Not all NICU stories have happy endings. We did not know the parents in the pod opposite London’s pod. They were very young, teenagers probably. Their baby seemed to arrive in the NICU around the same time London did. For nearly two weeks we were neighbors, who at most acknowledged each other’s presence, but did not speak to each other. We were just getting into the groove of having a baby in the NICU and I was not in the mood to chat it up with strangers. In addition to that, I did not identify with this couple. It seemed like the only thing we had in common was that we both had a baby in the NICU.
As London entered her second week of life, Kate and I noticed that anyone entering the pod across the hall had to gown up. One afternoon some doctors were working on this baby. Some sort of operation. Looked serious. One can only guess what was wrong, but it did not seem like a standard procedure.
Two days later, as we joined London for the day, I took notice of the parents. They looked especially worn out as they spoke with a doctor. We overheard a bit and they were being encouraged to call their parents. I should have taken that as a sign that things were not going to end well for them, but I remained optimistic. Maybe things have just gotten a little more serious, but the baby is still doing okay. Those hopes eroded a few hours later as I returned from a coffee run and heard a fellow speaking to other staff members. A chaplain had been called and most of the family was already here.
I entered our pod and told Kate what I heard. A little time passed and then I stepped outside our pod and stood at the sink in the hallway. Kate stayed inside holding London. As I washed breast pump parts I could hear the mom and dad across the hall starting to say goodbye to their baby. My back was turned to anyone else in the hall, so I did not hold my tears in. I wept for the parents out of sadness. I wept out of fear. I wanted to finish up cleaning as quick as possible so I could go back in our pod and sit a little closer to my baby girl.
Less than an hour later the baby across the hall was moved to a private room, where the family could spend the last hours of the baby’s life in privacy. This practice seems to be as much a benefit of the family with the sick baby as it is for the other NICU families.
Another hour later, I was getting water down the hall from the NICU front desk when I saw someone walk by with a professional camera. I recognized some of the people with the photographer as family of the sick baby. I don’t know for sure if the baby was still alive at that point, but there was still time for one last family portrait.
By the time we left and walked out of London’s room, the pod across the hall had been emptied of medical equipment, mopped, and sterilized. The equipment had been cleaned and put back in the room, but draped in plastic, protected and ready for use when the next little patient arrived. The room looked inviting with its giant windows and rocking chair, like it had already forgotten the family who was in there hours earlier. I remember thinking, the secrets these rooms keep are sometimes for the best.