“Your baby’s too sick to stay here. We’re going to transfer him to the PICU where he can get more care.”
As I processed the nurse’s words, a tsunami of panic engulfed me. I gasped for air. Moments earlier, my newborn son had been urgently admitted to the hospital’s pediatric unit. Lethargic and with a dangerously high fever of 101.3 (a temperature above 100.4 is treated as an emergency in newborns), he’d been fastidiously whisked away for a spinal tap.
Only five days old, my infant’s condition was rapidly deteriorating; he was struggling to breathe, his heart rate had skyrocketed, and his blood pressure continued to sink. In shock, I struggled to process this dire turn of events. My baby was fighting for his life. Peripherally, I watched my husband fall to the floor in a disheveled heap, desperate sobs racking this body with violent spasms, and then I fell too, crumpling noiselessly beside him. We watched on the sidelines, powerless, as medical experts swarmed around our baby boy, now the sickest person in the hospital.
While doctors grappled to find the cause of our child’s swift decline, the hospital’s priest entered our room, asking permission to pray over our son (or read his last rites). Though we protested over and over, eventually we gave in and let him. I’ll never forget that day.
The tornado of traumatic events to follow drove me a deep personal anguish I hope to never experience again. We willed our baby to survive over the next two days as he received oxygen, fluids, and treatment for extreme jaundice. Finally, a urine culture revealed a deadly MRSA infection to be the reason behind our son’s sudden, ferocious illness, and he was put on a course of two powerful antibiotics.
Doctors explained the bacteria had entered the open, angry wound of our son’s circumcision site, traveling through his body and inflicting a world of harm. To our great relief, MRSA had not infected his blood or his spinal fluid; he was going to live. Still, every minute was critical. A severe case of epiglottitis had nearly blocked his airway, stolen his voice and endangered his ability to breathe.
Ground zero, the circumcision site, had become black with necrosis, as did his umbilical cord stump. Horrifically, no one could tell us when, or if, it would heal. Septic lesions sprouted on my baby’s abdomen, groin, and tongue, making breast feeding an infection risk for me. Instead, I pumped every two hours round the clock, and though stress caused my milk supply to dwindle to a pathetic trickle, I believed my lactation consultant’s mantra, “Breast is Best” and I wouldn’t stop trying.
Every day of our 3-week hospital stay, I struggled not to succumb to the despair threatening to cloak my mind in darkness. With each needle poke and prod my son endured, I wailed viscerally in pure anguish. The passing of days was painstakingly slow as we watched and waited to assess whether our child would face any residual damage from the infection.
I began to resent the steady stream of residents who trickled into our room all day, inspecting our son as if he were an exotic specimen. Nurses graciously arranged for me to sleep in a vacant wing of the hospital at night, where, several hours in, I’d awaken drenched and freezing, my body recovering from a severe case of mastitis on top of giving birth. After changing my sweat-soaked sheets and clothes, I’d painstakingly hook my breasts up to the pump, one by one, watching blood-tinged droplets collect at the bottom of the tube until there was nothing left but air. I layered lanolin over my raw, cracked nipples, passed out for a few more fitful hours, and dragged myself back to my son’s hospital room, broken and exhausted.
Surrounded by people, I’ve never felt more alone.
Although my son fully recovered, I battled PTSD for another two years. The enormity of this trauma overtook my fragile body and mind, rendering me in a constant state of fight or flight. Still, I truly believed that now, 7 years later, I’d fully recovered too; I was on the other side.
Then came COVID, shattering any sense of control I had. The future uncertain, my sense of security evaporated, and I experienced a quick resurgence of the trauma emotions. Instead of facing my feelings, I’d buried them, and here they were again, back with a vengeance.
Avoidance, or suppressing emotional pain, is a hallmark of PTSD, and anything that resembles the original trauma can trigger those suppressed emotions to resurface. Because trauma is so difficult to face, it often gives us tunnel vision, overwhelming our system and thrusting us into a state of emergency, so we’re fully attuned to solving the problem at hand, Psychologist and Trauma Expert Dr. Helene Brenner told me in an interview.
“What happened to your son, this freaky deadly infection, this life-threatening event, caused extreme feelings of being out of control,” Dr. Brenner explained. “Now here’s COVID, which is a freaky deadly infection, so naturally this finely-honed survival mechanism would be activated in your brain. It’s meant to respond not just to an exact copy of the first event, but anything that resembles it. Even though [your son] got better, and you felt okay, the truth is part of you is still that mother who got activated, and you’re on high alert to make sure this will never happen again.”
In the early days after we returned home from the hospital, I masked my lingering feelings of helplessness by inserting control wherever I could, precisely timing my son’s naps and logging every ounce of milk he drank. Still, my unrelenting anxiety was evident throughout my entire body, my jaw clenched in a vice-like grip, my shoulders perpetually tight with nervous tension, my stomach a twisted mess of nauseated knots. At night, my husband and I slept in shifts, though sleep eluded me, and I’d been prescribed a sedative to help me rest. My baby’s cries jolted me awake in the early morning hours, filling me with a fresh rush of adrenaline. In a perpetual state of fear and unease, I spent each day in survival mode.
Amidst COVID, I began to experience heightened fear and vulnerability, sending my system into overdrive. I began sleeping 10-12 hours each night, only to wake up feeling exhausted and numb. I realized I hadn’t healed from the extreme trauma and PTSD I’d experienced seven years ago, not completely, because I’d never fully allowed myself to face it.
Difficult emotions get stuck in our body if we fail to process them. By suppressing the pain, we hold on to past trauma. To begin the process of healing, it’s helpful to reappraise the danger of our current situation and revisit how we felt when the trauma happened, Dr. Brenner said.
“Acknowledge the feeling,” Dr. Brenner advised, and recommended that I reframe the situation, telling myself something like: “Yes, maybe I feel the same way, but it’s a different situation. I had no control the first time, but do I have more control this time? Is it different? What do I know to be true about this? [My son] is older, more is known about this [illness], I know there are treatments, I know I’m not alone.”
“This kind of rethinking may not be easy even with a supportive partner or friend, but it’s an important way to get the glass out of the wound and understand the strong emotions driving us,” Dr. Brenner added.
Implementing Brenner’s advice the best way I knew how, I wrote my 7-years younger self a letter:
To Me, the mama who almost lost her baby, I know you’re struggling, and I’m sorry I didn’t show up for you when you needed me. When your soul ached for warmth, I left you out in the cold. When you were hurt –no, shattered — I wouldn’t acknowledge your pain. When you needed to talk, I silenced you, refusing to listen. When you felt so brutally alone, I pushed you farther away. I am so sorry. I am here now. I am ready to feel your pain and help you heal. Mama, you’re going to be okay. I am going to be okay.
Reflecting on my son’s current health helps me put the past into perspective. I’ve begun to excavate the residual trauma buried deep inside of me, and finally, I’m able to acknowledge the pain of my past and validate the feelings I’d pushed to the side in order to survive. I’ve opened my heart up to receive the self-compassion and empathy I so desperately need but had closed myself off from in the past. I’ve removed the glass, and I’ve begun to heal.