food for thought - part one

Before Michael and I knew we were having a son we referred to our unborn child simply as Peanut. Little did we know how apropos the nickname would become.

Six weeks premature, Calvin weighed only four pounds fifteen ounces. Though he seemed a mere peanut to us, he was a giant amongst the many micro-preemies nestled in clear plastic isolettes in the neonatal intensive care unit, some barely over a pound.

Calvin’s sucking reflex had not developed when he was born. He had to learn it. To further complicate things, his frenulum was short, meaning he was tongue tied, so including his high palette it was difficult for him to latch on. Several lactation consultants recommended some unusual methods to help us. I remember one telling me, when Calvin was just a week old, not to look at him while nursing because it would distract him. She can’t have been a mother herself, her advice bristling against every motherly bone, muscle and cell in my body, heart and mind which instinctively told me to gaze deeply into my son’s indigo eyes. Another tried to outfit me in some perforated plastic nipple shields—as if I were Madonna on tour—supposedly meant to help Calvin latch on. Being a natural skeptic of superfluous gadgets, it was no surprise to me when they failed miserably.

Poor Calvin tried so hard, his weak tiny little body tiring easily at a task so crucial yet so difficult and tedious. At every feeding the nurse first weighed Calvin naked on a sensitive gram scale. She’d pass him to me and I’d nurse him in bed until he fatigued then she’d weigh him again and calculate the grams of milk he had ingested, which was usually only a fraction of his total goal. The remainder of his calories were administered via nasogastric (ng) tube, a thin plastic cannula that was inserted—painfully—through Calvin’s tiny nostril into his stomach. My previously pumped and refrigerated breast milk, drawn up into a large inverted syringe, was delivered very slowly employing gravity.

Every few days the ng tube had to be carefully replaced. The first time a skilled nurse had accurately measured the length of the tube I had watched attentively. Several inches of tube were kept as a leader then she marked, with a Sharpie, where it would enter his nostril. The rest of the length measured from his nostril across his cheek to his ear then down the side of his neck to his abdomen. After measuring she threaded the tube through his nose until the black mark was at his nostril’s edge, ensuring proper placement in his stomach by listening through a stethoscope. Once, an inexperienced nurse performed the task and I saw that she had measured the length incorrectly. Calvin, beet red, sputtering and screaming while we restrained him during the procedure, continued to cry in pain because the long tube was pushing against the wall of his stomach. Anxious and nearly hysterical, tears and snot drizzling in thin strands off of my hot face, I hovered over my tiny baby helping—though hating—to restrain him. Through my sobs and Calvin’s shrieks I sharply told the woman that she had measured incorrectly and asked that the skilled nurse be called immediately to correct the problem.

It took Calvin seven weeks of this grueling protocol before he mastered the art of nursing. Only then were we released from the hospital, free to bring him home for the first time with the hope that he would continue to nurse well enough to thrive.

To be continued

photo by Michael Kolster

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