I wake in a panic. Something is wrong. My newborn sleeps in the crib next to me, her swaddle tight and undisturbed. I pick her up. Her head feels hot. Way too hot.
I rip off the swaddle and touch her body. She's burning up. My husband brings the thermometer. Her temperature reads 102. We call the doctor. “Go to the ER now,” she says. “In a baby this young, this is a medical emergency.”
At the ER, the intake specialist weighs our six-day-old daughter, whose body writhes as she screams on the cold table. In the bay the nurses hook her up to heart and oxygen monitors, take urine with a catheter, and start antibiotics.
A resident tells us our baby will need a spinal tap in case the unidentified virus has crossed into the spinal fluid. “The outcome is good if we catch it early,” he says, his expression worried. He wears a button that says “This Doc Doesn't Drink Soda Pop.” I can't believe he will stick a needle into my baby's spine.
My husband and I sit in the waiting room as we hear our daughter wail with pain, see the doctors come and go from her bay. He wraps his arm around me, though the pinched look to his face tells me he's horrified too. We're admitted to the pediatric ward, to a room with a double entry where doctors and nurses gown and mask themselves before they come into our tiny inner chamber. It's hardly big enough for a gray plastic chair and a massive white crib sized for a six-year-old.
We are in this room to protect other children on the ward from whatever our daughter has. After a while we learn that a nasal swab has come back positive for coxsackievirus, relatively harmless in older children but sometimes fatal in newborns. The attending looks at us over her white mask when I ask if my daughter is going to be OK. “There isn't the research for babies this young,” she says, her eyes so huge I can see my terrified face reflected in them. I can't ask any more questions because my throat has swelled closed as I fight tears.
My husband leaves to take care of our three-year-old, who's getting over coxsackie at home.
I can't bear seeing my newborn's body in that gulf of a crib. I hold her in my arms, nurse her as much as she likes—she's thirsty from the fever. One nurse tells me she'd be better off in the crib so her fever can cool. I lay her down in her swaddle. I watch her, afraid she is going to die.
Another nurse comes into the room. She doesn't do medicines; she checks the supplies and restocks them. She has dark hair and a wide, gentle face. She looks at me in my gray chair, separated from my baby by a canyon of air and the high, white bars of the crib. “In Cuba,” she says, “we hold the babies against our skin. Skin to skin. Helps the fever go away.”
After she leaves, I pick up my daughter, open the swaddle, and hold her soft front against my bare chest. She quiets, resting there.
As night approaches, I worry about how I will sleep. My body hurts from giving birth six days before. The chair is hard. I will have to put my daughter back in the high crib, and I don't want to let her go, or place her so far away that I can't hear her if she wakes. The dark-haired nurse appears. She gives me more diapers and clean sheets for the crib. “Do not tell them I told you,” she says. “You can ask for a bed. And a smaller crib. More comfortable for you.”
“I'll be OK,” I say. I don't want to trouble anyone. But I can't stop thinking about what she said.
The next time the lead nurse visits, I ask if I can have a hospital bed. She says it won't fit. I ask if there is a smaller crib to replace the giant one, so it would. I would never be this persistent, but the dark-haired nurse's words guide me.
A couple of hours later, I'm on a hospital bed. I can raise and lower the head and foot, so nursing and sitting do not cause so much pain. The giant crib has been replaced by a small one, and I can pull it right next to me, like a sidecar.
I do not see the other nurse again. She has gone off shift. Sometimes I wonder how she understood what I needed most when even I did not. She saw me more clearly than I did—a mother whose bruised muscles and back still ached from labor. She saw my fear for my baby, my need to hold her close. She saw the long night ahead of me, and prepared me for it. She was my advocate.
That night, as I dozed between visits from people taking vitals, I could touch my daughter when I wanted to check on her fever. I lay close to her because someone thought I mattered. As I cared for my baby, someone was caring for me.