I think for most people a NICU would be a very unsettling place. I know that was true for me the first time I went into one. However, over time, it has become a very comfortable place to be for me.
Every Sunday afternoon I walk into the NICU at the children’s hospital where I volunteer and I feel perfectly at home. I know many of the nurses by name. And most of the babies are familiar to me as well since most of them remain patients for weeks and even months. I walk through the ward tending to babies who are crying. I hold them and rock them. I put pacifiers back in mouths. I notify nurses when feeding tubes have emptied or diapers need changing. And during some shifts I may hold the same baby for three straight hours. There are days when it is really very peaceful.
Lately, though, the NICU census is down and there just aren’t as many babies on the floor. Additionally, most of the babies who are admitted right now are pretty well behaved. This is generally a good thing. But it can make for a slow volunteer shift. So, on days like these I try to make myself useful elsewhere. As regular readers of this blog will already know, I am a fan of being thrown out of my comfort zone every now and then, and yesterday’s shift was a classic example.
I ended up in the Progressive Care Unit, which means inpatient kids, but not intensive care kids. After delivering a baby doll to flushed and overwhelmed two-year-old in the PICU, I met Emily* in Progressive Care, who was just finishing up her lunch. The playroom for inpatients was about to open, Emily’s mother was dog tired, and Emily was quite geared up for some playtime. So off we went.
Emily could not have been more different from my typical tightly swaddled charges. She is seven years old. She is missing her two front teeth. She is bouncy and eager and talkative. This volunteer shift was not going to be spent curled up in a rocking chair in a dimly lit room holding four or five pounds of newborn sweetness.
And so we played. We played kitchen, wherein she made me scrambled eggs and we split a soda. We played Jenga. We played baseball, which she declared boring after a few catches and requested to play basketball. Then we played basketball for quite a while – she shot, I rebounded – until that too was declared boring. We played with toys, puzzles, dolls, Wrestle Mania action figures, plastic animals, dress-up paper dolls, board games, and one last round of basketball again just as the room was closing.
My time with Emily was at one time draining and fulfilling. At the end of two hours I was fully exhausted, but also swollen with inspiration. Had it not been for the giant IV pole and hospital-issue pajamas, she could have been any kid on any playground. And her thirst for activity and play outweighed any physical limitations. With about half an hour left before the playroom’s closing time she rubbed her eyes.
“Are you tired?” I asked.
“We don’t have to keep playing if you’d rather go back to your room.”
“No. I want to play.”
And she did. For the next 30 minutes we continued to jump from one activity to the next. Her energy began to flag, but not her perky disposition. This tiny little peanut of a girl, self-assured and ready to roll (even with a stranger she’d never met), snowed me with her outlook and her stamina.
I don’t know why she’s in the hospital.** I don’t know what the two IV lines going into her chest were for. I don’t know if she’s bothered by all the scar tissue on her arms from many previous IVs. I didn’t know whether it was true when another little girl in the playroom looked at Emily and loudly said to her mother, “She has a big pole with lots of medicine. That means she’s really sick.” (I quickly redirected Emily back to our dollhouse activities so she wouldn’t have time to digest this statement.)
What I do know is that she is happy and confident and fun. I know that we were the last ones to leave the playroom and that she wanted to make sure to get a board game for the road. I know that she didn’t allow her medical condition (or the equipment that goes with it) prevent her from squeezing every last moment of fun out of her two-hour playtime. And I suspect that she similarly does not allow her illness to stop her from squeezing all she wants out of life in general.
I know that when I grow up I’d like to be as much like Emily as I possibly can.
*not her real name
**HIPAA prevents volunteers from asking patients any personal information, including their conditions