This is Part 4 of a four-part series. Click above for the rest of the story.
Awhile later we were able to make our way back to our room in the post-partum wing. The idea of being a dad hadn’t sunk in, and it wouldn’t for another few days. Sure, I understood it. I could speak about being that tiny human’s father. But I think the sense that I lacked any real control over what happened to my baby created a disconnect in my mind. Sure, I was Hendrik’s father in a physiological and sequential sort of way. I had even signed official government documents proclaiming responsibility over this child. But watching helplessly beyond the large glass windows in the NICU while the on-call PA set up and took X-rays of my son’s body somehow stole that sense of fatherhood from me for a short time. I was supposed to protect him. Provide for him. Keep him from harm. From danger. But instead, his hours old body was being riddled with radiation in order to determine what sort of injury he had. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go.
And I felt ultimately responsible. To this day, I still don’t know why I felt that way. In retrospect, with context and a better understanding of what happened, the logical side of my mind grasps that fact that there was absolutely nothing we could have done to predict or prevent any of it from happening. But in that moment, I cried, feeling like I had somehow already failed my son.
I bounced between feelings of absolute euphoria and being completely overwhelmed over the next couple days. The emotional toll this had taken was far greater than I originally gave it credit. The mix of adrenaline and sleep deprivation didn’t help matters, of course. Each day as we waited for clearance to bring Hendrik home, we were visited by nurses, anesthesiologists, doctors, physician’s assistants. With this being our first child, I didn’t recognize how unordinary this was.
These professionals, who do this sort of thing all day every day, just wanted to check in on us, and they all had the same reaction. That? That was scary. As one nurse put it, in her 16 years of being a labor and delivery nurse, never before had she feared they were going to lose an otherwise healthy baby. Until Hendrik. The nurse anesthetist – remember the grassy meadow and spring breeze? – commended Allison for her inspiring perseverance and wanted to meet the little “miracle”. Hendrik became well-known on the post-partum floor. This was much more of an event than I had originally realized. Our OB doc – this is the same OB doc that I envied because she got to run off to another appointment – even mentioned a few days later that she was having nightmares about it. Maybe it affected her more deeply than I thought.
It wasn’t until hearing some of these well-meaning comments that it finally sunk in. We could have been devastated. We could have been mourning a loss. We could have been making funeral arrangements.
But we weren’t. By the grace of God, we weren’t. I couldn’t help but to replay everything in my mind. I thought through my conversation with the OB doc right after Hendrik was born. I thought about how it happened. How she had to pull his arms out. How he came so fast. How time was slipping away. How agonizing it had been for Allison. And then how thoughtful and beautiful he looked in the NICU. How did he make it? Why did he make it? And what’s next?
What’s next? In hindsight, it’s a question I am glad we got to ask, as the alternative could have been much worse. We found out later that he would need to see specialists. He needed physical therapy. He needed time to heal. Hendrik, because he was born breech, suffered a variety of injuries:
- He suffered facial nerve palsy. Basically, the right side of his face drooped because there had been damage to the facial nerves, causing temporary paralysis of his muscles. Thankfully, as was explained to us in the hospital, this condition was fairly common in breech babies and they expected it would resolve completely with time.
- He would need to be checked for hip dysplasia every time he had another appointment. Again, this is a fairly common practice for breech babies, because typically breech babies spend a good bit of time in the womb feet down, which can be the cause of the dysplasia.
- He had an unknown amount of damage to his brachial plexus. We were told there were four degrees of injury possible: the nerve may be severed, stretched, bruised, or inflamed. The ramifications, depending on the level of injury, ranged from complete paralysis to a temporary restriction in range of motion. We were encouraged to see that Hendrik could move his right arm, which ruled out the possibility it was severed. But we were also warned that this sort of injury might not show its full effect until after a few weeks or months of life.
- After a few weeks, we noticed a large mass forming in his neck brought on by his traumatic birth, something called fibromatosis colli. This condition required months of physical therapy as it caused torticollis (basically, his neck muscle became incredibly inflamed and caused his head to tilt to one side).
The fact that he was even alive was unbelievable enough. But the nerves in his face healed within a couple of months, as predicted. We were able to rule out hip dysplasia based on an ultrasound during his sixth week of life. The next two injuries required a good bit of physical therapy and multiple trips to the Special Infant Care Clinic, but ultimately, the brachial plexus injury and the torticollis caused by the fibromatosis colli fully resolved.
I don’t know how he made it through such a traumatic birth while being able to avoid long-term injury. I don’t know how he was so calm in the NICU. I don’t know how he managed nine intense months of physical therapy, which started when he was two weeks old. What I do know is this: as I am writing this almost 21 months later, he’s in his crib crying, probably because he threw his blanky out and he can’t reach it through the slats. I’m going to go upstairs to get him up from his nap, and when I open the door, he’ll run back in forth in his crib in excitement, he’ll smile a great big smile, he’ll clap his hands gleefully, and finally will reach out (with both arms) for me to pick him up.
I get to do that because of the miracle of birth. ♦