, which was good, which meant they could hook him back up to the regular respirator, and they did so. He was passively still throughout most of this. There was so much motion around him I almost didn’t notice but when it was all done and he was hooked back up normally and we were waiting on his levels to settle back into a normal rhythm (which they didn’t for a while because he was trying to breathe over his machinery, his tiny baby belly blowing up and deflating at a recognizable breathing rhythm, not the seven pulses per second his lungs are supposed to be getting, so they gave him some fentanyl, which I was fine with, he deserved a druggy respite after all that), he still wasn’t really moving. But then I noticed he was. Little hand flutters that slowed as the fentanyl kicked in (a karate-type move which I believe is entitled “the tired butterfly”), occasional ankle rotations and mild leg stretches, not his usual woken repertoire, but it was enough. I thought maybe it was enough.
I cried a little bit, when the nurses weren’t looking, after the nurse explained to me what exactly just happened, why this was an “event.” I sat down on a chair and thought about how no one would probably tell my wife about this if I didn’t tell my wife about this, and I felt alone, and sad, and overwhelmed, and afraid. Then I went outside and talked to my mom on the phone and felt better, and then came back upstairs again.
Later on, back in our room at Ronald’s House, I sort of playfully crawled onto the bed to cuddle my wife and draped an arm across her lap and collapsed with my face buried in pillow. Sleep caught me unawares.
But hey. That was yesterday. That was a bad day, and today has been a good day. I’ve sat here for a couple hours now, writing next to Alex sleeping, safely tucked in and sleeping, as I always imagined this parenting routine would go, just with more disposable gowns than anticipated. Tomorrow might be another bad day again. We haven’t seemed to have two good days in a row since we’ve started this.
It’s not tomorrow yet, though. So let’s enjoy today. It’s his two-week birthday. Happy fortnight, Fortkamp. Let’s get some beers.