Hi everyone. My name is Mary, I’m 23 years old, and I’m from New Brunswick, Canada. I blog at Kisses From The Cross. I started this blog a few months after the birth of my daughter as a way to document the joys and sorrows of raising a child with a brain injury. Gemma’s brain injury is a direct result of our traumatic birth, and today I want to share our birth story and NICU stay with you, not just to share how terrifying it can be, but as a witness to the goodness and providence of God.
Growing up in a devout Catholic family of 7 kids, I always knew I wanted a big family of my own. My greatest friends, from infancy to adulthood, have been my siblings. I believed that the greatest gift I would give my own children would be siblings and more siblings. As Catholics, Matt and I practice NFP. We talked often about our desire for children, and decided that we would be open to God’s will, and so we decided that we wouldn’t actively work to avoid or achieve pregnancy. We had no valid reasons to postpone pregnancy, we just weren’t sure if God was calling us to be parents yet, either. After a few months, though, I realized that the desire in my heart for children was much more than a desire, and so after 5 months of marriage, we decided we would actively try to get pregnant. We got pregnant my first cycle after that.
Finding out I was pregnant was pure joy! When I saw the positive test, I screamed and immediately burst into tears. I ran into my living room where we had a large image of The Divine Mercy above our mantle, and I just cried and thanked Jesus for this new life, and for the opportunity to be a mother. I was too excited to wait for Matt to come home from work, so I called him right away. He has a GREAT boss, and when his boss heard the news, he sent Matt home for the rest of the day to celebrate with me.
My pregnancy was healthy, but difficult. I suffered from severe morning sickness from 3 months on until about 8 months. I was vomiting so much that I had to leave my job as a waitress when I was 5 months pregnant. As we got closer to the end of pregnancy, I became more and more miserable. I didn’t gain a lot of weight while I was pregnant. In fact, I was often losing weight when I should have been gaining, which was a huge concern to my doctor. She was constantly telling me to eat more, but the nausea was so severe I could barely stomach anything. As the baby inside me grew and grew, I became more uncomfortable. Braxton Hicks and dilation started at 35 weeks, and the pain was constant. I was up for hours every night walking through painful Braxton Hicks contractions that seemed to go nowhere and do nothing for my body. I found it quite painful when the baby would move around and kick, and, as much as I don’t like to admit it, I really didn’t love being pregnant the same way some women do. I was eager for my baby, and I couldn’t wait for my due date.
I was due September 23rd, and I hoped and prayed that the baby would come a few days early, or on time. That didn’t happen. I was feeling sorry for myself that I was in so much pain, and that I was still pregnant. To make matters worse, all the women around me who were pregnant all began having their babies, either early, or on their due dates. Women who were due 1 to 2 weeks after me had their babies in their arms, and here I was, huge, still pregnant, and overdue. I got pretty deep into the self-pity, and I was miserable to be around. I look back on the final weeks of my pregnancy with a lot of shame. I really didn’t handle it very well.
I had a membrane sweep when I was 41 weeks pregnant, but the OB told me she didn’t think I would be going into labor on my own. After 6 full weeks of Braxton Hicks contractions, I was still only 1 cm dilated. I went home from the appointment feeling defeated, and terrified of being induced. I had a birth plan, and being induced didn’t fit in with that plan. I finally decided that I would stop complaining and feeling sorry for myself, and that I would offer up my pain and discomfort, and give God control. No amount of crying and begging on my part sent me into labor, so I thought it might be time for a different approach.
On October 2nd, Matt and I were at my parents house in the evening visiting with family. I had been up all night the night before with painful Braxton Hicks that lasted for about 6 hours, but, again, didn’t go anywhere. I wasn’t feeling well, so around 9:30 pm, I asked Matt if we could go home so that I could try to sleep. I was scheduled to be induced the next morning, and I wanted to sleep as much as I could. We arrived home, and I jumped in the shower to prep myself for the induction the next day. I was still feeling unwell, and a little crampy, so I cut the shower short. Immediately after stepping out of the bathtub, my water broke. The shock, and emotional relief I experienced was amazing! Finally! I called to Matt that my water broke, and that we had to go to the hospital. Even though labor hadn’t started, I was instructed to go to the hospital right away for IV antibiotics if my water broke, as I had tested positive for GBS (Group B Streptococcus – a bacteria that can live in a woman’s birth canal. If passed on to the baby, it can cause illnesses such as pneumonia, meningitis and septicemia). I was so nervous and excited. We were FINALLY going to meet this baby, and I wasn’t going to be pregnant anymore!
We made it to the hospital at 10 pm, and I was introduced to my wonderful labor and delivery nurse. She asked if we knew what we were having, but we didn’t know. As much as Matt had wanted to find out, we decided that the gender of our first baby would be a surprise. Throughout my whole pregnancy, just about everyone I met told me I was having a boy. Some people even went so far as to buying me clothes for a baby boy. I really wanted a girl, but when I told anyone that I thought I might be having a girl, they always said “oh, no way, you’re definitely having a boy”. On my 23rd birthday, when I was 8 months pregnant, a friend of mine gave me a beautiful gift. Years earlier, I came across the biography of Saint Gemma Galgani, and had a major conversion. Since that time in my life, I’ve had a special devotion to this beautiful, little-known Saint. My friend knew of this love I had for Saint Gemma, and so she gifted me with a beautiful cross that houses First Class relics of Saint Gemma Galgani! I was speechless. At the beginning of my pregnancy, I had offered my pregnancy to Saint Gemma, and asked her to watch over my baby in a special way, and after that I always had a feeling that I was having a girl. After receiving Saint Gemma’s relics, I KNEW that the baby in my womb was a girl and that she would be my little Gemma.
The nurse started me on antibiotics and Pitocin. I told the nurse and doctor that I really didn’t want Pitocin, but they informed me that, since my water broke, there was a greater chance of the bacteria moving up into my uterus, so we had to try to get things going in order to lessen the chance of the baby being infected as well. It was a little scary to think about the baby possibly getting sick, so I went with what they suggested. Around midnight, though, I was taken completely off the Pitocin, as I began to bleed and the baby’s heart rate would drop through each contraction. They warned me that labor might slow down now that I was off the pitocin, but I really didn’t mind. I wanted to do this as drug-free as possible. Soon after the Pitocin was out of my system, though, my labor really picked up. I could no longer cope while lying down, so I got on my feet. I experienced really intense back labor. I couldn’t talk through my contractions, all I could do was point to my back so that Matt knew to start massaging. I sat silently on a birthing ball for about 6 hours until I couldn’t handle it anymore. At this point, my contractions were lasting 2 full minutes, and coming every 30 seconds. I wouldn’t even be fully out of a contraction before the next one started, so I thought that I MUST be close to transition.
My nurse checked me and informed me that I was only 5 cms dilated. I was so disappointed and discouraged. I was really hoping to labor without an epidural, but I was absolutely exhausted, I was fighting down the urge to vomit with each contraction, the pain in my back was unlike anything I’d ever experienced, and, according to everything I had learned in my pre-natal classes, these contractions should mean that I’m much further along than I really was. I knew I couldn’t go much longer, so I asked for the epidural. 2 hours later, at 8 am, I was given the epidural, and I was finally able to sleep. As much as I had wanted to have a natural birth, I was really proud of myself for making it as long as I did. I was finally able to sleep, something I hadn’t been able to do in over 30 hours. Looking back, I thank God that I was willing to stray from my birth plan. Had I not, I wouldn’t have delivered a living baby.
After sleeping for 4 glorious hours, a nurse woke me at 12 noon to check my cervix. She informed me that I was 9 cms dilated! We were so excited! We would be meeting this baby soon! I was so so happy! Immediately after checking me, though, the baby’s heart rate dropped significantly. For the next 10 minutes, my nurse tried flipping me around in all sorts of different positions to try to get the heart rate back up, but nothing seemed to work, so she hit the emergency button. Within minutes, doctors, nurses and an obstetrician filled the room. There were about 10 new people in the room now. I looked at Matt, and calmly asked him to start texting family members and ask for prayer. Something was wrong.
The OB told me that we had to start pushing NOW, and that he would be using a vacuum to assist me in the delivery. 20 minutes later, at 12:34 pm on October 3rd, 2013, 10 days past due, Gemma Therese was born, silent, still, and covered in meconium. It was spilling out of her nose and her mouth. It was a horrible sight. I prayed immediately and asked God to calm my heart and my nerves. I knew she wasn’t supposed to look that way. I knew that I wouldn’t get to hold her, or even see her for a while. The doctors and nurses crowded around the bassinet, trying to suction out her lungs and get her to breathe. Matt and I held hands and prayed silently, not wanting to distract anyone from the work that needed to be done. A few minutes later, Gemma was rushed to the NICU. I was left to be stitched up - shocked, scared, trying hard to trust God. No one told us anything. They just wheeled her out of the room and rushed down the hall. Had it not been for God, I know I would have been in hysterics.
A few hours later, after her lungs had been suctioned out and her stomach had been pumped, we were allowed to go see her. We were told by quite a few of the doctors and nurses who had been present that they had never seen a delivery with so much meconium. They also informed us that she had scored a 3 on her APGAR, which wasn’t good. When we got to the NICU, we were shocked to see Gemma hooked up to a CPAP machine, and with tubes down her throat and IV’s in her tiny body. The nurses told us that she had swallowed and inhaled dangerous amounts of meconium, but that she was being given antibiotics, so she should be good to come home in a few days. We were so relieved to know that this was all just precautionary. We weren’t allowed to hold her, but we spent a long time sitting beside her isolette before we went to bed, thankful that she was going to be ok.
We were woken in the early morning by the neonatologist who told us that Gemma began having seizures through the night, and these seizures would cause her whole body to go completely stiff, and she would stop breathing to the point that she was turning blue. He sadly told us that it didn’t look like Gemma would survive, and that we should contact our family to come to the hospital in the morning. The sorrow we felt when we learned that our precious baby might not make it is something I can’t describe. This so longed-for child, so loved and desired, and God was going to take her from me already? I wanted to scream and cry, but I couldn’t. I knew if I gave into the fear that there would be no coming back from that. Instead, I prayed like I’ve never prayed before, and I told God that I was terrified, and I needed Him badly. Lots of family arrived at the hospital early in the morning, and Gemma received the Sacrament of Baptism, as well as the Sacrament of the Sick. She wasn’t even 24 hours old. We hadn’t even held her. At 8 pounds 4 ounces, Gemma was the biggest baby in the NICU, but she was also the sickest. She had a nurse at her bedside 24/7.
An EEG later in the morning showed that seizures were firing in every part of her brain. The neurologist decided that the only way to give Gemma a fighting chance would be to seriously drug her, in order to give her brain a chance to relax and possibly even heal. We soon discovered that Gemma was having a seizure every time she was stimulated in any way, so we were told that we were no longer allowed to reach into her isolette to touch her. Matt and I would stand beside her, praying, crying and talking to her. After seeing Gemma seize and turn blue, I agreed to anything they wanted to do. It’s a sight that I will never forget. It’s not something you ever could. Gemma was given a shot of Ativan, and was then started on phenobarbital and Dilantin, both strong anti-seizure medications. We were told to expect a lengthy NICU stay. After that, Gemma was basically in an induced coma, but the seizures were stopping. An MRI showed swelling in her brain that was only made worse by the intense seizures. They suspected it was due to lack of oxygen, but when the blood in her umbilical cord was tested, the oxygen levels were not low enough to have caused that damage. It was incredibly hard not knowing what had caused it. I had to fight off the feelings that, somehow, I had caused this. I felt responsible, that I had failed to bring her into this world safely, that, as her mother, I had failed her. The guilt was enormous, and I battled with it constantly.
I was in the hospital for 4 and a half days before being discharged without Gemma. In many ways, it felt so wrong going home without her, but I think God granted us a huge mercy in that we didn’t know the difference. We didn’t know what it was like to come home with a baby, so leaving her behind almost felt normal, if that makes sense. Despite everything that was going on, I felt a lot of peace and calm when people were visiting at the hospital. I didn’t feel like I had to pretend to be strong, because God was providing me with the strength I needed. I was worried about turning into a big blubbering mess, but it never seemed to happen, and I think the fact that Matt and I were handling it so well made it easier on the rest of our family who was also hurting deeply. Through all the fear, we held onto the hope that God would give us a miracle; that He would save Gemma’s life. In the evenings, when everyone went home and I was ordered to sit in the bath tub for 20 minutes, I would cry and pray. I told God how absolutely terrified I was of losing Gemma. I told Him that I was so weak, and that I couldn’t do this without His strength. I told Him that I was choosing to trust Him, because I was completely powerless. There was absolutely nothing I could do for Gemma, and realizing that I had no control was hard, especially when all you want to do is make your child’s hurt and pain go away. Not being allowed to hold or even touch Gemma literally killed me. My heart ached for her. I felt such homesickness. She was my heart, my home, and I couldn’t even touch her. I begged our Blessed Mother to go and be with Gemma, to hold her and comfort her, and to be the mother that Gemma needed that I couldn’t be right now. Despite the intense sorrow I felt, I knew that my prayers were being heard, and that God was going to take care of us. I had no idea, though, just how good He would be.
I asked Saint Gemma to continue watching over our little Gemma, asking her to intercede for us. We placed the cross with her relics in the isolette with Gemma, hoping for a miracle. Family and friends immediately began spreading the word that a little family from New Brunswick, Canada had a very sick newborn, and needed a miracle. Within days, our prayer request had been heard by thousands of friends, family and strangers from all across Canada, the US, Europe and Australia. When the prayers started pouring in, Gemma began improving rapidly. At 6 days old, Gemma was moved from an isolette to a cot, she no longer needed 24 hour care, and we were able to hold her for the first time. It was sweetness and joy and everything beautiful that I could have ever wanted. She fit perfectly in our arms. She was so beautiful. I was completely overwhelmed with thankfulness, that God was finally letting me hold my precious girl. I cried the most joyful tears. There was no bitterness in my heart at having had to wait for her. The waiting only seemed to make it sweeter.
When Gemma was 1 week old, I was rushed into emergency surgery for severe hemorrhaging. In the chaos of Gemma’s birth, my placenta hadn’t been checked properly. I had a D&C, and 3 pounds of placenta and blood clot was removed. I was shocked, but all I could think to do was thank God that we were given the opportunity to deal with this issue now, rather than later down the road when my health could have been seriously at risk. The same day as my surgery, we found out that a friend had started a private fundraiser for us, and for Gemma, to help deal with hospital and food expenses, as Matt was requesting more and more time off work so that we could be at the hospital with Gemma. On top of the thousands of prayers we received, we also received thousands of dollars, again from friends, family and people who didn’t even know us. We felt so incredibly humbled by the generosity of so many people, people who would give money to a family they didn’t even know. God was taking care of us in a way that we never imagined, and that was far better than we could have ever hoped. We were beginning to realize just how good He is, especially in adversity.
At 9 days old, all of Gemma’s tubes were removed, and I got to try breast feeding her for the first time. It was challenging, since we had a bit of a later start, but we soon got the hang of it. At 11 days old, Gemma was given her last dose of anti-seizure medication. We were warned not to expect too much yet, as she was still a very sick baby, but we continued to pray. We felt a lot of peace, and we knew that, no matter how long her stay in the NICU would be, God was taking care of our family. We knew that Gemma was in the best place possible. Her NICU nurses were amazing, and some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met.
At 16 days old, much to the shock and amazement of her doctors, Gemma was sent home, seizure and medication free. I can’t tell you what that felt like. When I think of great joy in my life, that day always comes to mind. We knew God was working in a special way through Gemma. Her time in the NICU was one of trial and conversion for us as a family, and for me personally. It was so hard. That’s an understatement. The NICU is a heart breaking place for a family to wind up. You go in every day wondering if your baby is getting better or worse. You’re completely powerless to heal the hurt your child is going through. It’s sleepless nights, often filled with calls to the hospital to see how your baby is doing because you just can’t seem to relax unless you know your child’s condition hasn’t worsened. It’s pumping breast milk into little sterilized bottles every 3 hours in a desperate attempt at establishing your milk supply so that maybe, just maybe, you will be able to do something beneficial for your child. It’s long hours, often spent sitting beside an isolette exploding with tubing and machinery, not getting to hold, or kiss, or touch or smell your little one. Your heart aches for this tiny, helpless baby. Your baby. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever experienced. I wouldn’t wish a stay in the NICU on my worst enemy. It was good for us, though. Without the tremendous sorrow, we wouldn’t have known the incredible joy of her life and recovery, either. God wanted to make Saints of us, and so He sent us Gemma. She touched so many lives while in the hospital. I had numerous people tell me that they weren’t “praying people” or that they didn’t believe in God, but when they heard about Gemma, they felt the need to pray for her, and that they have been changed by it. I learned more about what it means to REALLY trust God while Gemma was in the hospital than I had learned my whole life. I’m growing in ways I never thought possible. Our road to recovery is far from over. Gemma is delayed in every aspect of her mental growth. She hasn’t met any of her milestones, she is in constant physical pain, and she is perpetually stiff as a result of the seizures. We’ve been told that there is a brain injury, but so far, we haven’t received a specific diagnosis yet. It’s terrifying, knowing your child is going to suffer and struggle their whole life, but God’s grace has been abundant. We’ve gained perspective through this experience. If we can survive nearly losing our newborn and then a traumatic injury and NICU stay, we can choose to be joyful while raising a sick child. God is showing us the way to Heaven, and He is using our sweet Gemma to help get us there.
If any of you have a story about a traumatic birth or a NICU stay, we would love for you to share your story or links below in the comments!
17 April 2014
My parents would call, extremely excited, and always want details about that specific opportunity and the interviews with that company. It started getting me really upset because I felt like they only cared about that one opportunity and were being biased since that job would put us within driving distance of them. Three years prior, I swore I would never move back to Florida. I personally loved living where there was 4 seasons and we wouldn't have to deal with the extreme heat. Yes, I love my family, but I just didn't ever want to go back. I remember being in tears, praying that one of the other jobs would work out and we wouldn't have to go back to Florida.
I had no idea that 4 months later, Ryan would still be in the interviewing process and still without a job.
Now obviously our biggest prayers were that Ryan would find a job - regardless of where it was. I quickly forgot my resistance towards Florida, or any state for that matter. During our time in New Jersey, we struggled through a lot of different emotions. I couldn't shake the feeling that things were so drawn out for a reason. I would catch myself saying, "God, why is this taking so long?", but I know there is always a plan and a reason for everything.
Fast forward to today. I am so happy that Ryan ended up getting that job in Florida. By the time we moved down here, I hadn't seen my family in over six months and I really missed them. It had also been a pretty brutal winter, and we gladly welcomed the warmer weather. As we've started the house hunting process, we've found a few homes that I'm pretty sure may end up being "the one". I began to realize that sometimes God doesn't change your situation because He wants to change your heart.
Had I moved down here last November I would have had a terrible attitude. I would have always wondered if we were meant to be somewhere else or feel like we were forced to come down here. But after going through those four months of Ryan weeding through companies, interviewing all over the country and finally being offered a fantastic job in Florida - we knew this is where we were meant to be. Do I wish that we wouldn't have had to go through those hard months? Of course! But I watched as God worked on my heart and Ryan's over that time period. I know that the day we moved down here was decided way before it occurred. I know there is the perfect house, neighborhood and church for our family as well. I will love looking back five years down the road and acknowledging all of the things in our life that were dependent on this exact timeline.
My heart has completely changed since November. I am so grateful for Ryan's job and I truly appreciate how special it is to have family so close by. Little things I took for granted are now apparent, and I couldn't me more overwhelmed with all of the blessings in our life.