Juan Flores used a single finger to stroke his son’s arm. A breathing machine rested under Nico’s nose. A thin feeding tube wound down from his mouth, and tiny wires seemed to be connected to every other part of his body.
Juan wondered at the little expressions crossing Nico’s sleeping face – was that a smirk?
After years of hormone shots and false positives and “I’m sorry, it didn’t take” talks with fertility doctors, Juan and his wife Kim had been cautiously excited to learn they were having a baby boy. Gestational diabetes and high blood pressure plagued Kim’s pregnancy, and in February her doctors scheduled her for twice-weekly check-ups. She made it to her third appointment before being sent directly to Atlanta’s Northside Hospital, the largest delivery center in the United States.
Doctors and nurses swarmed the couple in the operating room. Kim was 32 weeks and four days along and numb from the chest down. Juan peeked over the curtain separating them from the emergency c-section and immediately wished he hadn’t.
Nicolas Mateo Flores, affectionately known as Nico, had taken forever to arrive and then came too early. Born March 10, he weighed just 3 pounds, 4.6 ounces.
After Kim was released from the hospital, she and Juan returned every day to see their baby. They learned how to change his diaper and helped coax bottles into him. Still, no matter how long they stayed, it wasn’t enough.
“The nurses are wonderful. They certainly know how to take better care of him in his state than I do, but it’s still not Mom,” Kim said. “And that’s so hard. It’s so weird to see this little person that I’ve barely spent any time with and to feel so connected with him but know so little about him.”
Then on Monday night, the hospital called. Kim knew almost immediately what they were going to say.
She had seen rumors on the preemie messaging boards she’d joined after Nico’s birth. Effective March 24, all visitation to Northside Hospital Special Care Nurseries was being suspended to prevent the transmission of Covid-19. That meant no visitors in the NICU, including parents. Kim and Juan wouldn’t be able to see Nico again until he was ready to come home.
Kim broke down.
“When your baby is first born, it’s that time you have to bond. Even in the handouts they give you they talk about skin-to-skin contact and talking to your baby and how important it is for their development. And now we can’t.”
Dr. Laura Drohan, neonatologist and medical director of Northside Special Care Nurseries., said the decision to implement stricter visitation rules came after the staff held an emergency meeting and determined it was best for the health of the patients and health care workers.
“It’s been a very sad week for our families and for our doctors and nurses as we’ve had to implement this,” Drohan said. “These are not nurses you can find anywhere. Without nurses and without respiratory therapists to take care of these babies, these babies will not survive. It’s not the machines that keep them alive, it’s the people.”
There is no national set of guidelines hospitals must follow during the pandemic, and policies seem to change daily depending on the situation in each city. Many hospitals across the country are closing to visitors, though some are making exceptions for mothers in labor, NICU patients, minors and those on end-of-life care.
“We all feel horrible when we have to restrict anyone from seeing a loved one,” said Joan Rikli, president of the National Association for Neonatal Nurses. “It’s a very traumatic thing. But we have to look at the big picture here.”
When a baby is born early, everything about them is premature, from their lungs to their immune systems, Rikli said. A virus like the flu can be deadly; Covid-19 is worse.
Kim said she feels exhausted. She sits at home, pumping every couple hours for a baby she can’t visit, and worrying about the growing number of coronavirus cases.
Whenever she reads reports of people ignoring the CDC’s guidance about social distancing, she gets angry. The more we prolong taking this seriously, she said, the longer we’re going to have to deal with it.
“It’s just…not fair,” Kim said, finally landing on an inadequate phrase to explain how she felt about their situation. It’s a feeling shared by many these days, as coronavirus restrictions have delayed everything from celebrations to funerals.
She trailed off again, thinking of the baby showers no one can throw them, and Juan’s parents in Colombia who won’t meet their new grandchild for months.
The couple is able to FaceTime with Nico daily. And they hope to bring him home in a few weeks. But Juan said he thinks it will be awhile before he allows anyone to meet his son. How can he trust that they’ve been staying away from people who may be carrying the virus?
“Unfortunately people don’t understand it (the impact of coronavirus) until it hits close to home.”