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Coming Home

Michal Meltzer

My daughter was born 5 years ago at the Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, Israel. She was almost 4 months premature, at 26 weeks of gestation and weighing 950 grams. Hers was the easiest birth I’ve ever had… within half an hour she slipped out to the world with a big cry.

I saw her for a few seconds as she was immediately wrapped in a plastic film to keep her warm, and taken to be cared for by the staff. I remember being taken back to the obstetric ward and not being allowed to get out of my bed until the effects of the epidural wore off. I counted the minutes. Four hours later, at 11PM, I went up to the NICU to look for my little one. I recall the NICU being very quiet and dimmed at that time at night. There were no worried parents around; only some beeping from the monitors could be heard.

I peeked in with trepidation, I didn’t know what I was about to see. A nurse came up to greet me. As I told her that I had given birth a few hours ago and I was willing to see my baby, she immediately understood who I was, and said with a big smile: “ahhh, you are the mother of week 26”. And this is how I got to earn a new name!

My baby was in the left room, in the second incubator on the right. I looked at her, small, wrinkled, no eyelashes or eyebrows, lots of wires and stickers in her body, and too many tubes all around.

Yael in the NICU

This is how our journey began. We stayed in the NICU for 118 days. That place became my home; the nurses, physicians and the other parents became my family. I spent there all day, every day; and when I couldn’t come, I made sure there was someone there for her in my place. I was determined to hold her skin-to-skin as much as possible. I truly believed that this was the only way to help her develop and grow to be like everyone else. And, perhaps, it helped me still the pangs of conscience I felt about her lying there alone for so many hours in that warm box, and me returning home at the end of the day while she stayed.

It was only after a month that I gave her the name Yael.

When her discharge from hospital approached, I was worried. Having been always surrounded by other babies, parents and staff, I had never been actually alone with Yael. The last day in the NICU I cried, surely because of excitement yet also because of separation; I felt I was being cut off from such a beloved and protective environment. I hugged everybody goodbye and promised to come back and visit.

During the first year we had a lot of appointments at the follow up clinic. In each visit to the hospital, I felt automatically magnetized to the NICU. I waited for the appointment to be over just to be able to go with Yael to the NICU and pay a visit to the staff.

The follow up appointments decreased eventually, yet I made sure to come to the nursery with Yael every few months, until Covid-19 erupted, and our visits stopped at once. Although I continued to keep in touch from afar, and sent the staff pictures of Yael from time to time, that was not the same …probably three years elapsed from our last visit to the NICU.

Yael standing where her cot used to be

Yael grew up to become a sweet, beautiful, mature and healthy girl full of joy for life. She is 5 years old, and she does not know the story of her birth. Last Saturday, as we returned from a day trip to the south, the GPS in our car directed us into an unusual direction. As I realized we were passing near the hospital, I asked Yael whether she wanted to see where she was born, and she answered yes. In a moment’s decision, I decided to take a turn and visit the NICU.

As we walked through the hospital’s entrance, I told her she was born very small and therefore had to stay in hospital until she grew a bit and could come home. I told her how the nurses and doctors took care of her until she was strong enough to come home.

Yael was very excited, and every time we saw people on our way from the hospital’s parking lot to the main building, she whispered to me: “Do these people also come to see where they were born?”

Once inside, her excitement (and mine) climbed. Yael hurried to press the elevator’s button to the third floor and raced forward through the alley towards the entrance to the NICU. Time seemed to stand still, as if three whole years hadn’t passed since the last time we were there.

Yael looking at a photo of herself and mom at the NICU

I showed Yael where her bed used to be, where I bathed her, and the room she was moved to once she was a little older. She posed a lot of sweet questions: “Why did you wash me in the sink?”; “What is this device for?” (the scale); “Why is there a computer here?”

What impacted me most, was how well the nurses remembered us!!! As soon as we entered, they asked: “You are the Meltzers, right? Is this Yael? She should be 5 in a few days, shouldn’t she?”

This time, again, it was hard for me to leave. I had the feeling I had returned home. I will never forget the time I spent in the NICU, the feelings, the smells and sounds – all are still etched in my heart. And the lovely people I met there are such a significant part of me. They were the ones who made that time, long ago, as easy and pleasant as possible.

I know we will visit again; I already miss you.

-Michal Meltzer

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