Article - Spring 2023

Look Back in Wonder

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A father searches for the secret to empathy in the face of unthinkable loss

By David McGlynn | March 1, 2023

On a wet, gray afternoon in February 2007, the rain turning to snow as the light faded and the temperature dropped, my wife delivered our second child: a boy, like our first, and, like our first, a surprise. We’d learned of the pregnancy only a few weeks before we moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where I was to begin teaching at a small liberal arts college. It had been a taxing fall and winter: Wisconsin was darker and colder than any place my wife or I had ever lived, we knew no one in our town, and early ultrasounds of the fetus had shown signs of a lethal genetic anomaly, requiring a series of expensive and invasive tests. The results, thankfully, had come back negative, but on New Year’s Eve, my wife started bleeding, and we rushed to the hospital, fearing premature labor. The obstetrician scheduled an induction for a week before our son’s due date. Despite the difficult road we’d traveled, the doctor assured us, the baby was healthy, and everything would be fine.

When the nurse handed him to us, wrapped in a blanket, rosy and warm, he did seem fine. But when she opened the blanket on the warming table to measure his temperature, weight, and length, she saw that his chest had turned gray, his lips a dull lavender. His five-minute Apgar score, which assesses vital signs, was lower than his one-minute. His skin was pale; his arms and legs had gone floppy, unresponsive to stimulus; and his breathing was shallow. My mother-in-law, a veteran pediatric nurse in a major children’s hospital, stood over her grandson with her lips pursed. She cooed gently to him and reassured the delivery nurses that they were doing a good job, but her face gave away her concern.

Chest x-rays revealed fluid in his lungs. Later tests would warn of an enlarged heart. The snow was falling harder, sticking to the windows and whiting out the cars in the parking lot. The labor and delivery nurses were growing anxious. My wife, who had worked as a medical social worker in the same children’s hospital as her mother, recognized the nurses’ anxiety for what it meant: the baby was too sick to stay in the regional hospital. That evening, a specialized nurse in a blue jumpsuit threaded an intubation tube between our son’s vocal cords, connected his lungs to a ventilator, and handed him off to two mustachioed paramedics, who loaded him into a portable incubator and wheeled him through the empty hospital corridors to an ambulance waiting outside. They drove him a half-hour south to a hospital with a NICU—a neonatal intensive care unit. My wife and I followed behind. The windshield wipers struggled to stay ahead of the blizzarding snow, and I lost sight of the ambulance halfway through what felt like an interminable journey. I drove in silence while my wife, one day postpartum, cradled her stomach and tried not to cry. I’d never been so scared in my life.

After 10 days, our son’s lungs had recovered enough for him to come home. The heart issue, too, had resolved as his lungs responded to the medication. The day of his discharge, the neonatologist posed for a picture with him before the nurses helped us secure his carrier into the back seat of our car. I was sure I’d feel calmer once we got him home—I’d been fantasizing about his homecoming since the night of his birth.

Instead, I had trouble sleeping. I lay in the dark and listened to his faint exhalations, worried that he would spontaneously stop breathing. As the days moved forward and winter melted into spring, the minute-by-minute ticktock playing in my mind of my son’s birth, decline, and hurried admission to the NICU began to collapse into a nebulous dread, one that subsumed even the initial happy memories of his arrival. I felt as if I were watching a city recede in my rearview mirror, all the buildings and parks and freeways merging into a hazy skyline in which the NICU remained the only recognizable structure.

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