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My Turn: A sweet boy, breathing easier now

Clare Lowell hugs Ryan, who had a medical

Clare Lowell hugs Ryan, who had a medical crisis shortly after birth. Now, four years later, he is a happy, healthy boy. Credit: Lawrence Etri

When my daughters were born, a restful stay in the antiseptically acceptable realm of my hospital's maternity ward was something I actually looked forward to. All I had to do was buy a new nightgown, clean myself up enough to be presentable for visitors and fill out prepackaged birth announcements between feedings. Knowing that my sleep would be punctuated with middle-of-the-night mealtimes for the foreseeable future, I even opted to have my babies fed in the nursery for the 2 a.m. shift.

Decades later, I became a grandma. Next to the days his mom and aunt were born, my little Ryan's birth day should have been the happiest time of my life. Instead, it was one of the most harrowing. I was sitting alone in the waiting area down the hall from the birthing room when my son-in-law came to tell me that Ryan had made his entrance, and all was well.

By the time I got to the room, the doctor was just leaving. I went over to the warmer and gazed at my new 6-pound, 8-ounce grandson, who had come into the world three weeks before his due date (the result of some unexpected complications during the last month of my daughter's pregnancy). He looked beautiful. Dark hair, blue eyes like his mom's and an adorable, dimpled smile just like his dad's. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the neonatal nurse run after the doctor before he left the room. Hushed words were exchanged. He returned to the warmer, re-examined Ryan, spoke to the nurse again and then turned to face the new parents, who had been blissfully unaware of this unfolding drama.

"It appears that his breathing seems impaired," he said matter-of-factly, a forced smile on his face, "so we're going to bring him down to NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] to check him out." A troubled silence instantly shrouded the room that, seconds earlier, had been filled with laughter and lunch orders.

Thus began a six-day, anxiety-ridden odyssey through the neonatal world of isolettes, incubators and medical updates from which we optimistically extracted any news of noticeable improvement. Our little guy had suffered a partially collapsed right lung at birth, followed by an equally partially collapsed left lung the day after. The NICU was a quietly efficient environment where every incubator was draped with a colorful baby blanket that shielded its young inhabitant from the harsh realities of a too-bright, unforgiving world. Collectively, they resembled a roomful of silent, cloistered parakeets, huddled in their artificial nests, conferring mute testimony to the powers of human intervention.

By NICU standards, our little boy was a giant. Even though his head had been swaddled to accommodate the oxygen tubes that were taped to his barely visible nose, I had never seen a more beautiful child. His sweetness was peculiarly palpable.

"He smells like cookies," I told my daughter as I leaned in to stroke his tethered arm.

"That's the sugar water they give him," she answered. She caressed his head and I could see the tears welling in her eyes as she gazed at him. "It's like having a new puppy that you can't play with yet," she said, trying to make light of this terrifying situation. I looked up at the beeping-and-gurgling technology that sustained these pocket-size bundles, nestled in their artificial wombs, and thought back to my own birth experiences.

How different all this was. For one thing, there was no public baby-viewing in this hospital. The blinds to the nursery were permanently shut. "What's that about?" I asked, annoyed that I couldn't check out the competition.

"Hospital privacy laws," my daughter explained.

"Humph!" I complained. "What fun is that?"

No nursery, no new mommies hobbling down the halls with beaming hubbies and over-the-top grandparents in tow. No party atmosphere -- only birthing rooms, private spaces and closed doors.

But I'd trade in all the balloons and ballyhoo for the comfort of knowing that, once the covers came off those incubators and those little parakeets woke up, their song would fill the world with magnificent joy. Which is exactly what our little guy did -- and continues to do, healthily and happily -- four years after that very astute nurse saved him. Now that's one baby story whose ending always makes me cry.

-- Clare Lowell, Huntington

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