Sometimes I am suddenly struck by the contrast between Nathan now, and that tiny baby Nathan in the incubator 3 and a half years ago. It comes unexpectedly, a flashback, built on a detail hardly recollected until it is triggered by something. They say that the sense of smell is closely associated with memory, and its true that some smells evoke that NICU time – the hospital handwash, a certain antiseptic, the shower gel I was using at the time, the fabric softener the hospital used on his blankets. I know this and am prepared for it. I don’t use that shower gel any more. I steel myself for the memory rush before using handwash in any hospital. It is the things you’re not expecting that take your breath away.
What surprised me last week was a sound. I was at school, at Nathan’s school, collecting him at lunch time from his nursery class. At drop off in the morning the gates are open and I walk right up to his classroom. At lunchtime they are shut, and I have to press the buzzer to get in via the school office. Buzzzzzzz. A pause. Then “Ding. The door is open. Please close the door behind you”. And I was back there, standing outside the NICU doors in the first few weeks of his life. Coming out of the room we slept in, waiting for someone to let me in, for someone to allow me to see my own baby. Just woken up or just returned from a meal, sauntering back or rushing. Either way, I am standing there with butterflies in my tummy because this pause whilst I wait for a nurse to let me in allows time to think. And thinking lets me worry, lets me imagine the worse or perhaps face the likely. Buzzzzzzz. A pause. How is he? Is he OK? Could this be the time when I go through that door to find he is worse, he is sickening, he is surrounded by doctors or that he is slipping away from me, that they are very sorry but there is no more they can do. And then “Ding. The door is open. Please close the door behind you”. A surge of adrenaline. Pulling the door open, taking quick steps towards the sink to sanitise my hands as I try to glimpse a 2lb baby across a busy room to make sure this time things are OK. Quickly drying hands and throwing the paper towels towards the bin as I rush towards the monitor to check his sats, his BP, his heart rate. Breathing a sigh of relief as I allow myself to relax, knowing that this is not that hour, this is not the crisis, for now there is calm.
And then back to reality, back to the present. This time I am pulling open a very different door. Negotiating a pram through it, a pram containing a healthy 6 month old full term baby. A pram with a buggy board on the back, ready to receive a tired toddler. Wheeling past children’s drawings, past friendly notice boards, past a library of colourful books stacked in waist high shelves. This time the worst that could happen is to arrive and find Nathan has refused to eat any lunch, or that he’s fallen out with a friend. This time the NICU memory feels fabulous, for once I am happy and amazed to remember that tiny sick baby who nearly didn’t make it, because that tiny sick baby came through it all, defied the odds and grew into a rough and tumble happy little boy who is getting on great at big boy school. I am so proud of him.
I think its a sign of post traumatic stress disorder – when you get vivid flashbacks of events, flashbacks that intrude on your life here and now. I don’t think I have PTSD, but I do think that few people going through the NICU rollercoaster come out the other side unscathed. I find now that I can cope with the everyday reminders. Watching One Born Every Minute, or seeing a baby with a feeding tube, those things don’t throw me anymore. But that door buzzer got past my defences. I was not braced against the sudden onslaught of memory. Even years later the experiences of that NICU are still fresh, and still come to the surface at unexpected times.
The comforting thing is this; the more time passes, the less those memories hurt and the more they inspire pride in my amazing son. I would not wish those experiences on my worst enemy, but I would not be the mother I am today without them. From now on I will enjoy pressing that buzzer. Nathan, the door is open, your future is ahead of you.