Having a NICU Baby Is It's Own Trauma

Elizabeth Wieland is a stay-at-home mom and part-time preschool teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. Seven years ago, Elizabeth and her husband Jon endured one of life’s most unexpected and painful journeys: a pregnancy loss of one of their twins and a nearly four month stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) with their surviving son Jacob. Even though Jacob’s birth was a bright spot, memories of their time in the NICU still haunt them. This is their story, as told to Rachel Wells.

When my husband and I found out we were pregnant with twins, we were thrilled. We had been through two healthy pregnancies already—we knew the drill. But one day, while standing at the kitchen table working on a project with one of my boys, I felt something strange, almost like a pop, or a tiny gush, in my abdomen. Something was wrong.

My husband and I went to the hospital but they sent us home telling us not to worry—everything looked fine for my 16-week pregnancy. We had no idea until the 20-week ultrasound a few weeks later that the pop I’d felt was my water breaking for one of the twins. I was immediately put on bed rest and given a list of homework: check my temperature a few times a day, check for infection, drink a ton of fluids. With two kids already at home, it was a big ask but we were managing. But after four weeks of being on bedrest, the unthinkable happened: I started bleeding.

After initially rushing to the hospital only to be sent home with another non-diagnosis, we ultimately learned that Twin A had “demised.” I was shattered, the clinical terminology further splintering my heart.

Baby A hadn’t demised—my son had died.

Still in shock, we were sent home from the hospital but that evening, the bleeding returned, so we rushed back, terrified about the safety of the second fetus in my womb. I was admitted me to the hospital for closer monitoring, unsure how many of the remaining 24 weeks of my pregnancy I’d spend in a hospital bed. Every night when the nurses came to check on me, they would say, “Okay, stay pregnant.” Yeah, I’m trying here, I thought.

Still in the hospital, still on bedrest and now 23-weeks pregnant, I was feeling sick all the time. There were no signs of contractions, so my nurses believed my pain was just indigestion. But one night, after hobbling to the bathroom, I realized something much more serious was happening. After frantically buzzing my nurse, I learned my body was beginning to deliver the fetus of the demised twin. My son, the baby we’d already named Joel, was being born.

Throughout the night, the next day, and the following evening, I experienced contractions until baby Joel was delivered stillborn. I chose not to hold his body. It’s one of the biggest regrets of my life but at the time, it felt like the only way to hold onto my quickly eroding sanity. I needed every ounce of strength I could muster for Twin B, our son Jacob, who was still growing inside me.

For a few precious days, everything was calm. Then, Jacob’s water broke and at 23-weeks—just past the point of viability—my husband and I decided with our doctor it was time to have a C-section. I thought we were past the worst part, but as soon as our son Jacob was born, he was taken to the NICU—it would be his home for the next 115 days and entirely new type of trauma for me.

The NICU never leaves you. As soon as you walk through the automatic doors, the smell of disinfectant and loss works its way into your skin, imprinting itself in your memory.

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