Trigger warning: child loss
I am a proud Respiratory Therapist (RT).
I worked in the largest Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in our province (I’m Canadian). The sickest newborn babies from up to 1000 kilometers (700 miles) away were flown to our center for our expert care. And it is the sickest of the sick and the smallest of the small who require a Respiratory Therapist.
On a daily basis, my job was to breathe life into these tiny, helpless beings. Though I spent my time perfecting each breath, there were days I also provided their last.
For some parents, it is anticipated ahead of time. A prenatal scan revealed something out of the ordinary, specialists confirmed, and a plan was put in place to relocate to our hospital for the birth. For others, it is a heartbreaking shock when their baby is born. Regardless, everyone knows that if a baby requires that level of care, it is not good.
Congenital heart defects, congenital diaphragmatic hernias, intrauterine growth restriction, infection, chromosomal abnormalities, traumatic deliveries, or simply that they made their debut prematurely are a few of the reasons babies may be admitted to the NICU.
Each baby with its own set of circumstances. Each illness with its own set of respiratory intricacies.
In the NICU, one of the RT’s responsibilities is managing the life support devices necessary to keep our sick babies alive. For these patients, everything we do revolves around optimizing the breaths we deliver; minuscule changes to fine-tune ventilatory settings, blood samples, removing secretions from the airways, delivering respiratory medications, chest physiotherapy, and so on.
However, it is also our responsibility to remove the life support when there is nothing more that can be done.
It was obviously the sickest babies who required the majority of my focus. Out of necessity to ensure that everything within my control was perfect and out of sheer human emotion, I spent hours at your baby’s bedside. Regardless of whether it was day or night, I was there.
I was fortunate enough to connect with many families, as you too, spent many hours at the bedside. You would tell me about your other children or how you came up with the name for your new addition. I would tell you about where I grew up or how I became an RT.
Neither of us taking our eyes off the precious cherub between us, we bonded.
There is never a baby, never a family that deserves this outcome. A doctor sitting you down to tell you that we have exhausted all of our options, that the child will have no quality of life if we continue, that we are only prolonging the suffering. It makes me sick just writing it. But tragically, it happens.
When the moment came, your family gathered in the small hospital room. A room that once held hope, will now hold nothing but heartache and a precious few memories.
Our team of medical staff would have planned the process in incredible detail to provide you with the lasting comfort knowing your baby was at peace.
When it was my turn to act, the final step in removing care from your child, someone would confirm you were ready to proceed. With your nod, I would deliver your baby’s last breath. I would remove all of the tubes and wires from their pristine body. I would deliver your baby to your devoted arms, exactly where they belonged.
Though I felt a strong connection to you, silently I left the room. You didn’t need an audience. There were no words that could have possibly offered you any comfort. After that, all I could give you was space. Space to memorize every inch of your baby, space to say goodbye.
At the time, I hid my tears. I stayed strong for you. I needed you to know, without a doubt, you were making the right decision for the best interest of your baby. Because you did.
Now that time has passed, I want you to know, that I was heartbroken too. You should never have had to make that decision. You should never have had to let your baby go. But your strength will always be admired.
Since that time, I have become a parent myself and I’ve thought about what you went through. You demonstrated the most selfless act of love for your child. You shouldered all their pain and suffering to let them rest in peace. And my wish for you is that you have found peace too.
I will never forget your angel or the day they gained their wings.
Years later, I still carry your baby’s memory with me.