2017 was a year for the books. I became a NICU mama and had two surgeries in a period of 10 months. If I had to give last year a catch phrase, it’d be “a year of heartbreak, hope, and healing.” I thought there could be no better way to continue my own healing journey than to finally share Wilder's birth story. Get comfortable and grab some tissues because here we go.
Friday, March 3, 2017
It was like any other Friday as a pregnant teacher – I had dreams of napping the moment I woke up to go to work. I was 35 weeks and 5 days pregnant. Being tired and sore were a daily thing, but thankfully, the class I had last school year was literally the best group of students—respectful, kind, and hardworking collaborators. For reasons I can’t remember, we were in the computer lab that Friday afternoon. I had been feeling fine all day, but suddenly, I felt nauseous. My first thought—the dreaded stomach bug that had slowly taken some of the souls of my students had finally made its way to me—(NOOOO!)—I was having contractions, but they were not very painful and they were very random—I just thought they were Braxton-Hicks. Regardless, I went ahead and cancelled all of my plans after school, thinking I simply had a bug.
I managed to drive myself home and immediately got into bed. The “ill” feeling I had just wasn’t letting up. I decided to text one of my doulas to fill her in on what was happening. She encouraged me right away to call my midwife since I was only 35 weeks.
Around 6:30 p.m., I called the midwife—she said to rest, take it easy, and that it was probably a stomach bug. However, at this point, I really wasn't feeling like it was a stomach bug and I was starting to think I was in early labor. Nonetheless, contractions weren't happening regularly, nor were they strong enough, so I decided to take a bath to help me relax, and that led to what I now know was transition—I’ll spare you the details on that :)
Around 10 p.m., my stomach settled enough for me to fall asleep, and contractions stopped around then, too.
Saturday, March 4, 2017
I woke up that morning and the contractions had picked up again. They were actually coming in strong waves—they were lasting about 30 seconds, and coming sporadically 4-10 minutes apart, however, they were not taking my breath away—I could walk through them. Now I definitely thought I was in early labor, but was thinking I'd be walking around like this for at least another week (so I wasn’t even letting my mind go “there”). I brought my doulas up to speed, and they encouraged me to call my midwife again. The midwife said I was definitely progressing in labor, but that the contractions weren’t lasting long enough to come in. She encouraged me to rest and to call back if they become longer than 1 minute, every 5 minutes, lasting longer than an hour.
Around noon, the contractions were definitely making my toes curl, but, I had a baby shower planned that day that I COULD NOT MISS—so I went. I drove myself, as originally planned, with a dear friend who offered to drive a million times (I should have let her drive). We arrived a little late, but I walked into a beautiful sight. Some of the best gals I know were there, eating brunch (my requested favorite). Mystical woodland décor created a neutral-theme heaven and brown butcher paper lined the tables—my people knew me well. After mingling for a bit, we gathered in the living room where each of my friends shared a chosen piece of scripture, personally written on beautiful, imprinted card stock for me to keep. They shared and prayed these Words of Truth over Wilder and me. They encouraged me in my role as a mama and showered us with gifts. I had no idea how important those moments would be just hours later. Before I left to return home, the amazing hostess laminated the scripture cards right away, and gave them to me when I left saying, “Put them in your hospital bag when you get home!” and thankfully, I did just that.
Once I got home, I rested. I managed to eat a little something, but the contractions were coming and going with vengeance. At around 8:00 p.m., I looked at my husband and said, “Maybe we should pack his diaper bag and my hospital bag?” So, we did. While we packed and organized ourselves a little bit, thinking Wilder would be coming in a couple of days, there was a moment where we talked about whether or not we should go to another hospital to deliver, one that had a NICU since Wilder wasn’t full term. We prayed together consistently through the night, and I continued to pray as labor progressed. The Lord gave me a peace about going where we had originally planned—I had no reason to think or believe that anything was wrong with Wilder.
I got into bed around 10:00 p.m. in an attempt to get some sleep, but that didn’t happen. Labor was continuing to progress. I went from the bath to the shower several times over the next few hours, breathing deeply as each painful wave came stronger than the next, but contractions still weren’t lasting long enough for me to go to the hospital.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
At 2:57 a.m. I texted my doulas. All of a sudden, my contractions were bringing me to the floor and I had started to feel pressure. They told me to get in the car and go to the hospital quickly. Funny part in my story—even though my bags were packed, my husband’s were not. I was waiting in the car for him while in active labor—it was not okay at the time, but it’s hilarious now. Once we were finally on our way, I learned the car ride to the hospital sucks. Laboring in a car is as terrible as you think it is.
We arrived to the hospital around 3:30 a.m. A little side note, I had planned and prepared for a natural birth in the midwifery center at my chosen hospital. I’m thankful I was able to labor and deliver naturally, but I was not able to deliver in the midwifery center due to my status (36 weeks exactly—you had to be 37 weeks+ to deliver in the MWC). I met my doula at the entrance to the ER, and we slowly made our way up to labor and delivery, stopping as each contraction came.
Once I got into my hospital room, Wilder’s heart rate had to be monitored for 20 minutes, which meant I had to lie down on my back through incredibly painful contractions—this was also terrible. Thankfully, Wilder’s heart rate was beautiful. I also had to be hooked up to IV antibiotics. My midwife came in to check the status of my labor, and I ended up being 100% effaced and 9cm dilated. There was a huge exhale in the room when she said this, and my nurse exclaimed, “I thought we were going to be sending you home tonight!” I was so relieved—I was having my baby today—I was finally going to meet him after eight long months. My husband turned on my birth playlist, an assortment of my favorite worship songs, began diffusing lavender, and I got out of bed - it was time to have my baby!
Labor was intense and amazing and by far the most pain I’ve ever lived through. But despite the pain, it was such an incredible experience because I only felt pain during contractions. There were these really powerful minutes of pain, and then really quiet moments of peace- I had never felt so alive and aware, so motivated and focused. I also hired a birth photographer (Michelle) to capture Wilder's birth, a decision I am so thankful we made. I didn’t even know she was in the room, and the way she was able to document this part of our journey remains so special to me.
Around 6:00 a.m., I began to feel the urge to push, so I did. At 6:35 a.m., Wilder Jackson Harris was born.
Shortly after he came out of me, I heard him cry and time stood still.
I couldn’t believe that I was able to see him with my own eyes, to hear him with my own ears, and that he was real—it felt like a dream—a perfect, blissful dream. It was by far the best feeling I’ve ever had—going through all of that pain, then finally meeting my baby.
My midwife placed him on my chest and a nurse wrapped him in a towel, wiping him off. I just sat and stared at Wilder, listening to his soft cries and feeling his short breaths. It felt like heaven.
When it was time to cut his cord, Wilder was placed on my stomach, his cord was cut, and then he was placed back on my chest for skin-to-skin. I could smell him and all of his newborn glory as his head laid just beneath my chin. It was everything I had dreamed it would be. But soon, my world was turned upside down.
After one minute of skin-to-skin, Wilder began to grunt. His nurse, who was standing beside my bed immediately said, “I need to put him on the warmer and monitor him a little more closely. He has some labored breathing. Sometimes 36-weekers just need a little help.” She took him from my arms, and placed him on the warmer in my delivery room.
At this point, my 2nd degree tear was being addressed, and it really hurt. I remember wishing that I was holding Wilder, thinking it would help ease the pain. But, he was on the warmer receiving oxygen via mask. After a couple of minutes, his oxygen levels were still not where they should have been, so his nurse told me she was going to take him to the nursery where they could monitor him even more closely. Again, I was told, “I’m sure everything is fine, he just needs a little help breathing right now.” I didn’t know at the time, but when they rolled him out of my room, it was the last time I would see him for about 30 hours.
Instead of experiencing the “golden hour” as a family, Jack and I sat in my hospital room, arms and hands empty. Anticipated smiles were instead concerned stares. We were nervous, but remained calm. We didn’t have any reason to believe that Wilder was in trouble, but every update I got was vague. I would soon learn the hospital staff was vague for a reason, and not a good one.
After that first hour, a nurse came in and talked to me about pumping – since Wilder was in the nursery, I needed to go ahead and start—every 2-3 hours. Instead of experiencing the first latch, I sat in my hospital bed and pumped, feeling the pain of contractions once again.
At about two and a half hours post-birth, I still didn’t know exactly what was going on with my baby. Then, my nurse came into the room and told me that the pediatrician had called Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters (CHKD) for a transfer. She told me that he needed more care than what they could provide. My worst fear had come true. Shortly after being called, the CHKD Critical Care Transport Team arrived. My nurse was trying to time them leaving with Wilder so I could see him in the hallway and say goodbye. She kept leaving and coming back, telling me to get ready so we could make this exchange happen. Time was passing quickly and I was just waiting. We finally made a move to the room where I would be staying that night, but I didn’t see Wilder on my way.
I didn’t understand the seriousness of Wilder’s situation until much later, but while I was settling into my new room, he was in respiratory failure down the hallway. The transport team had to re-intubate him because the pediatrician intubated him incorrectly. I am certain that God breathed for Him during those mysterious minutes. Once they got that issue fixed, his levels continued to decline, and the team realized his right lung had collapsed. They needled his chest, but were unable to improve his levels. Finally, a dose of Surfactant got his oxygen up to a level that allowed them to transport him safely, requiring them to leave immediately.
A woman from the transport team entered my room and broke the news—they had to leave and I wasn’t going to see my baby. She gave me my NICU book, the phone number, the password I needed to use when calling the nurses, and then rushed out of the room. I didn’t know at the time, but I had just spoken to one of the living angels that saved my baby.
Once the door closed, I looked at Jack and began to sob. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him. I didn’t even know he had been struggling so much. I couldn’t even remember what he looked like. I hadn’t seen him since he was born. My dream had turned into a nightmare.
Instead of happy visits from friends and family, I began to text important people in my life, telling them to pray for Wilder.
I was given the option to be discharged after six hours, but I didn’t feel ready to leave—I felt so sore and weak. Even though it kills me thinking about how much Wilder struggled without me near, the Lord protected me so much in those hours. It was a painful blessing.
About an hour after Wilder was taken to CHKD, Jack left with my mom to head to the NICU. I didn’t want him to go alone. My sister came to me first, bringing me reassurance, support, and care, along with a bag of preemie clothes and pump parts. I was a mess, but she was strong for me. My dad, grandma, and brother came to visit, as well. My family stayed with me all afternoon, until my mom could come back. When she got to the hospital around 5:00 p.m., she sat down and told me with tears in her eyes, “He is very sick, Amy.” She then went on to explain ECMO: Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, a life support that involves inserting a cannula into two large vessels to allow blood to flow out of the body and into the ECMO machine, which will oxygenate the blood, and then pump back into the body, completely bypassing the heart and lungs, allowing them to rest. She said if Wilder doesn’t get better through the night, that he might have to be transported to another hospital, either UVA, Duke, or DC, to receive this last-case scenario life support. At this point, Wilder was intubated, receiving oxygen and nitric oxide therapy, on a lot of medicine, and was sedated. The tears started streaming down my face and she hugged me—there wasn’t anything else she could say or do to mend the pain I was feeling, and at this point, there weren’t any more words—my world was spinning out of control.
Jack got back to my hospital room around 6:00 p.m. I could tell he was overwhelmed and sad. He shared some of what my mom had already told me, but we were both past the point of processing new information—we couldn’t handle anymore. I just wanted to see my baby and hold him—I longed to hold him.
Around 8:00 p.m., Wilder’s neonatologist finally had the chance to call me. She repeated what I already knew, and reiterated Wilder’s need to remain stable through the night—if not, he would need to be transferred for ECMO. Wilder was intubated and on a high percentage of oxygen and the highest intervention of Nitric Oxide, had an IV going into his belly button to provide medicines, had an IV line going out of his belly button to get accurate blood gas readings and draw blood to avoid heel pricks, on a paralytic drip to keep him from fighting the ventilator, on a fentanyl drip for pain, on two blood pressure meds via continuous drip, and on antibiotics. He was on the maximum level of support and intervention that the NICU could provide, which is why ECMO was so near. His doctor told me they were treating him for PPHN—Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn.
After this phone call, Jack went back to the NICU to say goodnight to Wilder. While alone in my hospital room, I sat and pleaded with God. I knew things were bad at this point—I remember asking Him to prepare my heart, to help me rest in His will for Wilder. I remember thinking, “Could this be it? Will I lose him tonight? Will You take him to heaven already?” I also spent that time working on substitute lesson plans for the week and FaceTiming my best friend, both nice distractions from reality. Later, I started filling out his birth certificate papers, but couldn’t bring myself to finish because I didn’t think he was going to make it. As I was putting the papers away, one of my nurses came in to check on me, asking me how I was doing. I just looked at her and the tears began to fall once more. Everything was starting to sink in now, and I was devastated. I couldn’t believe how different this was from what I had hoped. I had my baby, but I couldn’t be with him. I couldn’t hold him, or smell him, or watch Jack snuggle him from my hospital bed. I couldn’t introduce him to family and friends. I couldn’t take pictures of him. I couldn’t ponder which outfit to put him in or worry about feeding him. I couldn't do any of this because he was ten minutes away, in a completely different hospital, fighting for his life. I didn’t even know if I was going to see him alive and breathing again. I felt like I was robbed. As his mother, all I could do was pray for him, pump, and rest—I did all of these things fervently and tried my best, but I ached every single second.
Before Jack returned, he sent me a picture of Wilder, sedated, paralyzed, intubated, and swollen. Even with the tubes and wires, he was the most beautiful thing in the entire universe. Jack returned a little later, and we both slept on the pull out couch in my hospital room—I cried myself to sleep, only to wake several hours later to pump and repeat, pump and repeat.
Monday, March 6th, 2017
I woke up to a phone call from Wilder’s doctor. He had remained “safe” all night, but was still in critical condition. He needed to remain stable for the next several hours because transferring for ECMO was still on the table. Nothing had changed—he was still receiving maximum level-support that the NICU could offer.
While awaiting discharge, I decided that I was going to take a shower. I got in and took those quiet moments to pray for Wilder. I consistently prayed that God would breathe life into his lungs. Once I got out of the shower and brushed my hair, I heard the sound of a newborn baby crying in the next room. I was gutted. Tears reformed, burning my eyes. I couldn’t even remember the sound of my own baby’s cry. There are no words to describe the pain I felt in that moment.
Around 11:00 that morning, I got discharged and was finally able to go see my baby. It was eerie leaving the hospital without Wilder, my arms empty, his car seat vacant, and diaper bag full. I was flooded with fear and anxiety for what was to come as we made our way to the CHKD NICU, completely ignorant of what was to come.
Months went by before I processed any of this - I was just running the marathon, trying to survive. It wasn't until later on in the summer when I began to think about Wilder's first day of life, and when I did, it was heart wrenching. Huge emotions took me right back to March 5th (and that next day), flooding my heart with great anxiety and fear. I had such a hard time thinking about the day he was born because it was covered in anguish - on that day, I thought he was going to die. I tried just letting myself feel all the feels - I journaled, prayed, talked to my friends and family - but I got to a point where I felt so emotionally unstable, it was time to see a counselor - this was the best decision I could have made for myself.
By going to counseling, I was able to process everything that happened to Wilder in a safe space, giving me back the emotional space I needed to function as an adult without losing my crap. I've discovered that Wilder's birth will always feel like a raw wound. It will always remind me of the pain and uncertainty I felt that day. It will always bring back the worst fear a parent could feel - the fear of losing their child. But, I can also say that time really does heal.
My favorite Bible verse comes from James 1:2-3:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
These words have been playing on repeat like a song in my spirit as I've tried to wrap my head around everything. To a certain degree, I’ve always been comforted by these words, but for the sake of being real, I’ve also done my fair share of questioning God too. I’ve cried out to Him, “Why? Why this? Why did my baby have to suffer? Why did I have to miss out on the excitement that comes with bringing a baby into the world?”
I've had to cling to the words of James fiercely through this process. I've had to relinquish control on a daily basis, surrendering everything I’ve faced. As I look back on those moments of grief last summer, trying to accept God's plan, desperately wanting to understand the mystery of everything, I saw God's strength as a piercing light in my darkness through these words. It wasn't easy, and it still isn't easy. Suffering is painful. And if you're anything like me, not understanding why something has happened will drive you mad. But, I've had to let myself fall apart at the feet of Jesus, to surrender my control to Him, and to allow His truth to encourage my heart.
I've had to remind myself what it means to suffer well—what it means to truly count it all joy. This is also not an easy thing when you're processing a traumatic life event. I remember any picture of a new mom and her newborn, sitting in their hospital bed soaking up the bliss of one another, would just about bring me over the edge - not because of jealously or bitterness, but because of immense heartbreak and a feeling of loss. I felt as if I'd missed out on those moments, the moments everyone talks about when they have a baby. The moments everyone posts on social media. I didn't get those moments, and for a period of time, I was really sad, and even a little angry about that. To help me through this, I reminded myself (constantly) that my joy doesn't come from anything but God. Joy is not a fleeing emotion, but a way of being. Joy is not determined by my circumstances, but remains unshakeable in Christ Jesus. Even though it hurts my heart to type this, I know it's true: just because I didn't get to experience the dream I had of Wilder's first day of life, doesn't mean there is no joy.
James tells me to count it all joy, but here's what I think He isn't saying. He isn’t telling me to slap on a fake smile. He’s not encouraging me to cry for a week and then get back to life. James isn’t even asking me to be happy. The words of James are encouraging me to choose the joy that God and only God provides. This joy is deep in my bones, rooted in the God I serve, whose Gospel says He became man, suffered on the cross, and then rose victoriously! Have joy in Him, who suffered Himself, and knows every ounce of pain I've ever felt. Have joy in my God who is sovereign over all things, including my difficult circumstances.
I’ve learned that I may not have a choice in the trials that I face, but I will always have the opportunity to choose joy.
So, what does this look like for me? I've had to change my perspective to help me choose joy. When I choose joy, I recognize that the traumatic events of Wilder's birth are for reasons I don't know, but for reasons He knows, and although they may be mysterious, He holds both me and my mysteries in His hands. When I choose joy, I recognize that trials produce steadfastness, which are sanctifying me in His great name. When I choose joy, I am resting in His goodness, even when it's painful. When I choose joy, I am choosing to remain hopeful and to trust His will. When I choose joy, I am choosing to surrender my control and have faith in Him. When I choose joy, I always remain thankful.
I pray after reading this you are in awe of God. I have tears rolling down my cheeks as I write and relive these moments, but in the same breathe, what a testimony of His faithfulness. I would have not survived this if it weren’t for the power of prayer, and the strength and hope God provided each and every second through His Spirit and His Word. He came down and met me in each overwhelming, overbearing moment. He walked me through the heartbreaks of having a sick child, He gave me hope every step of the way, and then He healed my broken heart as each traumatic moment was processed—He is the unfailing, Faithful King—the God of Miracles.
“Wilder Jackson Harris, a NICU journey”
*All birth photos were taken by Michelle Lynn of Michelle Lynn Photographic Artist.
* I used Birth Insight for doula services.