A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the NICU…

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
06/04/24  9:00 AM PST
in the NICU

My son Charlie entered the world in a whirlwind of fear-induced adrenaline, panic, fetal monitor alarms and whispered conversations between specialists while I lay on the hospital bed six (but may as well have been a thousand) feet away. Thus began our twelve-week stay in the NICU.

We did not know it would be twelve weeks. The duration was dependent on Charlie’s ability to breathe on his own – something he would eventually need a tracheotomy to overcome. But in the beginning it was a lot of “wait and see.” I got very good at doing my part. I would sit by his bedside and watch the monitors, check his oxygen levels, take his temperature, change his teeny tiny diaper, and the biggie: feed him.

Feeding was tough…like, paddling in a riptide tough. I would pump at the hospital, swaddle him, lay him on his side, position my fingers just so on his cheek and under his chin, and then hold my own breath as he began to suck from the bottle. I would pray for the monitors to stay silent and his face to stay that healthy pink. The second his skin started to turn blue, then gray, like a fading sky, we were done for the day. He needed rest and to level out his oxygen. It was like lighting a candle in a thunderstorm and trying to hold your hand over it just so to keep it lit. Except it was every two hours, eight times a day.

Needless to say, I was under a bit of pressure. The sooner he could eat, the sooner we could all go home. Maybe it was the pressure that got to me that one morning at nine a.m. on I-65 as I was heading north towards the children’s hospital? Maybe it was the post-partum hormones, or the lack of sleep (I still had to get up and pump even though he was not with me)? Maybe it was the bright sunshine-y spring day with birds chirping and people laughing as they picked up coffee from Panera and chatted on the sidewalks, while I was about to enter the subterranean chill of the hospital? Maybe it was the weight of all of the above that made my foot heavy on the gas pedal that day? I was five minutes from the hospital when the motorcycle cop pulled out from the underpass with his red lights flashing.

I was crying before I rolled to a stop. These were not “crying because I got a ticket” tears. These were LIFE IS UNFAIR AND I CAN’T CATCH A BREAK! tears. He took his sweet time moseying up to my window. He did not care that I was crying. He’d seen it all before. He did not care that it was only five miles over the limit. “Rules are rules, ma’am.” But I didn’t care that he didn’t care. I pointed to the tiny cooler strapped into the seat next to me. “I am on the way to the NICU to feed my son!” I wailed. For sure it was a wail with snot threatening to bubble out of my nose. He stopped writing and flipped his little notepad to a new page. “What’s your son’s name? What hospital? Floor?” I gave him the info. He gave me a lecture on how my son would “need me to stay safe so I could be a mother to him.” As if I needed that and sent me on my way without the ticket.

When I entered the NICU wing, the nurses started clapping and I startled. It was what I would expect the red carpet to feel like, except I was in flipflops and carrying breastmilk. We’re talking full-on hooting and back-slapping and clapping. Apparently, my cop had called ahead to “check my story”. I was a woman on the loose and he needed to make sure he had let me off for good reason. These nurses were people I’d been spending my worst moments with. Charlie had been intubated and extubated and intubated again and again. They had sat with me, helped me give him his first bath, brought me crocheted baby caps. I bought a pair of Danskin clogs and found the best mocha Frappuccino in the cafeteria on their recommendation.

Something shook loose in me as they whistled and snickered. I started laughing so hard I had to brace myself with a hand on the counter. They wiped their eyes and said “oh Lordy that made my day” and passed me a tissue because now I was crying too, but the silly tears. They took my cooler of milk. They walked me to Charlie and we chuckled down the linoleum hallway. My own breath came easy for the first time in weeks. The following day I brought them donuts from my favorite bakery and we cheered my brush with the justice system.

This is a moment I will always remember with a smile. There were more. The day Charlie’s primary nurse came in with a wicked sunburn from the pool and couldn’t lift her arms over her head. The day my mom locked herself on the balcony of the butterfly garden and couldn’t get back inside the hospital. These are the little bubbles of laughter and light we need when life is the hardest. That’s the thing about life – it usually sends you a bubble or two to keep you going. You have to trust another will come when you most need it.


child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom and author.

Author of the middle-grade novels:














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