I had just buckled my seatbelt on the plane from LAX to Cincinnati when the inevitable happened. The man in the middle seat asked me if California was home for me. I responded, “No, actually I’m from Ohio. I’m headed home.” Despite my cozy position against the window, the man added, “Were you here for work or vacation?”
“Work,” I uttered. “And you?”
“Yea. Work too. Well, what do you do?”
Obviously, unlike those of us in the NICU, he was not trained in observing states of alertness. I’d clearly transitioned (perhaps abruptly) from a quiet alert state to drowsy to light sleep in a matter of 2 minutes. (Bring a good book if you’re ever my traveling companion. I rarely remember take-off because I’m already asleep. No lie.) I’ve learned that in situations like this, there’s usually a reason that the guy (or woman) in seat B keeps asking questions.
So, I straightened myself in the seat and told him what I do for a living. He got that look on his face, the one that says he understands all too well. You know that look. You’ve had this experience.
Quietly he said, “I never knew anyone who had a preemie before. I never knew that women who ‘followed all the rules’ for a healthy pregnancy could deliver early. We didn’t realize she was in labor – she was only 26 weeks pregnant. I never knew a baby could be that small and survive. I guess we assumed this would never happen to us.”
So, we talked.
His daughter’s NICU story was a successful one. AND it was obvious that there was a lot of stress on the way to that success – the kind of stress NICU dads experience, never knowing who to worry about most, their wives or babies, and feeling helpless to dissolve either’s pain.
There is a solace in sharing these stories, for the professional caregivers and the families. It was an honor to listen to his. And it reminded me of so many families who find themselves thrust into a world they scarcely knew existed. It’s hard to prepare people for an experience they don’t believe they’ll ever have. Awareness is the only way. Full scale, worldwide awareness related to prematurity and the many medical complexities that bring full-term infants to the NICU as well.
Thanks to the National Perinatal Association, here is one place to begin. The Dad in seat B and millions of others thank you.