Son of My Strength
A few months ago, at 8:14 PM on Shabbos Shlach, my baby was born and I announced, “It’s a boy!!” and he started crying a gorgeous, perfect scream.
Thirteen days later, at his Bris we named him Binyomin Tzvi.
After delivery I felt great and energized. Binyomin was alert and awake, and although he was fussy at the breast, I assumed that it was due to normal nursing difficulties similar to what I had experienced with my previous child.
Everything became clearer as we were about to discharge. When we were ready to load the baby into his carseat, the nurse came in to go over a few things with us and to check his vitals one last time. Binyomin was sleeping in my arms but his breathing was erratic. The nurse took one look at him and said, “I don’t like the way his chest is moving. Can I take a closer look?”
From there, time sped up and simultaneously seemed to slow down. Binyomin was in respiratory distress. Oxygen was administered; the NICU and an ambulance were called. Twelve hours post-delivery, we were swept away, with my husband following in our car behind. A nurse from the birth center accompanied me, and she became like a lifeline over the next 24 hours.
Somehow, the walk to the NICU seemed too calm for what was going on. I wanted to scream and tear at my clothes – why weren’t we running? Why weren’t we banging down doors to get where we were going? We were walking too calmly – didn’t they understand that my insides were tearing apart? I needed answers and I needed them now.
When the doors to the NICU opened, I thought I’d get those answers, but I was stuck at the door, being told I couldn’t accompany my child into the unit. My mask was falling off my face and tears were streaming from my eyes. The admitting nurse wanted to know if I’d had a COVID test recently. “No,” I told her, “but give me one now! You can’t separate me from my baby.” But she could, she explained. “Excuse me,” I told her, “I am 12 hours postpartum. I am wearing a diaper and I am bleeding. I was just transferred here with my child in an ambulance. There is nothing you are going to do to keep me away from him.” Baruch Hashem, there was another nurse present who told her that the hospital at that time was actually no longer testing birthing mothers for COVID upon admission. She then allowed me to scrub my hands, get a surgical mask, and rush to my baby’s bedside.
“He’s really sick” was all they’d give me as I asked anyone for answers. Finally, a portable x-ray machine was wheeled in and his lungs were imaged. He’d inhaled meconium, they explained – which made sense, but as far as I knew, never caused this kind of damage. The neonatologist said that this can cause something called Delayed Transition to Antenatal Life, which she believed my baby was suffering from. How long it would take him to recover was unclear but he’d be supported with oxygen until he could breathe on his own.
His challenges with nursing the night before were because he couldn’t breathe and swallow at the same time.
I felt like the world was closing in on me as I looked at my baby laying there with all the wires and beeping machines. “Can I hold him?” I asked tentatively. “Not yet,” was the answer I’d be met with over the next 24 hours. When I asked for skin-to-skin, I was told “he’s really sick, that might stimulate him too much…We’ll let you know when you can hold him.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the NICU by my baby’s side, returning to my room every three hours to pump. At his bedside, I had to be careful not to make too much noise so as not to stimulate him too much. He wasn’t strong enough to eat, even via feeding tube, and the priority had to be allowing his lungs to expand to their largest capacity, which meant nothing in his stomach.
The next morning, two midwives from the birth center came to see how I was doing. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. Immediately, it dawned on me – I hadn’t held my baby in over 24 hours. One of the midwives, who had a history in neonatology, told me that she’d go to the NICU and advocate for skin-to-skin, as she didn’t understand why they weren’t allowing me to comfort my child. At the same time, the nurse came to talk about my discharge plan – I’d officially be discharged out of the hospital the following day. I knew that there was no way my baby would be healthy enough to be discharged then.
The validation that it was unreasonable to not hold my sick child for over 24 hours, and the thought of going home without him triggered an out-of-body experience. The room began to spin. I couldn’t feel my feet, even though I could see that they were firmly planted on the ground. My heart started beating loudly, and the blood in my ears were keeping tempo. I turned to my husband and asked him to get a nurse. My blood pressure had been measuring high, and I was certain that this was a medical emergency. If I stood up, I’d certainly fall down; there was no way that my legs could support my weight.
He paged the nurse, and as soon as she took my vitals, I realized that what I was experiencing was a panic attack. The tears just came and came, as I shook and cried about how much I missed this child that had literally been a part of me for the last 10 months. The urge to go to him and hold him was visceral. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
It was 11:20 AM. The nurse came back in and told me that she’d prefer if I didn’t walk to the NICU, but rather that someone took me in a wheelchair from now on. At the same time, a midwife returned and told me that the NICU gave her an update. Binyomin had improved enough to start feeding via NG tube, and they wanted me to come down to do skin-to-skin with his next feed at 12 PM.
I walked. Nothing was going to keep me from him.
The first time they lay Binyomin on my chest, I felt my blood pressure stabilize and watched in wonder as the monitors began to level out. His oxygen was higher on my chest, and his breathing measured, if not slow (at least, not yet). When I went back to my room to pump, the nurse called me to tell me he was fussy, and asked if I could come back down to hold him. He’d finally been making progress, and we felt like maybe there was a possibility someone would begin to talk discharge planning with us. They finally let me feel like I was the most important person in caring for him, and for that, I am forever grateful.
Everyone told me that you meet angels when you have a baby in the NICU. The friends that brought us food, clothes, and treats at the hospital, and these nurses were those angels. Particularly ones that told me what I needed to do to get my baby home, the ones that helped us navigate hospital COVID policy, and especially the ones that recognized that the most critical aspect to Binyomin’s recovery was being held in order to be healed.
I know as a mental health professional that stress can trigger rapid breathing and lower oxygen – this is why people breathe into paper bags when they are having a panic attack. So for Binyomin to cry with no one to respond would likely set his progress back. We no longer felt like intruders in the NICU – we felt like essential people.
Going home without Binyomin was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I burst into tears upon walking into my home, and my sister wrapped me up in the biggest bear hug I’ve ever had. Being physically held by her felt so good – the first adult physical contact I’d had since labor and delivery. Her hug nourished me to face my children bravely, and tell them I was crying such happy tears because I’d missed them so much, but that I was sad that their brother wasn’t home from the hospital yet. We had dinner together and I gave my babies as many snuggles at bedtime as I possibly could.
Finally, when our baby’s numbers looked great and he was ready to leave the hospital, we got to bring him home.
Six days later, we celebrated his bris. We named him Binyomin Tzvi, after my husband’s grandpa Ben, and my great-uncle Howard Bernard. When my husband was preparing his speech, he found a source that spoke to the reason Yaakov Avinu named his youngest Binyomin. When he was born, he was weak and small; while many translate the name as a memorial for his late wife Rochel, it can also be translated as “Son of my strength,” or “Son of my right hand.” This was a blessing from Yaakov that Binyomin should always be led by his strengths, finalized with the bracha given at Yaakov Avinu’s deathbed. He ended up to be the fiercest warrior of them all.
Knowing this, and having gone through everything we did with our Binyomin’s rocky entry into this world, made us feel like our Ruach HaKodesh was in the right place, for the right reasons, and meant for this child.
Carly Chodosh, MSS, LSW is a social worker and therapist in the Lower Merion suburb of Philadelphia, as well as the Director of the Lower Merion Community Mikvah. In addition to providing therapy to individuals and families in a Jewish social services agency, Mrs. Chodosh has a professional background in education through her work with girls in high school/seminary and community outreach, as well as women’s/maternal mental health. This includes teaching kallahs, with a specialized curriculum that provides classes tailored to women who have experienced sexual trauma.