You Can Hardly Believe Its True - The First Visit to the NICU

A preemie father enters the Neonatal Ward

By William H. Woodwell, Jr.

Before the doctors left, one of them suggested I take a tour of NICU so at least one of us would know what to expect. Our nurse that day already had suggested this - she even offered to call down to the seventh floor and arrange the tour - but I had put her off. In the back of my mind, I was still hoping we had lots of time, that we'd be there a good while before we even had to think about the NICU. But now the tour sounded like a good idea.

Later in the evening while Kim slept, I took the elevator down a floor to the children's center on seven. Our nurse had called to make sure it was a good time to visit; she said to ask for Judy. I had no idea what to expect to see there. I had never thought much about premature infants before. Maybe I'd seen some pictures in a magazine once or twice, but I had no real sense of the size of these babies or how fully developed they were. Could you touch and hold them? I didn't even know.

I called into the NICU from the phone on the wall outside the door, and the receptionist buzzed it open. Judy was there to greet me within seconds. Standing behind me while I washed my hands at the scrub station and tied a blue gown around my neck and waist, Judy explained that UVA recently separated the very premature, very low-birth-weight babies from the rest of the NICU clientele - babies who are born closer to term but who have other complications, other problems. Judy said the NICU had two spaces set aside for our babies in the very low-birth-weight unit; she called it "C-Pod." She said they were waiting for word from upstairs about Kim.

Knowing that the NICU was waiting for our babies suddenly made our delivery feel more imminent, more real than before. The idea that people were planning on it, that they had two spaces already set aside, was startling. It cracked a hole in the wall of denial that I had built up over the course of the afternoon as Kim's condition improved.

It is often said that a parent's first visit to the NICU is a blur of machines, lights, and alarms. But as Judy and I rounded the corner into C-Pod, all I could focus on were the babies - tiny, fragile, alien-like beings with out-of-proportion heads and red, translucent skin hanging loose on their little bones. They were lying completely naked in their open beds, a tangle of wires, tubes, and IVs extending in all directions from their too-little bodies.

Judy invited me to stand at the bedside of one of the five or six infants in the pod. It was a boy. He was curled up tight on his elbows and knees, the red oximeter light on his foot bathing his tiny, wrinkled rear end in an otherworldly glow. Balled up like he was, I figured he was about the size of a cantaloupe, maybe smaller. Judy said he had been born at twenty-four weeks gestation and was now about two weeks old.

As we stood over his bed, Judy was talking to me - I'm sure about the technology and the care these babies get - but I wasn't really listening. My eyes filled to the brink with tears that I tried in vain to blink away. I couldn't imagine that our babies would end up like this - so vulnerable, so desperate-looking, so incomplete.

Back in our room upstairs, Kim asked about the tour. I told her the nurses all seemed like wonderful people. I said I was impressed. This was a stupid and evasive answer, of course, but I didn't want to get into any more detail. I didn't want to scare Kim with descriptions of the babies and how small they were. I didn't want to, that is, until Kim asked the question flat out.

"What do the babies look like?" she asked.
"They're small," I said.
"Like how small?" she asked.
"Real small," I said.

That was the end of the conversation. I don't think Kim wanted to pursue it further, and I knew I didn't. We'd just wait and see, I thought. Talking to my parents on the phone a little later, I finally broke down. After I told them I had taken the tour, my mom asked what the babies looked like. I took a deep breath before answering. "They're so small," I said, almost whispering, and in a second tears were streaming from my eyes. I told my parents to hold on, and I put down the phone and wiped my eyes and nose on the sleeve of my shirt like a little boy at school.

During our hospital stay and the months that followed, I learned that it is often more difficult to talk about what you're going through than simply to live it. The whole time we were in the hospital, Kim couldn't get on the phone without shaking. It was as if in committing our experience and our feelings to words, it made them real. You start telling what's happened, telling your story, and you can hardly believe it's you talking. You can hardly believe it's all true.

William H. Woodwell, Jr. is the author of "Coming to Term" a father's story of the premature birth of twins and subsequent experiences in the NICU. Copyright 2001. Excerpted with permission of the publisher Univerity Press of Mississippi from the book "Coming to Term" by William H. Woodwell, Jr.