Jan Reynolds has been a NICU nurse for more than 20 years. In that time, she's surely witnessed every spectrum of human emotion, from overwhelming joy and hope to crushing heartache and loss. In an article published this week on Nurse.com, Reynolds shares an unforgettable story that illustrates the common thread of all her experiences in neonatology: the power of the bond between mother and child.
Years ago, Reynolds was caring for a preemie infant, a baby boy born five weeks early. He was doing well, but over in the adult ICU, his mother lay dying, a victim of catastrophic epilepsy and a cerebral vascular accident. Although the mother was in a coma, Reynolds brought her baby to her ... and what happened next remains burned into Reynolds' memory to this day.
Reynolds writes that time and time again, she's observed the overwhelming connection a mother experiences when she holds her baby for the first time. Even though in this case the mother was tragically slipping away due to her health situation, Reynolds felt strongly that mother and baby should be together, and she received permission to bring the infant to the ICU.
Here's how she describes the moment when a dying mother felt her baby's touch:
I remember the mother's room being stark and chilly. Her husband was the only person with her. I could hear her irregular, shallow and rattling respirations as I entered the room. She was propped up in the bed, with her hands by her side. The mother spoke no English, but the father understood and spoke enough for us to communicate.
Although the mother was in a coma, I asked the father to reassure her that her baby was healthy, being well cared for and that he would be OK. In the meantime, I prepared the baby for some skin-to-skin time with his mother. I removed his clothing, leaving him with just a diaper. I propped up the mother's motionless arms on pillows, and opened the front of her gown. I then placed the baby on his stomach against her bare chest, and he immediately snuggled right into her. I moved the mother's arms and hands on the pillows so she could "cradle" her infant. I moved away from the bedside to give them some privacy, all the while reassuring her that her baby was going to be just fine.
Using an old Polaroid, I snapped a few pictures of this dying mother holding her baby for the first and last time, wondering whether the pictures would bring comfort to the family in the future. I then picked up the baby, rewrapped him in a blanket and transferred him to the isolette to return to the NICU.
As I turned to leave the room the father put his arm on mine and called out "Wait ... she cry?" He was pointing to his wife's motionless face, where I noticed a large, single tear streaming from the corner of each closed eye. I stopped in my tracks, stunned and speechless.
The father was looking at me for an answer, and again asked, "She cry?" All I could answer was, "It's possible." Did touching her baby, smelling his sweet head, feeling his little heartbeat against her, hearing he was going to be OK, somehow tap into that invisible maternal bond NICU nurses know exists? Or were the tears just a normal, physiologic part of her dying process? No one will ever know for sure. But I believe I witnessed an almost spiritual connection between that mother and her baby that day.
It's true that no one will ever know what caused that tear, but I tend to feel the same as this NICU nurse: somehow, this coma-ridden mother knew she was holding her baby. She passed away shortly thereafter, and I can only hope that she felt some sense of relief that her baby was OK and being taken care of.
What a beautiful, heartbreaking story, and what a testament to the noble actions of this nurse and many others like her who take extraordinary steps to make a difference in people's lives ... however brief that time may be.
Do you believe this mother knew she was holding her newborn before she died?