Harrison’s birth story – Navigating early labor, delivery, & our NICU experience
My husband and I found out I was pregnant on the same day we found out we got our house. We had recently gotten married and decided to ‘settle down’ and move to Charleston, after living out of suitcases for four years. Receiving the call from our realtor that our offer was accepted, just hours after celebrating a positive pregnancy test together, it was hard not to feel like all of the stars were aligning. Perfect wedding? Done and done! Perfect honeymoon? Yep! A dream! Perfect house? Found! Starting a family? You bet! Baby on board! Everything was coming together, after a lot of hard work (and a very stressful pandemic), and we couldn’t wait to make our house a home and lay down some roots in a city we love as a family of three. Nest, as they say.
Pregnancy for me was honestly pretty wonderful. Healthy, beautiful, and I cherished every little hiccup and kick. Now, don’t get me wrong, my nine months of pregnancy were far from perfect. The first trimester, I felt awful, so sick, so tired, and SO lazy. I’m typically a very productive person, the type of person who thrives on being busy all the time, whose plate is ALWAYS overflowing, or else I don’t know what to do with myself, which made my relentless tiredness from pregnancy even worse. There were more than a few days I couldn’t get out of bed. I hated feeling tired all the time, and I missed being able to drink wine. But, all in all, I was grateful for a healthy pregnancy, and felt that in second and third trimester like my body was actually thriving. My skin glowed, my hair and nails were at the longest they’ve ever been, baby was healthy and I just felt GOOD. The excitement was palpable. We were going to have a baby!!!
We didn’t know if it was going to be a boy or a girl, since we decided we wanted it to be a surprise (which our friends thought we were absolutely crazy for), but that only added to our excitement as we got closer and closer to the big due date. All of my baby showers were gender-neutral, we chose a gender-neutral nursery theme, and we referred to the baby as our little ‘coconut’, instead of baby boy or baby girl. We traveled on some incredible babymoons, and spent our spring soaking up this exciting chapter of life.
My due date was June 20, 2022. I always felt good about that date. I’m pretty superstitious and I love the number 2. And there were so many 2’s!!! 22 especially has always been my lucky number, and my number for every sport I ever played, so I was convinced baby would probably come on the 22nd, in 2022, which would be such a cool birthday, 6/22/22. I was also so excited our sweet little coconut was going to be a June baby, since my husband Kenny is also a June baby, which hopefully meant the baby would be just as cool as their dad.
As first trimester turned to second trimester turned to third trimester, I started to wonder if baby was ever going to come out. He just felt SO cozy in there. Everything felt good, and I wasn’t even uncomfortable. (Lucky, I know!). I was carrying small, (though he was measuring large throughout the pregnancy, and I had gained 32 lbs), and while people thought it was a compliment to say “you don’t even look pregnant!” I was definitely self-conscious about carrying small – I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t nourishing this baby to his absolute fullest!!!! But my doctor kept assuring me was just my body type and uterus. Anyways, since he was niiiice and cozy in there, and I barely looked like I was past second trimester, I thought I was going to go to 40 weeks, easily, and likely more if we didn’t induce. I had no doubt this bun wanted to keepppp on cookin.
But, when I went in for my routine pregnancy check up at 36 weeks, my doctor informed me that my blood pressure had shot up a bit. 137/96. I assured her this has happened to me before at the doctor’s office, sometimes from coffee, excitement, white-coat-syndrome. But she was concerned. However, it wasn’t SO high that it was an emergency… yet. Since I wasn’t yet full-term, they took a bunch of tests that day and did a comprehensive metabolic panel due to my elevated blood pressure. They did a urine test to make sure there was no protein in my urine, which could indicate pre-eclampsia, and would be an emergent situation. All those tests came back negative, so they said we will wait another week. Get this baby to full term. And then see if my blood pressure falls again. I felt good, like everything was fine, since I felt so fine, and he (and I) felt so comfortable!! I wasn’t even worried.
So, that weekend, Kenny left town for one night (!!!!) for a wedding in Memphis, then joined me for a wedding in Charleston for a best friend of mine, and we all joked that I was going to dance myself into labor. His friends gave him grief for not staying longer in Memphis, “What is she going to do, go into labor a month early, haha?!” and now, looking back, I don’t know what we were all thinking!! Naive, to say the least! We just all felt like labor could not have been further away. I had friends stay with me that weekend when Kenny was gone and we joked they might have to take me to the hospital if spontaneous labor occurred. We weren’t scared, we were giddy! Having fun. And I felt like baby was VERY far from making his big debut.
Not only that, but we were far from prepared. The nursery wasn’t ready. The house wasn’t ready. We hadn’t read any of the books. We weren’t even close to feeling ready for a baby. But, the baby prep was all the least of our stresses. Work was. Kenny and I own our own businesses (Kenny Flowers and Jetset Christina) and we had a lot of work to do. I planned on taking maternity leave, which is no easy feat when you own your own business, and are a workaholic like Kenny and I can be at times, but we wanted to be able to sign off and go full-focus-mode on the baby. Kenny, for a few weeks, and me, for a few months. But we relied on those last few weeks before the due date to get to that point where we could sign off and trust our teams enough to step up and take the lead when we were out. We needed to feel like our work was in a good place in order to take time off!
Also, outside of work, I had the longest to-do lists of lofty things I hoped to accomplish before the baby was born. The to-do list just seemed to grow and grow and grow throughout pregnancy, even as I was hacking away at it every day. But how was it that I had so much left to do!?!?
Wednesday, June 1st rolled around and it was my one-week-later appointment with my doctor to monitor my blood pressure again. I was 37 weeks and 3 days. This time, it was 160/100 at first read. It went down to 143/100 on a second test. But, either way, my doctor at this point was very concerned.
The problem with spontaneous Gestational Hypertension, or high blood pressure in pregnancy, is that it puts the mother, and baby, in danger. If untreated, gestational hypertension may cause dangerous seizures (eclampsia) and even death in both the mother and baby. Because of this risk, it is usually necessary for the baby to be delivered early, often before 37 weeks (full-term). Since I was 37 weeks and 3 days, the doctors assured me that the risk of dangers to myself and the baby far outweighed the risks of inducing, and I really didn’t have a choice. Had I not induced early, we truly don’t have any way to know what could have happened to the baby or to me.
However, my maternal instinct was strong. I felt sick at the idea of inducing early, and I just knew he wasn’t ready yet. He didn’t feel any more finished than my to-do list. But who was I to argue with science, doctors, and very valid risk assessments. So I agreed to induce.
It was about 5pm when we left the doctor’s office. I didn’t feel scared. More… excited? Definitely in shock. I did not expect that I was going to meet MY BABY soon!!!!! But now that I was, I was excited! Since it wasn’t emergent, my doctor told us we did have *some* time, and could head home to grab our things before heading to the hospital and starting the induction process later that night. We made one pit stop (with her permission!). Everything I read said that before going to the hospital, you want to make sure you eat a good meal, since they don’t let you eat once you’re there, and the last thing you want is to go into labor hungry (that’s like running a marathon without any food or energy in your bodyl!). Well, we happened to have a VERY hard-to-get Wednesday night date night reservation booked at one of my favorite restaurants in Charleston, Maison, who does burger nights every Wednesday, so naturally we had to stop there on the way, right? OF COURSE!
We got in that one last (iconic) date night in to feed the baby, and fuel up mama for labor, and we made sure to let them know we were in a bit of a rush. We ate quickly and ordered our dessert to-go (which they tried to say no to because chocolate mousse ‘wouldn’t taste the same’ in a to-go box, but I assured them it would have to be to-go this time since I was on my way to the hospital to give birth!!) Then we grabbed our hospital bag (which, no, was not fully packed yet), and headed to the best hospital in the Charleston area, MUSC, where I decided I was giving birth a long time ago after moving to Charleston because I wanted Harrison to be born in Charleston, and have Charleston forever on his birth certificate, versus the suburbs or another town nearby. It also happened to be the best hospital in the state. Luckily.
We arrived to the hospital and, not surprisingly, I was 0cm dilated. My body was definitely more focused on tasting that delicious Maison burger than giving birth. So they began the inducing process. I was told it takes a while to kick in, which is why sometimes being induced at night can be good because you’ll actually get sleep before giving birth, if you can sleep through some contractions. Contractions started for me overnight but I felt really comfortable and even had a pretty good night’s sleep! (Little did I know that would be my best sleep for a year, LOL). In the morning, they gave me Cytotec, which is part of the induction process, and then a cook catheter (this was pretty painful, and later pitocin, which kicked the *painful* contractions up a BIG notch).
Kenny had flowers delivered to the hospital for the labor & delivery room. They were beautiful. He asked that they come with a balloon and the flower shop put an “it’s a girl!” balloon with them! We looked at each other like, ‘huh?’ do they know something we don’t know!!?! It was funny.
Between that and my doctor accidentally referring to the baby as ‘she’ once (which she swore was an accident) we both were wondering if these were universe signs that this baby was going to be a girl. And yet, despite these ‘signs’, we both had a feeling he was a boy. I had known ever since seeing his face for the first time on the ultrasound. Even though you could argue many babies look like boys, he just looked like such a boy to me. From the second I saw him, I knew. For Kenny, it wasn’t until he said he was looking out over Charleston Harbor on the patio deck of the hospital cafe the day I was in labor, when he said both of the full names we had picked out to himself. The first, our girl name, which I won’t give away, and the second, Harrison West Haisfield, our boy name. As he said that name, our boy name, it brought him to tears. That’s when he knew.
My water broke at noon, spontaneously, and this is when labor started to get very intense. Read: BEYOND ANY LEVEL OF PAIN I COULD HAVE EVER IMAGINED. I decided early on in my pregnancy that I was going to go as long as I could without an epidural. Not because I was against epidurals, but just because I wasn’t sure I’d need one, and wanted to try and experience labor and birth as naturally as possible. I also wanted to be able to move around if I needed to in order to get this baby out! I didn’t like the idea of being paralyzed and not able to move around. Little did I know that inducing makes the contractions THAT much more intense, and wow. Labor was insane. But Kenny and I were in it together! My contractions were every minute or so for 5 painful hours of no medicine or pain relief. Every time one would come on, Kenny would help me get into a somewhat comfortable position (usually leaning over the bed standing, with Kenny grabbing my hips and pressing SO hard on them in a way the midwife showed us, which was SO HELPFUL, or kneeling on the bed, and doing the same thing to my hips and putting pressure on them, the ball was not working for me, it was only those two positions, and LOTS of hip pressure that worked, at least enough until the next contraction came along.) Kenny was sweating like crazy, and felt like he was running a marathon, but he was all in, and didn’t complain once. Is it weird to say I was having fun? I was in soooooo much pain, but it was such an adventure. We both were just in this daze of intense labor and nothing else in the world mattered but getting this baby out. Well, that and me not ripping Kenny’s hair out from the pain. After five intense hours of the worst contractions I could have ever imagined, the nurse came in to check on me…. I was feeling confident, I HAD to be dilated 10cm by now, right? It had to be time!!! I sure FELT LIKE I WAS. And I had done it without an epidural thus far, but the pain was so intense and so often I wasn’t sure i could take one single more contraction. The intensity of the contractions were starting to make me feel like I was going to pass out. Which is when she told me I was…. four centimeters dilated.
Are you kidding me. She also let me know it looked like it would probably be 6 to 8 more hours of active labor and intense contractions before baby made their appearance. The idea of 8 more hours of this was enough to send me begging to the anesthesiologist for an epidural. Now.
Once that decision was made, it felt like AGES before the anesthesiologist was there with it ready, but I was so grateful. I couldn’t imagine one more contraction without any pain relief. It was so beyond any pain I could have ever imagined, but I was still proud of myself for how long I had made it without the epidural, and I was proud of myself for realizing when I needed a little help in the process, too! The epidural went in my spine which felt like nothing and then, oh…. my….. goodness. Sweet relief.
I was in heaven. Floating on clouds. What WAS this beautiful feeling? Why had I waited so long!? Wow. Epidurals are magical.
I was still really happy I had done both unmedicated and medicated. Mainly because, having seen the other side, I could APPRECIATE the epidural like only you can if you’ve experienced unmedicated intense labor. I felt like a new woman. This is what birth is for people who get the epidural right away? WOW. I was luxuriating in it.
But I was still only 4cm dilated and they said it could be 6-8 more hours until some action. So we relaxed. Kenny went to heat me up some bone broth in the hospital kitchen (I had brought bone broth in my hospital bag as a labor hack because you’re not allowed to eat solid foods, so this was a way to get some much-needed protein in me, highly recommend). He was gone for maybe a minute when I texted him.
I called for a nurse, and texted my husband, because there was a lot of pain in my right leg. The nurse came over to check it out, not expecting to see anything, since I was only 4cm dilated, when, boom, she saw the top of a head. No wonder there was some discomfort, he was full-on coming out!!!! She tried to remain calm as I asked if everything was ok, to which she just said “DAD! It’s time!” as he came rushing back in. The rest was a blur. My doctor wasn’t there yet (since they had previously told her there was no rush) and I told them I wanted her to be there. They said they had paged her but we didn’t have time to wait. I had to start pushing, NOW.
I pushed for 5 minutes. Delivery was easy. And I was smiling SO big the whole time while pushing. I was so excited.
By the way, we had a birth playlist playing that Kenny had made with all songs with the word ‘Baby’ in them. It was a great playlist, but when Baby by Justin Bieber was about to be THE song that Harrison was being born to, Kenny ran over and hit NEXT (LOL). Harrison was born at 5:21pm, while listening to a really good song we love called “Baby I’m Yours” by Breakbot. We still play this song for him all the time.
The epidural made delivery feel like nothing, and the doctors said I was an ‘excellent’ pusher because he was there FAST. About 3 minutes in, my doctor who had been with us throughout the pregnancy came rushing in – she had biked over from another building to get there just in the nick of time to be there!
They offered me a mirror, to watch the birth, and it wasn’t something I would have ever thought that I wanted, until I was in that moment, because when they asked I knew there was no way Kenny and I weren’t going to see everything and soak up everything we possibly could of this moment. And it was so cool to see. Suddenly, a beautiful, absolutely perfect baby was there, and Kenny told me as he fought back tears “It’s a boy!”
(By the way, having him be the one to deliver the news was so special, and something I highly recommend if you are surprising yourselves with the gender, versus a doctor or nurse telling you!)
The baby was on me seconds later, and Kenny cut the cord after 60 seconds of delayed cord clamping (which was hospital standard at MUSC and is supposed to be best for the baby!).
Harrison West Haisfield snuggled right onto my chest, like he knew exactly where he belonged in this world. The sun was BEAMING through our windows. He was more perfect than I ever could have imagined. His face was so round, so unbelievably handsome, and I couldn’t stop kissing and touching his puffy, absolutely perfect cheeks.
It was such a beautiful day that I’ll never forget. The pain, and the beauty, of that day was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. But, at this moment, the beauty was taking over. We had sunshine, flowers, an ‘it’s a girl’ balloon, and a beautiful baby boy. We couldn’t stop smiling.
Harrison was a name Kenny and I always loved, and just felt right. We had it picked out very early on in the pregnancy. “West”, his middle name, came to us both like a light bulb. It is an ode to the West Coast, where his mom, dad, and both sides of his family are from. West is also an ode to everything “The Wild West” represents – trail-blazing, pioneering, paving your own path, finding your own way. We knew, even in the womb, that Harrison was always destined to be a trailblazer, and we wanted his name to signify that.
I felt elated. But I also felt strange. I can’t explain it. Looking back, I know this was my intuition. An eerie feeling like the other shoe was going to drop. Like I I somehow knew that the events that would transpire over the next two weeks would change our family forever. That the best day of my life, would be followed by the worst nights of my life.
Everything was a little too perfect. He was too perfect. It was all too good. It felt wonderful, but I also just knew in my heart of hearts, something was up.
That was when my beautiful baby boy started to grunt.
The nurse assured us it was probably normal, as babies adjust to breathing our air, but it didn’t feel normal to me. I told Kenny, as I fought back tears, I think something is wrong with our baby. He tried to reassure me, of course there’s not, and to trust the nurses as they transferred us to the after-delivery Mother & Baby unit.
It was there, a few hours after Harrison was born, as I tried to quiet the fear in my mind, that a nurse flagged something as wrong. She said they’d need to run some tests, and all at once I felt all of my elation come crashing down. What do you mean?? Can I go with him?? I didn’t want them to take him from me for a second. So she let me go with them, as we went to an X-ray room specially equipped to handle newborns. It was late at night by now. Dark, quiet, and eerie.
The tests confirmed there was something wrong with his lungs, but they weren’t sure what. This numbing, frustratingly-vague result would come to be something we would be told far too many times over the coming days. With any baby, the lungs are the last thing to develop in the womb, and early-born boys are especially at risk for lung issues. He wasn’t adapting to breathing our air well, and it was causing a lot of distress on his underdeveloped lungs. He was having to work too hard to breathe. It was like this tiny baby was running a marathon. It was too hard on his little body.
When I gave birth, the idea that anything could be wrong with my baby didn’t even cross my mind.
Actually, I guess that’s a lie, I was relieved when the doctor told me that he had 10 fingers, and 10 toes. But lung issues? I truly had never let my mind wander there. I don’t think I could have handled knowing this all was a possibility. Our pregnant mama hearts don’t allow us to go there, it’s just too painful.
They transferred him to the NICU swiftly and without any words of comfort or confidence. I remember crying to my nurse in the mother-baby unit and begging her to tell me he would be out of the NICU soon. But those nurses know better than anyone that a NICU transfer likely means a minimum of days, but a more likelihood of weeks. And for some, months. So they stayed silent, and tried to focus on my recovery. No one was making me feel any better.
They told us that night they’d need to put him on a CPAP to help his breathing. Which he (and I) hated. It was helping him to breathe, but it was a giant intrusive mask that took over his tiny, helpless face. I spent the night learning everything I could online about lung issues in newborns, trying to stay positive and not to let my mind wander to the worst possible scenarios, as I became a google scholar in neonatology overnight.
Meanwhile, the CPAP machine forced breaths into him at such a rate that it ended up creating an air bubble OUTSIDE of his lung in his chest cavity. Something they told me the next day. This can happen, they told me. They’d need to operate. They’d put a tiny needle in the side of his chest (a needle. in my baby’s chest. My heart dropped. I couldn’t bear the thought of it) and they’d try (TRY!!!!) to get the air pocket out. The thought of this was awful. Terrible. Heart-breaking. But, this could be it! I steadied myself. After this torturous operation, he will be better. He will be breathing. He won’t be a prisoner of this hospital, in the suffocating shackles of cords, IV’s and monitors. He will be mine again.
They told me I couldn’t watch while they poked and prodded on my 7 pound baby boy to give him an IV, or while they did the operation on his chest. It would be too much for me to bear. So I had to hear him scream from down the hall, while I could feel every bit of his pain like it was in my own chest. It killed me.
Crumbling, a postpartum mother separated from her baby, I couldn’t believe my ears as they told me the operation didn’t work. The air bubble had moved and they couldn’t get to it. They’d need to try to move it, and then operate AGAIN. On my tiny baby boy. He was hooked up to all kinds of machines by now. A prisoner.
And I couldn’t even hold him.
I was still a patient in the hospital, recovering from birth on a different floor from my baby, but I only went to my room when they made me. Every doctor and nurse kept asking me about my recovery and I remember feeling like it was the stupidest thing to ask. WHO THE F CARES how I’m feeling? MY BABY IS IN THE NICU. I was angry. So angry. I’d kill for him to be healthy and me to be the one suffering. I WISHED more than anything that my recovery wasn’t going well, if it meant he could be doing fine. I would have given anything to take his place. But I had no choice. Just like I had no choice but to induce when I had known he wasn’t ready to come out.
All Kenny and I could do was be by his side.
Which we were, late at night, when Harrison was just 48 hours old, and we couldn’t sleep, waiting for any sort of news.
But no one knew what was wrong, which was why they were running another X-ray on his tiny body that night. But, while they were poking and prodding and running X-rays, my tiny baby had been running marathons, working too hard to try to breathe, and he just couldn’t go any longer. His lung collapsed. He stopped breathing.
There were no doctors in the room at the time. Just one nurse. A traveling nurse from Ohio. She was in the room with me, a mom with no medical training, and an X-ray attendant, who completely froze, as my baby turned blue.
I watched his life be taken from him in that moment.
But, the nurse knew exactly what to do, and kept him breathing by hand, keeping his heart from stopping, while she simultaneously sounded the alarm.
My knees buckled as I started helplessly, desperately, and with everything I could, trying to call my lifeless 48-hour-old baby back to earth, as he lay suspended in the balance as all of the alarms blared across the NICU.
I felt my soul float out of my body, watching the nightmarish scene play like a movie. Someone else’s movie. Not mine. My husband and I, embraced together, with nothing holding us up but each other in a suffocating grip, as doctors swarmed around us and alarms continued to sound the halls.
We stepped out of the way into the hallway, not wanting to be in the doctors’ way, and not being able to handle watching what might be happening to our baby boy.
All I could muster to say was “this is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening.” over, and over, and over as I held tightly onto Kenny with everything I had in me. They were the only words, the only thought, I could make out, feeling the same terrifying feeling you get when you’re in a nightmare trying to scream and nothing comes out.
Kenny would later tell me that those words were the only thing holding him together in that moment. That it seemed like I was so sure that we were going to make it through this. That this was not our fate. And that determination was keeping his hope alive.
A nurse I had never seen before, who I’ll never forget had the mesmerizing eyes of an angel, hugged me and tried to talk me down.
I asked this angelic stranger, brokenly, in the hardest words I’ve ever spoken, if my baby was going to die.
She said she couldn’t answer that. But she would go in to the room for us, and see what was going on, so that she could report back to us an update.
She came out of that room after what felt like an eternity, and told us that our baby was “back”. I’ll never forget that phrasing.
Dr. Neal Boone, our favorite doctor, who happened to be on call that night, had done an emergency intubation on Harrison, and it went well. His heart had never stopped, thanks to that nurse, and a speedy team of doctors. And while this was never a situation they wanted him to be in, he was alive.
That night, in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep, watching Harrison, keeping tabs on the machines and his breathing, the traveling nurse came to talk to me. She explained everything that happened in those minutes that felt like eternity, and the steps she, and then Dr. Boone, had taken, swiftly, to save his life. I told her I was eternally grateful for her, and thanked her profusely, through endless streams of tears. She was humble, and said it was simply what she was trained to do.
Though I felt grateful that we all survived that night, it hardly felt like a win. We still didn’t know what was wrong with our 2-day-old baby. And no one could tell us how long he’d be on these machines, or how long he’d be in the NICU. Would he ever be able to breathe on his own? We still had a long, hard, unpaved, dangerous road to conquer. But our story wasn’t over yet. He had a chance. We had a chance.
The NICU felt like purgatory to me. A waiting room, where you don’t know if you are going to come out of it in heaven, or in hell. Minutes feel like hours, days feel like weeks. Kenny said it was a place of both devastation and appreciation. A place where miracles happened every day, but also a place where the absolute worst, the unthinkable, could happen too.
Kenny and I had moved into Harrison’s room and slept in hospital chairs. We didn’t leave Harrison’s side. I spent nights googling, learning, talking to doctors, and taking an active role in his care. Which is something I recommend every parent do if you ever find yourself in a situation where your child is sick. While I trusted the doctors and nurses immensely, there were also times I needed to speak up for Harrison. Which I did. I leaned into and trusted my maternal instinct, which often, you’ll find as a mother, is stronger than science. There are so many little decisions that are made in those precious moments in the hospital, and we were a part of all of them. Had Kenny and I not learned about what was going on, and taken an active role in his care, as overwhelming as it was, we wouldn’t have been able to advocate for him as well throughout the process, and his path could have been very different.
Kenny is such a numbers guy. He would write down all of the numbers each time the doctor would come in and he knew exactly what we were going for each minute of each day. And I was the feeler. I firmly believe in miracles, and in magic. And I brought that hope to Harrison’s bedside each moment I could.
One of the things I fought hard for was ‘kangaroo care’ which meant skin-to-skin time with Harrison, even with all of his tubes. It was not easy to do, but it’s been proven to work miracles in NICU’s around the world. “When we go through very big changes, the first thing we search for is the safety and comfort of something familiar. Being placed skin-to-skin on the mother’s chest stabilizes the baby better than an incubator or heated cot”, Kangaroo Care researcher Marianne Littlejohn says. “The baby is soothed and comforted by the mother’s familiar heartbeat, her smell and the sound of her voice.” The mother’s gentle touch and breathing also stimulate the baby’s breathing. This eases the baby through the new experience of being outside the mother’s body for the very first time, and is especially important in premature or sick infants.
Doctors everywhere now recognize the importance of skin-to-skin contact with babies and mothers, but all too often, when a baby is critical, like Harrison was, there are so many tubes and wires that it makes it difficult to get any skin-to-skin time with the baby, when they need it the most. I was very grateful that our nurses and doctors went the extra mile to help us have some kangaroo care, because it was truly a miracle worker for my baby boy. The feeling of him on my body, his body melting into mine in complete bliss, like he finally knew what he was fighting for – a world outside of this hospital – was a transformational feeling I will never forget.
After those precious moments of kangaroo care, he would seem like a totally different baby. Like he had gotten a taste of the good life. This helped him fight!
The next days were a blur. Doctors would run tests, and he would be watched. He had chest tubes (extremely painful), and he was on morphine to make it manageable for him. The thought of my tiny baby on morphine at just a few days old made me sick, but I knew he needed it. He was in so much pain. He was given something called ‘surfactant’ to help his lungs develop. But it wasn’t taking. They told us if they tried too many times and it still didn’t take, they would have to look into genetic testing and more rare disorders. They had cardiology run tests on his little heart, (hands down one of the scariest moments for us) but his heart, thank goodness, unlike his lungs, was fine.
We were told to sing to him, to let him know we were there, which we did. We were told to stay positive, and to bring that positive healing energy to his room and never fill it with sadness or despair. Which we did. Friends delivered thoughtful gifts of flowers to decorate his room, teddy bears, and books which we read to him. My parents delivered us clothes, food, juices, coffee, and other things to keep us going. And they brought the nurses cookies. We were so beyond grateful to have family helping during those weeks, so that we didn’t have to leave the hospital once.
Meanwhile, I focused on what I could do to help Harrison – eating well (despite having zero appetite) and pumping every three hours religiously, since I wanted him to have my breastmilk, and I wanted to eventually be able to breastfeed. I advocated and pushed for them to not give him formula since breastmilk has so many miraculous qualities they can’t even quantify completely. They told me in order to not give him formula, I’d need to create enough milk to nourish his sick body, which my body stepped up and did as soon as they challenged me. I’m convinced there’s something about the mother’s body that knows when her baby needs it. I would produce just enough each day, and more and more as he needed more.
The NICU is a rollercoaster, and there’s really no other way to put it. There’s never one single path to home, and you almost always go through many challenging loops and ups and downs on your way to the finish line. Every baby is so different, so every baby’s path to health is different. Which is why medicine is both science, and art. Medicine is about finessing textbook knowledge with real-life intuition and marrying the two. It was amazing to watch these doctors and nurses work, as they tried as a team to figure out what was wrong with Harrison, why he was so critically ill, and how to not only save his little life. But to give him a life.
We all did little things that kept us going, and kept him fighting. Kenny would fist-pump Harrison every day in the cutest way. I would sing “Harrison West” to the tune of “Simply the Best”, belting in my best Tina Turner loudly and proudly that he was “stronger than alllllll the rest”. My dad came up with a cheer for Harrison that was a play on “TAR! HEELS!” (Kenny and I met at UNC), where we would chant “LUNG! HEAL!”.
For the first week of our stay in the hospital, no single doctor or nurse felt confident in Harrison to us, which made a scary place even scarier when no one could tell you he would be okay, if he would make it through this. I believed in him more than I can even explain, but he had to prove himself to the doctors.
By the second week, he made everyone believe in him. His nurse practitioners were absolutely incredible. Marlene and Maria were two that I’m convinced helped immensely to get him out of there alive. The thing about nurse practitioners, versus doctors, is they bring a little bit more of that ‘nurse’ energy to their role. They bring intuition and feeling, versus just the textbook… a little more art, versus just the science. They felt so connected to Harrison, and could tell when he was ready to be challenged, advocating to wean him off of his morphine and breathing machines before the doctors thought he was ready, they believed in him, and they were right. I was so grateful for that.
By this point, we had told our friends and family and followers about what was happening, and Harrison had so many prayers coming from all over the world. Our factories for Kenny Flowers sent prayers and gifts from Colombia and Bali, and made him videos, doing traditional Bali ceremonies and blessings for him. We felt the support and power of the prayers coming from everyone around the globe. And I have no doubt Harrison felt it too.
Then, on day nine of our hospital stay with Harrison, after the worst 8 days of our lives, my mom arrived and said she had some very unfortunate news she had to share with us.
How could she possibly have bad news??? My brain couldn’t even comprehend, it was too focused on Harrison.
My grandfather, my mom’s father, my Poppy, who was 90 years old (and doing very well), was hit and killed by a car just around the corner from his home in California. He was out walking his dog, who survived. A freak accident.
All my mom could muster saying was, “I know Harrison is going to be okay now.” And I knew in my heart that she was right. The circle of life. My Poppy, the most selfless being, would have given everything for this little newborn boy to be okay. And maybe he did.
That day, Harrison turned a corner. The doctors continued to wean him, and watch him, as his lungs grew stronger and stronger. Doctors looked at his results each day perplexed, but pleased. They couldn’t quite explain it. But they were elated for us. I’ll never forget the attending doctor, Heidi, who was amazing, saying “I love when I’m wrong.”
Then, she said, after two weeks of the hell we had been through, the six most beautiful words we had longed to hear more than anything, it was time to go home. His lungs had developed into completely normal baby lungs. And he was going to be just fine.
On the way home, for the first time in weeks, as I sat next to my sweet baby in his car seat, I peeked into the rearview mirror at Kenny driving. He had a look about him, overtaking his entire self, that I had never seen quite so fully. It was pride. He was proud of Harrison. Proud of us. Proud of himself. He knew he had gotten our family through the toughest thing we had ever gone through. Maybe, hopefully, would ever have to go through. And now here he was, driving us to our home – to our future as a family, the future that we almost didn’t have.
And now, as we rounded the corner to our house for the first time in weeks and John Denver’s Take me home, country road played on the stereo, so much pride washed over him. It was a beautiful moment I’ll never forget. Coming home with a baby from the hospital is a gift. Coming home with a baby from the NICU? A miracle.
When we got home, sun rays beamed through the windows and Harrison gave us his first little smile, a moment of the purest bliss I’ve ever witnessed. He knew. He was home.
A year later, I still have dreams, and some nightmares, of the NICU. But I try to focus on the dreams. I can still hear all of the nurses’ kind, angelic voices. The warmth of their smiles. I remember every single nurse. Doctor. Nurse practitioner. Student. I can picture them all so clearly, and I tell Harrison their names, saying that they are his angels.
I tell him stories that he was born a fish. He had gills to swim in mommy’s belly, but no lungs yet for the outside world. So the doctors and nurses had to help him to grow lungs. My little fishie.
I won’t ever be able to forget the nightmare that we, somehow, woke up from.
Because Harrison’s first days of life were the hardest of mine. I was thrown into being a mother headfirst. It wasn’t the gentle, blissful experience I had imagined. Motherhood for me was like being dropped in the middle of a speeding highway full of cars. You don’t even know which way to run. You don’t even know where you are. How you got there. Why you’re there. All you know is you very well might not make it out alive. And every time you dodge one car, another comes whizzing by, missing you by an inch.
But I know every day how lucky we are to have dodged a different fate. And I pray every night for all of the families with babies currently in the NICU. I pray for the doctors and nurses and their strength to give these babies their precious futures. I pray that Harrison’s positive story gives other babies, and parents, the hope and inspiration they so desperately need in those dark moments. Because, I’m here to promise you that a year from now, when you’re hugging your absolute gift-of-a-baby, who won’t stop smiling at you, saying “BALLLLLL!” and “UH OH!” and blowing kisses at you, his little personality coming through in the cutest way, those dark moments in hospital hallways couldn’t feel further away. In fact, you will hardly ever think of those first weeks at all. How can you, when you know better than anyone, how precious life is.
If Harrison’s story inspires you and you can find it in your heart to donate even $5 to his friends currently in the NICU and PICU, please do so on this fundraising page here. It’s a fact that 10% of babies are born prematurely. Our hope and mission of Harrison’s Healthy Kids is that every NICU baby turns into a healthy kid, and we hope to be a part of making that happen through these efforts. Thank you so much for your support.