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The Plastic Box

Lisa Benz ScottLisa Benz Scott

This story is about "fearing death" rather than an actual death. Thankfully, my daughter survived her ordeal in the NICU and is now a very healthy 7 year old.

My daughter was just born by C-section.
She has a healthy sounding cry and a good weight for a full-term arrival.
Someone brings her around the partition that separates her from my line of sight.
I can admire my child for the first time.
I cannot take my eyes off of her, she is so precious and beautiful.

She is quickly taken from me and placed in an isolette a few feet away.
I reach for her, but she is too far for me to touch.

The medical staff, they do what they need to do for her and for me.
I follow intently with my eyes as they examine her body for wholeness.
She is soon wheeled away for tests and I am moved to recovery.
It is our first time apart. I fall back into a sleep. Exhaustion settles in.

A few hours after surgery, I awake from a fog of anesthesia.
I am in my hospital room, my husband at the end of the bed watching me.
I look around the room for her. I am confused.
“Where’s our baby?” I ask my husband to get her from the nursery.
I am anxious to hold her.
“I can't bring her to you,” he says, carefully, controlled.
“What? Why not? Where is our little girl?”
He tells me that our baby needs extra care in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
"A little trouble breathing."
That is all he knows.

I wait. All day.  All night.
No doctor, nurse, or other health professional involved in my baby's care comes to talk with me. The urinary catheter inserted in me during surgery has to stay in place for 24 hours so I am connected to this bed until tomorrow.
I must be with my baby. 
It is now early the next morning. The catheter is removed now and I am finally tube-free. I can get up. I can love my baby.
My husband is home caring for our older child, he is not due back for a couple of hours.
I cannot wait another minute. 
Gently, I slide my body out of bed, get my slippers on and shuffle to the hospital elevators.
I feel the pull of the incision and the swelling in my ankles and feet.
I find my way to the NICU, a few levels down from the maternity floor.
I must be with my baby.  

I wash my hands as instructed at the entrance to the NICU. I enter the unit by myself.
I look into the NICU feeling weak and lost amid the rows of isolettes and monitors.
Which one is mine? Is she the one with that tube in her throat, or the one who is clinging to life on that vibrating table? I am terrified.

I ask the first person who acknowledges me to please help me find my baby.
“Hi. I am looking for Mia Benz, born yesterday, I am her mother.”
My baby's name does not seem to register. I ask again,
“The last name is B-E-N-Z. A girl. One day old. Is she here?”
Maybe I am in the wrong place. Maybe she is in the nursery, swaddled and ready for me to hold. Surely they would know my baby's name if she were here.

Before I leave, I ask one more person.
“Oh, yeah, you mean the PNEUMOTHORAX. Right, I think that's the COLLAPSED LUNG and PNEUMONIA one. Look over there (motioning with a jerk of his head), at the end of the row on the left.”
He walks away.

I am a hit and run. I am left to absorb this shock alone, with nothing or no one to hold me up. 
What did he just say about my baby? She has a pneumo WHAT? She's where?
My legs begin to shake. A nurse sees me from across the room, and comes to push a wheelchair beneath me. She takes me to sit beside the spot where my baby has been placed.

My little girl is in a plastic box with beeping, flashing devices overhead.
She has a tube in her tiny nose. She is sleeping but her breathing is rapid and labored.
I watch closely as tape and wires stuck to her chest move quickly up and down.
How could this happen? Did I do something wrong? What can I do to make her perfect?
The nurse who sat me down explains that my Mia might need a chest tube.
She has an IV for antibiotics. Her veins could be a problem we will have to wait and see.

“What can I do for her?” I beg for anything I can do.
The nurse tells me all the things I can not do. I cannot feed her. I cannot hold her.
I cannot dress her in the special clothes I brought for her birth.
Give me something, anything to do that will make me really her mother. 

They say I am allowed to touch her. I place my hands through an opening in the box and stroke her. I instantly love the feel of her skin, her face, her fuzzy hair, the sound of the air moving as she exhales.

I take my eyes off of her for just a moment, long enough to notice other moms in my row huddled around their boxes, too. I can see the pain, the fear, the hope, the uncertainty, the brokenness. No one seems to make eye contact, we are each an island.

Some of the moms are wearing real clothes while others have hospital gowns like me.
I realize that the moms in clothing have come from the outside to visit their babies.
Is that going to be me, discharged from the hospital empty handed?
I feel sick thinking about what that life must be like, a baby in a box instead of a crib at home.
I cannot leave without my baby.

I go back to watching Mia breathing. I want to do it for her, to take the pressure out of her chest and push it into mine.
Please Lord, let me bring my baby home.
I cannot leave without my baby.

They tell me I have to go now. It is time for the staff to round. I can come back later. There is a schedule. I have to come in and out when they say.
How can I wait out there while my heart is in here, struggling for breath in this plastic box?
I walk out as I came in.

Lisa Benz Scott, PhD '00, is director of the Program in Public Health, Stony Brook University Health Sciences Center, and an associate professor in Health Technology & Management, and Medicine



  • Janice Bowie

    BSPH 02/26/2013 04:26:37 PM

    Wow, Lisa I never knew this happened during Mia's birth. Thank God, she and I hope many of the other babies in the NICU, grew up to be healthy sons and daughters.

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