I know the story only in the retelling.
In the predawn hours of an early fall day, the chill in the air was both outside and inside the walls of that stark, barren hospital. The medical team had been assembled unexpectedly. This wasn’t part of the plan. I had let my mom know that I was making my way into the world eleven weeks early, and my dad was so caught off guard when she woke him up to tell him that he thought it had to be a false alarm.
In the delivery room, I made my presence known with a cry that shook every ounce of my barely three-pound body. Because my lungs had not developed enough for me to breathe on my own, I was quickly placed in an incubator and given supplemental oxygen. I was given medical tests and monitors, and I stayed in the ICU for the next several weeks.
What I wasn’t given was affection.
Apparently, the environment was sterile in a myriad of ways. My parents tell me that I was in a room with other preemie babies throughout that time, and they were allowed to look at me through a window for exactly fifteen minutes per day. At 7 p.m. every evening, they would stand on the other side of the window, and nurses would raise the blinds for them to look in. At exactly 7:15, the blinds were lowered until they came back the next day. They weren’t allowed to be alone with me, cuddle with me or touch me in any way. If any of the preemie babies on the unit were not doing well at that time in an evening, the blinds stayed down with no explanation. Mom and dad were told to go home. For the first six weeks of my life, it was hit or miss whether I would see my parents, and the only touch I ever received was only for medical purposes.
As I consider that reality, I have often wondered if those circumstances had a lasting effect on who I am today. Bouts of depression affect me routinely and I struggle intensely at times with overwhelming fears of abandonment. Can those issues be connected to my environment in the weeks following my birth? It is something I will probably never know for sure, but the thought niggles restlessly in my mind with a frequency that says it’s simply not settled.
On October 17th, 1995, little twin sisters were born at the Medical Center of Central Massachusetts in Worcester. Brielle and Kyrie Jackson were about twelve weeks premature and weighed about two pounds each. Looking similar to tiny antique dolls, they were just about as fragile. When they were born doctors told their parents they were stable at the time, but things could turn at any moment, and they did. On November 12th, when the girls were about three weeks old, Brielle started to decline. Her skin turned a bluish gray and she was gasping for air. Her heart rate soared as all conventional treatments were tried. They weren’t working. Nurse Gayle Kasparian had an unconventional idea. With their parent’s permission, she placed Kyrie in bed with her sister.
That is when it happened, one of the most amazing moments that changed the practice of medicine.
Kyrie stuck her arm out and put it around her sister’s shoulders. Immediately Brielle’s heart rate and body temperature began to stabilize. A news photographer who happened to be at the hospital that day snapped a picture, which eventually was published in both Life and Reader’s Digest magazines. Both twins left the hospital healthy several weeks later, and their story became known in medicine as the rescuing hug.
The power of little Kyrie’s touch actually saved her sister’s life.
In the years since the significance of that event was not lost on the medical profession. While babies used to be kept apart because of the potential risk of infection, these days placing premature multiples in the same incubator (called co-bedding) is now a common practice in this country. This technique simulates the environment in the mother’s womb and has the benefits of comfort and security for babies, especially if their health is unstable. Skin to skin contact between a mother and her child, (known as kangaroo care) has also been proven to radically improve an ailing baby’s condition.
Unlike in years past, parents of preemies nowadays are encouraged to spend much time in the NICU with their babies. Even if they can’t be held, contemporary incubators often have built in gloves, so parents can lovingly caress their babies while they receive the care they need. In fact, it seems like the environment for premature babies today is pretty much the polar opposite of what it was when I was born. It is the parents who spend most of the time with their children, and medical staff comes by in fifteen-minute increments to do what they need to do.
I cannot express how much hope it gives me to know that the needs of premature babies today are seen with a drastically different perspective than they were when I was an infant. I have to say that I think today’s practices are infinitely better than the ones that were used years ago.
Or maybe just a touch.