1. McCann, Kelly Adams BA, AAS, RN


She was a mother. But for how long?


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"If you can sit up, you can go and see the baby," my nurse whispered. My husband, Michael, gripped the handles of the empty wheelchair. I'd been heavily sedated for nearly 24 hours. The pain from my cesarean was searing as I struggled out of the hospital bed and forced my bloated torso into a right angle.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Lisa Dietrich

"Let's go," I said through gritted teeth. Michael wheeled me down the hallway, past proud papas and visitors with fruit baskets. I'd had early preeclampsia: by week 24 of my pregnancy there'd been protein in my urine, my feet were hugely swollen, and my blood pressure was soaring. I'd been hospitalized on Mother's Day, and four days later I'd had an emergency cesarean.


The antiseptic smell hit me as we entered the dimly lit neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). We don't belong here, I thought. Mike headed me toward the far side of the unit, the area I later learned was reserved for the sickest babies. I was unable to return the young nurse's kind smile.


My baby was snuggled inside a nest of wires and tubes, an ersatz womb. Machines around her beeped, methodically at times, shrilly at others. A pink index card taped to the side of her Isolette read, "McCann, female." Her name is Tara Beth McCann, I wanted to scream. The date of birth on the card was May 17, 2001. That can't be right, I thought. She's not due until August. Her weight and height were also on the card: 701 g (1 lb., 8.7 oz.), 131/2 in.


Now I had a daughter. I was a mother. But for how long?


Tara had been taken off the ventilator and was breathing on her own with the help of the CPAP. Her skin was scarlet and wrinkled like an old man's, her chest dwarfed by the electrodes as she took erratic breaths. A crocheted, pink-and-white-striped hat enveloped her head; her eyes were covered as she slept under the bilirubin lights. Her hands were gently folded, ladylike and serene, her fingers long and graceful like my grandmother's.


I whispered, "Hi baby. I'm your mama." Her finger twitched, and an alarm sounded. Oh my God, I thought, what have I done? Tears came hard, like the labor I never had. I was discharged four days later. I had held Tara for the first time earlier that day. Somewhere in the feather-light bundle of blankets had been my baby.


Tara made slow and steady progress, while I careened through emotions. When a sitcom character gave birth, I dissolved into hysterical sobs. Rage erupted when I received a sympathy card from an acquaintance. Mostly, I blamed myself: I had a busy, stressful job. Maybe I should have stopped working sooner, gone into the pregnancy thinner, meditated more.


I sank into a deep depression, full of self-loathing. My body had rejected my own child. How could I be strong enough to take care of her when she came home? I pumped my breast milk like a woman possessed. I sat for hours watching her breathe. I lived for the chance to hold her, change her diaper, even slip my finger in the Isolette so she could wrap her tiny fingers around my pinky.


I'd had an atrophic kidney since I was a child. The obstetrician who'd delivered Tara said another pregnancy would be unwise and was likely to kill both mother and child. At my six-week check-up with the nephrologist, I learned that my blood pressure level was still much too high and that I needed to go back on my old medication, which would be secreted in the breast milk. The pumping would have to stop.


I called my NP, Beth. "I can't stop pumping," I sobbed. "Tara needs my milk." Beth stopped me: "Kelly, you're no good to her dead." I was ripe for a stroke or a heart attack, two things I'd narrowly dodged at Tara's birth. Beth had me talk with a postpartum stress counselor, who diagnosed a combination of postpartum depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Just knowing I wasn't crazy helped tremendously. I started exercising more, meditating, and taking an antidepressant. I realized I had to stay healthy because I was in this for the long haul.


That was seven years ago. Tara has some developmental delays and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, but she's a strong, affectionate child with a personality far larger than her small stature, the only physical evidence of her 98 days in the NICU. I never went back to my old job. I began course work when Tara was two years old, and this past year I became a nurse. I also had my tubes tied. Mike and I want to adopt another child and are beginning the paperwork this summer. At times, on the medical-surgical oncology unit where I work, I remind family members to take care of themselves-after all, I say, you're in this for the long haul.