I can see the lights overhead as we race down the corridor, and the doctors are calling out instructions. I can hear them tell Jason to follow them, and I can hear the panic in his voice in reply, and I realize he’s been running beside me the whole time.
Suddenly we’re in the elevator and then we’re not, and now they’re telling me to get off the bed and onto the table, but the intense pressure in my stomach makes it difficult. And then I’m on the table, and they’re strapping me down, and someone is pushing really, really hard on my belly, pushing it up and down, left and right, and I grunt and moan, and I honestly don’t know what they’re doing or why. There’s a man to the right of my head and a woman to my left, and they’re fitting my face with an oxygen mask, but it’s covering my mouth and I can’t breathe. Everyone is talking over each other, and I find myself focusing on the woman to my left. She has a soft, New Zealand accent, and it’s comforting in the chaos. She’s authoritative but calm, and I hear her say, “Let’s get her to sleep before we do that.” I wonder what “that” is, but I want to tell everyone I agree because I hurt, and the faster I’m asleep, the faster Ben is here.
A young male doctor that I had spoken with before all of this madness appears very close to my face, looking about 4 feet tall and 12 years old. He’s explaining to me that I’m about to have surgery and probably a blood transfusion and asking me to nod if I agree or shake my head if I don’t, and I nod and nod and nod, and suddenly everyone seems to focus and the room quiets, and the 12-year-old-looking doctor who could be my son’s age addresses me once more, “Jessalee, do you have any questions?”
“No!” I say, “But please! Don’t let me die!”
I’m awake long enough to hear him say confidently, “We won’t! You’re going to be okay.” And then I’m counting back, “Five, four…” and then it’s darkness.
I wake up once in the operating room. The woman from New Zealand is telling someone to turn out the lights, and the room is dark. And then I’m in darkness again as well.
When I wake again I’m in a brightly lit room with a beeping machine somewhere nearby, and I can’t speak or move. A nurse leans into my field of vision and asks, “Did you have make-up on before you went into surgery?” I nod, and he laughs, not unkindly, and tells me I look nice. I hear Jason say something to him in reply, and I’m in darkness again.
Awake again, and this time Jason is standing to my right, and he’s holding my hand, and the look of relief on his face is clear. “You scared us!” he says, and he tells me I’m okay and he tells me that Ben is okay, perfect — but in the NICU for some testing. He tells me this for the first time, but I already know this. I know that Ben is perfectly healthy and okay. Do I remember what happened? Yes. He tells me the machine is breathing for me, and that’s why I can’t talk, and my wrists are tethered to keep from pulling on the tube. He laughs and tells me the nurse thought my long, mascaraed lashes had been drawn on to the tape that had covered my eyes.
I can feel the IV in my right arm, and it’s aching and burning. I try to sign to Jason that it hurts, but he doesn’t understand. I sign the letter I and the letter V, and I point with my restrained left hand.
“Is it your leg?” And I shake my head and point up further.
“Is it your shoulder?” And I shake my head, getting frustrated, and point downward.
“Is it your wrist?” And I shake my head again. He doesn’t know the alphabet in sign language, and I wish my oldest son or mom or grandmother were there because they all would know.
I try to ask what day it is. How long have I been out? I have no idea how many days I’ve been asleep, and Jason doesn’t understand. I fall asleep, exhausted.
I wake up again and the room is full of strangers. Doctors in white coats. They’re all smiling at me. It’s Wednesday, and I’ve been sedated for a full day.
They explain what happened, and I learn I had a hysterectomy, which I expected. My uterus ruptured and filled with blood, which explains the pain. Ben was born almost immediately after I was put under — minutes after passing out. He was deprived of oxygen, literally floating in my blood. My incision is… big. They were shocked to find all of the blood when they started the surgery, and they thought perhaps my liver had ruptured due to my hypertension, so they cut up further, up and around my belly button forming a question mark to get a better look. When they saw that my liver was fine, they went southward down to my old c-section scar along my bikini line where they found the problem. The placenta had penetrated my uterus and was actually touching my bladder. Not placenta accreta… placenta percreta… the very worst degree of this problem to have. The most dangerous. The most potentially fatal.
I lost a lot of blood. The doctor tells me I received enough blood product for two people — 25 units during surgery. I am lucky to be alive. All I can do is nod my thanks to the room full of doctors as they leave — the miracle workers responsible for saving mine and my baby’s life. Thank God I was here, I think, and each person that visits me in the ICU tells me the same. Thank God.
Our sweet miracle, Benjamin Robert, is, as far as all the tests can see, absolutely perfect. I catch my first glimpse of him through blurry eyes on Jason’s phone. I think his hair is red, and I can see his cheeks are phenomenally epic. In another picture his head is wrapped, mummified, while he gets an EEG. He’s lying on a bed, unswaddled and naked, and I learn that it’s a cooling bed to help with any possible side effects from his traumatic birth. Just hours old, and this poor sweet baby has been rudely thrust into this world without a cuddle or a blanket.
“He looks like you!” everyone says, smiling, and it’s fitting. My family visits, and my mom is there, and my grandma is there, and then my brother is there. I try to laugh, which makes me cough and gag on my tube, because he’s not supposed to be there, but he is, and last night while I was sedated I had apparently sit up in bed when I heard his voice in my room. My niece and nephews look at me with worried eyes, and I sign I love you to them. My brother looks tired, and I absentmindedly wonder why. I hear him ask the nurse, almost accusingly, why I’m no longer sedated when I was supposed to be out for four days. I can hear the shrug in his voice when he answers that I simply refused to stay under, and they couldn’t safely give me any more drugs to keep me that way, so here I am awake.
The tube in my throat is by far one of the most difficult things for me to deal with. Moving is hard and I am given a steady stream of medication. They rotate me every four hours, and that is painful, scary. I am swollen everywhere and bruised everywhere.
And my kids… they’re all in the waiting room, and I want to see them. We haven’t laid eyes on each other since before I passed out.
I motion for Jason to hand me my phone, and I carefully type out that they can come in if they want. They’re warned though that I’m very puffy and bruised, intubated and tired. They come in quietly, one at a time. They hug me. I sign that I love them. Thank God, I think to myself, and I give a silent prayer of thanks that I can see their sweet faces. They hug the nearest adult, trying to be brave with their tears, each of them. And then Nick comes in, the youngest… second youngest now. He looks at me and then looks away, freely crying. Scared. I type that it’s okay, to not be afraid. I tell him he can go back out and play, and he nods, refusing to look at me.
My family cycles in and out. My mother-in-law and brother-in-law drive down from Seattle. The constants are my brother and my husband, each watching over me, not expecting me to talk. My mom and grandma distract the kids in the waiting room that they’ve taken over. My sister-in-law takes turns with my mom visiting Ben often, holding him when they can. I’m grateful. I rest. I wish and pray hard for the tube to be out of my throat because I keep gagging on it, choking, sputtering, each episode pulling at my insides on out to the deep scar that runs up and down my belly. My mom, Jason, they each tell the nurse how terrible it is for me to be intubated because my gag reflex is so strong. They give me medication to get some of the fluids off of my body and out of my lungs, trying to get me to the point where they can extubate, but it takes time. The respiratory therapist comes in and tests, and shakes his head, and silent, hot tears of frustration fall down my face. My nurse wipes them, tells me he’s sorry.
I see more pictures of my baby. Beautiful, big, round cheeks, reddish-blonde hair, sweet baby rolls. Healthy and breathing on his own from the get-go, even though he’s almost a month early. A miracle. Everyone that can visit him does. They ask if they can hold him, feeling guilty, but I welcome it, grateful that everyone is there to love him, hold him, welcome him to our family, celebrating his miracle of a birth.
When they decide to take the chance and extubate me, I’m a thousand times better. If I could walk, I’d dance! Getting it out is really uncomfortable, but it’s a means to an end, and out the tube comes with a loud whoosh on my exhale. My voice is small, but my lungs are breathing the air on their own. Nurses from the neighboring rooms and down the hall come to see what the sound was, laughing. “Someone just got extubated!” I hear them say in explanation. I’m giddy.
I need two more units of blood transfusions making it 27 total now. I sleep while the blood drips into my veins. I’m worn and weak, but the transfusions renew me, and I find the strength to sit up, and after that I work on standing up, and then sitting in a chair, and then a wheelchair.
When Ben is three days old I’m strong enough to go see him in the NICU. Jason wheels me through the halls of a hospital that are now a familiar home to him but are an unfamiliar maze to me. He weaves me in and out of the massive NICU, and we pass tiny babies with paper-thin skin on monitors, wired and hooked up to the devices that surround them, barely making any noises. And then we’re finally at my plump little Ben, the healthiest among these tiny, premature babies. Jason takes me straight up to his bed, and I murmur my first impressions to Jason, Ben turning to my voice, and I cry through my perma-smile. Then I’m holding my sweet, brave baby in my arms, and he’s familiar and pink, with his long lashes lying against his skin just like I remember. I breathe him in, and we’ve been here before, together. He looks at me in recognition, his newborn face content and serene.
“You’re finally here!” I whisper in his ear, and my breath tickles his neck, his dark blue, wise eyes taking me in.
We visit with one another every couple of hours. Sitting in the wheelchair for any length of time is uncomfortable, so our visits are short and frequent.
On Saturday, I improve enough that there is the possibility to go home. They ask me if I want to stay because that’s reason enough to keep me after such a traumatic event, but I want to be home, even though the drive is long and daunting. I want to be with Ben having been unable to room in with him due to a lack of rooms available in the Mother-Baby Unit. The huge team of doctors that saved our lives come in at varying times to visit me, check my progress, tell me how grateful they are that I was there. This one delivered Ben, that one did the surgery, the other one stitched me up, another one came in from another surgery to run the whole thing. They come in and see my progress, looking surprised. Satisfied. Pleased with themselves. Their faces tell me what I already know — a little bit of luck and a whole lot of divine providence have been on my side.
Back home, and my hometown doctors are shocked. My specialist doctor calls me, and I’m surprised to hear from him. My doctors in Portland had updated him on the outcome, and he tells me what they did not, that it was really, really close during that surgery. My regular OB tells me I have a friend in Jesus. Yes, I most definitely do, I tell him when he hugs me.
I heal quickly and well, with the exception of a seroma that developed that is common in surgeries like mine. I hate it, and three times a day Jason helps me stuff 4 feet of thin gauze into a fingertip-sized hole that runs up and deep into my belly to help it heal, and I cry each time we have to do it for the first two months. Finally on the third month it closes, leaving a deep scar in its place. The perfect end to the question mark scar. A lifelong trophy.
Ben is remarkable. Thriving. His cheeks just get chubbier with each day. He’s healthy, and all signs point to his development being right on track. Happy. Despite our rocky start, he’s the most calm with me. So much for failing to bond. He sleeps through the night at two months. Gains the weight he lost in the NICU. Smiles quickly at everyone.
For a reason unknown to us, we have been blessed to raise and know this amazing person, blessed with this experience that started three years ago. I’m blessed to still be here to experience it all — the sleepless nights, the teething, the first smiles, first teeth — so many firsts — and I am so grateful for the tender mercies and miracles that have brought us here.
I find I’m more patient as a mother of advanced maternal age. Ben has brought us all together, bonded us. I laugh easier. Cry easier. Feel deeper. Love more fully. His brothers and sister adore him, worship him, delight in everything he does. Jason dotes on him. Grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends all vie for his attention, everyone (im)patiently waiting their turns to hold him when we’re all together.
Benjamin Robert, the baby in my dreams has, quite simply, completed us all.