My younger son spent a month in the NICU after arriving eight weeks early. As far as premature babies go, he had a very easy time in the NICU. Though it was difficult to leave him there at night, I was comforted knowing that it was in his best interest to be there at that time.
There was a certain culture about the NICU. Because it was so quiet in there so the babies could rest soundly, there was little interaction above a whisper. You could see how teeny tiny some of the babies were, and take a guess as to their phase of care and outlook based on how many tubes and monitors were attached to the incubator. Parents gave one another a somewhat knowing nod and half-smile as we passed by, yet without eye contact that might acknowledge the seriousness of some of their situations.
I will never forget this one couple from the NICU who had a child in what seemed to be fairly serious condition. The father always looked like he wanted to talk to someone, while the mother seemed to fear talking so much that she did not even look in another person’s direction. There was something about her. I could not place it but I could sense it. They had been in the NICU for some time when we arrived. It was about two weeks later that I ran into him in the hallway and we started to chat. He explained that their babies (twins) were born at 25 weeks, and one had died within a day. The other one was holding on, but they were still at a critical point in his care.
No wonder why there was something about them that haunted me. This was a mom who had lost her child. She was in pain and in fear. She just wanted to be left alone. He was a dad who also was in pain and in fear. He wanted to talk to anyone who would listen. Both of them broke my heart and left me quietly rooting for their surviving child.
Any chance we have to help premature babies survive is absolutely imperative. No family should ever have to go through that. So I was happy to hear that researchers at Loyola University Health System have identified a marker to identify the infants who are at risk for a life-threatening bowel infection called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).
NEC is the most common serious gastrointestinal disorder among premature babies, with a mortality rate of close to 30%. Most cases can be treated with antibiotics, but there is no known cure for NEC. Being able to detect it early with this new marker will hopefully allow for early preventive strategies which could potentially save many lives.
When it was our turn to leave the NICU, that couple’s baby had shown some signs of progress. I have thought of them often in the years since, hoping that their surviving child is thriving and has gone on to live a happy, healthy life. All premature babies should have that chance.