I didn’t realize it would be this hard. I walked onto the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, floor of the hospital and felt goosebumps start to rise on my arms. A band of grief and pain started to compress my chest and I had to force myself to take a breath. I willed my legs to keep moving so that no one in my party would notice my reaction. I was meeting with a group of people to discuss the creation of a mural on the NICU wall to promote maternal mental health awareness and healing for NICU families. The mural would be a focal point, Instagram worthy, where families would stop with their baby in cap and gown to take their graduation photo before discharge from the hospital.
As the tour continued, we rounded the corner and I started to see the babies in their isolettes, covered with sensors and attached to monitors. I bit my cheek and said, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry,” repeatedly in my head as I calmly continued the conversation about the progress in the NICU and the families they served. I had not been back to the NICU since my son left the hospital three years ago. This wasn’t even my son’s NICU and yet the waves of emotion pored over me at seeing the babies and hearing the monitors go off. I held myself together until I got back to my car, called my husband and let the tears flow.
My son, Lucien, was born at 28 weeks weighing 1 pound. 3 ounces, and was given a 50/50 chance of survival and severe disability. My husband and I went through a very difficult pregnancy because our baby was intrauterine growth restricted, or IUGR. Our difficulties culminated in being told at 25 weeks that our baby could not be saved. Our son clung to life though and to the shock of our medical providers grew just enough to be given a chance at birth. Lucien spent the first three months of his life in the NICU lovingly cared for by an incredible team. We bravely carried him out of the hospital weighing 5 pounds, with an oxygen tank and monitor to go home to the perils of life on the outside.
“There is nothing we can do to save your baby.” Those words reverberate through my brain at odd moments a couple of times a week now. They used to be a daily occurrence before I received help for post-traumatic stress disorder and postpartum depression.
It is time to come together in support of parents struggling with maternal mental health issues. According to an article in the Journal of Perinatology, 39 percent of NICU mothers and 36 percent of NICU fathers displayed postpartum depression approximately one month post-partum. Early findings of research on PTSD in NICU parents indicate 55 percent of NICU mothers and 67 percent of NICU fathers scored at risk. Arizona has never had a comprehensive stakeholder meeting on maternal mental health – now is the time for a call to action on this issue. We need to bring together public officials, hospitals, insurers, providers, researchers, individuals and organizations with a vested interest in maternal mental health to determine the needs of our state and create a plan to address them. The health of Arizona’s babies depends on it.
Laura Vargas is a resident of Phoenix and a March of Dimes Gretchen Carlson Advocacy Fellow.