Last in a 4 part series. To read the story in its entirety, click HERE.
The ensuing hours passed ever so slowly. My worst nightmare was unfolding before me and I knew at that very moment, my life was altered forever. True fear is an awareness of a complete lack of control and when it makes an appearance it is never quite what we expect.
In fact, it’s worse.
It was a solid 40 minute drive to the airport. I sat in the back of the cab shaking and bobbing my head back and forth. I can’t imagine what was going through the mind of my driver. He said not a single word the entire ride. My body was so overloaded with emotion, I honestly thought I may have a heart attack.
I stared out the side window of the car as we rolled down the freeway in a country and city with which I was not familiar. I had never felt more alone. Tears rolled down my face incessantly and as I fumbled for my cell phone and tried to dial, I couldn’t. My hands were shaking and I knew that once I made that call, I would get 1 of 2 answers, the first being that everything was OK. But if that wasn’t going to be the answer, I didn’t want to make the call. And my body made sure that I physically couldn’t do it – it had taken over and knew that I couldn’t handle that kind of truth right then. So for a short few minutes, I sat there. Stared out the window and tried to pull myself together.
It was during those few moments of horrific contemplation, that everything in life made sense. For the first time in my life, I knew what I wanted with unambiguous clarity and focus. My mind slowed, the external world clouded, and all I could see was Val laughing, happy and smiling back at me.
My fingers dialed, I trembled, and tried to speak to the person on the other end. After a series of transfers, a woman with a soft and gentle, but scared voice came on the line.
“Yes… “ That’s all I could get out.
She told me her name but I don’t remember what she said. She very briefly told me what had happened and that she was the nurse that was taking care of Val before all hell broke loose. She asked me if I were ok but I couldn’t physically answer. All I cared about was if Val was ok.
“She was stable the last time I saw her before they took her to the O.R. That’s all I know.”
I don’t think I ever knew how much I loved my wife until that very moment. You read about those moments of clarity that others have had during disasters, near-death experiences, intense moments of stress, and the like, but you never really understand it until it taps you on the shoulder or in this case, punches you in the face. I’m not even sure if it was the most painful or beautiful feeling I’ve ever experienced. But for me, those two lines blurred into a single moment of intense and clarified vision of what was important in my life.
I don’t remember paying the driver, walking through the airport, going through security, customs, or the flight itself. I remember making at least one phone call to my mother in Florida to let her know what was happening but I couldn’t speak very well. She kept asking me what was wrong and I could only offer a few words at a time. The call was short and I was alone again about to board a plane en route to my worst nightmare.
I was most certainly in shock. When I arrived at Logan in Boston, I remember walking very briskly to baggage claim. I started to run, but stopped as I started shaking again. I didn’t know what I was going to find at the hospital. I didn’t know if I had lost my wife. I didn’t know if I had lost my first child – and twins at that. What if we lost the girls? What if I lost Val? Both? Every conceivable outcome flashed through my mind. My physical body took over and somehow it got me into a cab and to the hospital.
It must have been around 9 or 9:30pm. The lobby was eerily quiet for such a busy hospital even though it was a Friday night. I approached the security desk said something and was quickly escorted across the dimly lit expanse of a lobby, down a corridor to a set of elevators and up to what was to become our home for the next 93 days.
I walked into a room. And there she was – awake, groggy but talking, and alive.
For reasons nobody still understands, the umbilical cord from one of the twins had ruptured from the placenta and Val was bleeding out. In a sheer twist of good fate, Val happened to already be at the hospital, happened to already have a central line in, and it happened to be during a shift change so there were double the number of clinicians that would have normally been around. Val was losing blood and both babies were obviously in severe distress not only due the fact they were only 27 ½ weeks, but were also losing blood.
There was no time. The primary focus was to save Val.
They performed an emergency c-section in what was later described to me as simply a scene of “controlled chaos” amid an enormously stressful situation. There were 20-30 doctors and nurses in the room that day at one of the best hospitals in the world and with one of the best and most advanced level 3 NICUs in the country.
The girls were literally yanked from Val’s body, 3 months too soon, and were immediately given life support measures. Their APGAR scores were 0 and 1 and weighed in at 1 lb/15 oz and 2 lbs/2 oz. Their umbilical cords were empty. Units of blood were tossed from one side of the room to the other and quite literally squeezed into their lifeless bodies. Until, their tiny hearts began to beat again.
One of the doctors came in to see us a while later. She told us that she had no doubt that Val would continue to heal and that she would recover well. And she told us that if Val had been home when this all happened, or even if she had been at the hospital but not already in a trauma room with a central line in, this may have been a different conversation.
But the question still remained: what was happening with the girls?
Val had waited for me to get to the hospital before going to see them: a gesture in kindness for which I will forever be grateful. Together we went to the NICU for the first time as parents to see the two tiny miracles that had just been subjected to the most violent, traumatic, and death-defying birth one can imagine.
We were both in a trance and could only stay for a few minutes but we were able to see them, touch their tiny hands, and let them hear our voices from behind a plastic window. Again, the lines of horror and beauty blurred.
The doctor told us that Ava was holding on but that he “feared for little Zoe” and that he was not confident that she would make it through the night – that we should prepare ourselves.
There really are no words to describe such a feeling. So I won’t even try.
The next day, the sun rose after a sleepless night and the same doctor came in and sat on the bed.
“She’s still holding on.”
It was day 1 of what would be a 93 day residency at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital NICU. 93 days of utter pain, joy, horror, hope, and love. It would be a long time before we were even able to hold our girls but once we did, we’ve never let go. There were ups and downs, surgeries and therapies, scary drugs and scarier alternatives, tubes and wires, IVs, needles, and recurring bad news.
But eventually the positives began to outweigh the negatives and gradually, every so slowly, they began to thrive and grow stronger with every labored breath as they crawled their way back to life.
I’m not sure how we got through it all, but we did.
On Christmas Eve, 2006, Ava & Zoe came home together. It was our first holiday, our first day, as a family.
Five years later, they have never been apart, are best friends, and are thriving. They are the tallest kids in their pre-school class, are smart, funny as hell, and beautiful. And to add to the mix they have since been joined by their 2-year-old little brother (also a 15 day graduate of the BWH NICU) Connor.
Together, they remind us what is important in life. And while having 3 small kids at home often tests our collective powers of patience and tolerance, we strive everyday to be the best parents that we can be and share with them, our experience, strength and hope.
But that again blurs the lines between beauty and fear. And that’s how I know, it will be ok.