Monday, August 17, 2009

I am a person like me

On the night my son was born as I waited anxiously for the nurses on duty to finish running a multitude of lines, I wandered about in the halls of the University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Over the course of eight hours, I had gone from the mind-numbing boredom that comes from managing a tour company in Chicago in February to a new father, worried about his son who had to be delivered three months early. After crossing the threshold into the third trimester on a Sunday, my wife needed an emergency delivery on Tuesday to give both her and the baby any chance of making it through the night.

To see that sentence hashed out so bluntly is still quite a shock. It seems better suited to a subplot on an ER rerun than to my life and the disconnect is still nearly as wide as it was on that night this February. Months after the fact - and with the added security of a healthy baby boy and a wife who rebounded spectacularly in a matter of days - my wife and I would have a few discussions about what happened that day and how neither of us chose to focus on the danger she was in, only on the months that our son would be forced to fight in the hospital. We agreed that neither of us would ever fully understand just how bad things could have been and that we were each OK with that possibility.

That night, though, I was antsy and off-kilter and tasked with juggling two families who wanted to see their grandson or nephew and struggling to learn the rules of the NICU and what we needed to do in the meantime.

In the hallway, on the wall across from the elevators and just around the corner from the restroom was the huge quilt seen above. I immediately thought it looked like one of the kids from the Rugrats cartoons, only with a hospital band and a few more pieces of hardware. On some level, I thought it was cute and touching and was likely put up to make little folks feel more comfortable about their stay at a childrens' hospital.

It wasn't until weeks later that I made the connection that the only difference between that baby and my own was that my baby usually looked a lot less cheerful and had thousands more dollars of equipment in his pictures. There and then I was taken by a sudden and unmistakable feeling that I was not simply passing through this floor on my way to another floor - this was our life.

My son is coming up on six months old - less than that for those familiar with terms like "adjusted age" - and shows no signs of anything out of the ordinary for a baby of his "ages." Recently, I poked around the pictures taken since February and even I am amazed at just how far he has come.

In between, my stance on health care and the hospital experience has changed in some regards and been steeled in others as I came across families in the NICU and throughout the hospital who were just like us - in a place they didn't expect to be and trying to make the best of it.

I'll save the long-winded, impassioned plea for health care/insurance reform for later when I have more time and energy, but given the occasion of my son's six-month birthday, I was really struck by just how much things have changed in six months.

More than that, things changed without my being fully aware of it. When I hear the back and forth on reform, I'm amazed at how much of the debate is based on the premise that if you don't smoke, don't drink, are generally good health and have some form of insurance, you become bulletproof. You're not. My wife falls under all of those headings and we still had reason to worry for months on end.

The bottom line is that no matter how bulletproof you think you are, there's always that chance that you'll become a different person overnight.

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