Birth Stories

Published on August 4th, 2022 | by Anahita Vieira


The Act of Breathing: A NICU Glossary

Aspiration*: The act of breathing fluid or food into the lungs. Can lead to pneumonia and repeated hospitalizations.

*Not to be confused with the aspirations you had about Motherhood

Bili Lights: Bright fluorescent lights used to treat newborn jaundice. They’ll protect your baby’s eyes with a pair of black, foam sunglasses. She’ll look like a disoriented aviator, lost in the tangled mess of wires.

Birth Defect: Days after delivery, your OBGYN will call you to apologize for missing it on Baby A’s ultrasounds. You know the answer is no. But still, you ask: “would it have made a difference?”

Birth Plan: To give birth to healthy twin girls.

Central Catheter: One of many tubes you’ll learn to keep track of. This one’s for fluids and medicines. Better than an I.V., they’ll tell you, because it lasts longer. It also poses a greater risk for infection, nerve injury and blood clots. After they tell you this, you’ll be asked to sign an informed consent, to document the illusion of a choice.

Charge Nurse: The nurse you’ll talk to when you need a new bedside nurse. Don’t wait to swap out the nurse who smacks her gum and changes your baby’s diaper like she’s flipping burgers at the local fast-food joint.

Chest Tube: Another tube. Threaded between the chest wall and the lung, this tube is used to drain fluid and air away from the lungs.

Code Blue: Your stomach will sink when this code is called over the intercom. You’ll think of the parents. And you’ll make sure yours is still breathing, her heart still beating.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): Another fucking tube. Its two-prongs slip into her tiny nostrils to help her breathe. You’ll have to figure something out for yourself.

Desats: When her heart rate or oxygen levels fall, the alarm will ring and ring and ring and ring and ring and ring and, because all the nurses have alarm fatigue, a nation will likely rise and fall in the time it takes for them to turn it off. She will cry and scream. Your breasts will leak.

Echocardiogram: A graphic outline of the heart’s movement with little to say about the feelings inside your daughter’s heart. Trust the rhythm of your own and what it knows.

Family Room: Where families break away from the NICU floor. The first time you eat here, you’ll meet a couple who will tell you about their baby, a micro-preemie with necrotizing enterocolitis. “So small at birth,” the dad will say, “my wedding band fit around her entire arm and then some.” He’ll show you a photo on his iPhone that you will never unsee.

G-Tube: She’ll receive your breast milk through, you guessed it, a tube. They’ll fortify your offering with formula to help her gain weight more quickly. Try your best not to take this personally.

Kangaroo Care: Skin-to-skin cuddling. Physiological and developmental benefits are numerous. Do it as often as possible. It will also help with the letdown.

Lactation Room: Technically this room is for pumping breastmilk. But the day before her surgery you’ll repurpose the space as a private recording studio. You’ll sing lullabies and read Giraffes Can’t Dance into an iPad the Child Life Specialist gave you. You’ll leave it behind for the nurses to play at her bedside overnight.

Maternal Guilt: Resist the urge to review all your actions while pregnant. This was outside of your control.

Paralytic: After her 12-hour surgery, they’ll administer a paralytic drug to keep her from moving and disturbing the sutures. With her voice taken from her, the nurses rely on her vital signs as a proxy for her pain. When they wean her off, she’ll start to cry. “I’m sorry to say she was probably in pain for those 48 hours,” the nurse will say, “and we just didn’t know it.” Your grief, too, is silent.

Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN): While she’s healing, she’ll receive her nutrition through a catheter (aka: a small tube). The I.V. pump will loop the capitalized blue letters TOTAL PARENTERAL NUTRITION like a CNN news ticker. You’ll sit by her bedside and stare at the phrase like a Magic Eye image, waiting for a larger meaning to emerge. It won’t.

Trauma (medical): Poorly understood and rarely acknowledged. Symptoms include, but are not limited to: rage, shame, helplessness, dissociation, increased sensitivity to your surroundings and a deep feeling of isolation.

Vital Signs: A stupid reason to wake a sleeping baby. One day, when she’s older and you’re back in the hospital together you’ll ask the night nurse to leave. She will tell you gravely that she’ll have to notate the chart accordingly: Mom refused vitals. That’s fine, you’ll say. Let the record show.

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About the Author

Anahita Vieira graduated from the University of California, Davis with a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Currently she works as Senior Science Writer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Her words appear or are forthcoming in The Art of Everyone and 433 Magazine. She resides in Boston, Massachusetts with her wife, rambunctious twin girls and their dog who has the heart of a saint and face of a seal.

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