PICU – Frog legs

We walked towards the bed. I hardly recognised Zach as he lay there with tubes coming out from everywhere. His whole body was puffed up and his legs lay wide and bent at an angle like little frogs’ legs. I pulled on Emmanuel’s arm. “Is that the right bed? Is that him?”

“Yes, that’s him.” Emmanuel responded. I knew it was him, I just wished it wasn’t. I wanted to see my lively, awake baby without a big wound down his chest. I wanted to be at home cuddling him and taking pictures. Not stood here. ‘Is this really happening?’ I think was the question I was really asking. Or ‘Can I handle this? Please help me.’ was closer to the truth than what I had really said. We both knew it was Zach laying there in bed four.

We stepped right next to his bedside. I took in what I was seeing all at once. There was a clear plastic strip across his wound. It ran from just under his neck and stopped where his rib cage ended. Below this was a tube around 4mm wide coming out from stomach. The tube was filled with pinkish red liquid that flowed down very slowly to a drainage bucket on the floor. He had a ‘line’ in his neck called a central line. This was connected to tubes that had small plastic stoppers on the ends. They were called ‘smart sites.’ This is where his drug infusions were going in. He had another one of this in his inner thigh. This one was an ‘art line.’ As in it was in an artery and not a vein. He had a catheter inserted and we could just see the tube coming out the side of his nappy. He also had a thermometer up him bottom. We both winced at these two when we learnt what they were. He had two electrodes on his head that were measuring the oxygen levels in his brain. He had three sticky dots and coloured wires attached to his chest that measured his heart just as before surgery. Lastly, he had a blood saturation probe and a blood pressure cuff on his foot and leg to complete the kit. His nurse Cortney came over to explain to us what everything was. She joked about the catheter and our reaction to it. She explained everything so well, with respect and empathy, I could have hugged her. She was never Zach’s nurse again but I sometimes saw her in the PICU (paediatric intensive care unit) afterwards. She always had a lovely warm smile and nature about her. She explained to us that the surgeons were very happy with how everything went and now it was just time for recovery. She then explained all of the machines.

There was a monitor that had several different wavy lines. The first green one was his heart rate and rhythm. The one we are most familiar with from watching hospital scenes on TV. The next, a blue line that measures his Oxygen levels in his brain. A line for his blood pressure that was being measured from the ‘art line’ in his groin. A number at the bottom for his blood pressure from the cuff on his leg. A temperature number to the right of the screen and lastly one pale blue line that showed his breaths. On a screen below this was another set of lines. This screen shows the ventilation machine and how many breaths he is taking. There are different settings for these machines. At this point the machine was breathing for him.

He was heavily sedated on morphine and clonidine. The combination of the two create a pain free dreamy sedation. Not fully unaware but not sure where you are either. When we first arrived, he was still completely asleep. He was going to slowly come round from the drugs that in had in theatre. I have no idea at all what these would have been. The plan was to slowly lift the sedation over the next 48 hours and see how he is. They watch for urine output, the blood from the drain next to the ‘wound’ inside the chest and if he starts to take some breaths on his own. Along with all of the other wiggly lines on the screens.

We took some chair and sat by his bedside. We slowly built up the courage to get closer and talk to him. He would twitch slightly every now and again at the sound of our voices. I hated the thought of him being in pain. He looked pretty out of it at this point, but when he was more awake surely he would be upset? I knew we couldn’t stay all night but I desperately wanted to stay with him so he knew we were there. At 8pm the nurses changed shifts. The night time nurse was amazing as well. Esther. I immediately got a good vibe from her. After chatting to Esther for a while me and Emmanuel decided we needed to sleep ourselves. You can’t sleep on the PICU like you can on the wards. there are just chairs next to the bedside. I kissed Zach and said goodnight to him. We left feeling strange that we were both leaving the hospital together. Leaving him there again. Everyone tells you that they don’t remember, they don’t know you are there, but I really felt like he did. We couldn’t sleep on the floor next to his bed so we had to leave at some point, but it just felt awful having to say goodbye to him. What if he woke up upset? What if he knew I wasn’t there and hated me for it. What if he was just lonely? I had to push the thoughts to one side as we left and walked out into the cold night air. We chatted about the nurses today and how well Zach seemed to be doing so far. We spoke about both needing some rest tonight and that at least we didn’t have to sleep on the Savannah ward!

When we got back to Ronald McDonald House, we made some food and went to bed early. There was nothing else to do but sleep so that I could get back to him again. I set my alarm for 3am to express and went back to sleep until six. I just needed to be by his side and hold his hand. I needed to see him, to smell him. Even though his baby smell was now mixed in with that hospital disinfectant smell. For a long time, Zach would smell of that hospital smell, mixed with something unique to him that perhaps only me and his dad could smell. I ached to be near him.

Ronald McDonald House

We walked hand in hand across the road. Walking away from the building where our son was. Leaving him in the hands of surgeons. I could feel the shadow of the building behind me as I walked. It was as though the building was getting taller and leaning over my shoulder. Guilt. How could I just walk away and leave him there? But as everybody kept telling me I needed to look after myself as well. I zombie walked the ten-minute journey to Ronald McDonald House.

Ronald McDonald House is the McDonald’s charity. You know those little boxes full of pennies on the McDonald’s counter? Well they all go towards funding the building and maintenance of specially made apartment blocks across the country. The apartments are near hospitals and are for parents and families to be able to stay near their children during their stay in hospital. I had never heard of them before having Zach. I had no idea where those pennies went. That apartment was a safe haven for us. It became a rock in some very unsteady waters. Just knowing I could walk ten minutes down the road from the Evelina and have warm shower, clean comfortable bed and fresh clothes was amazing. When I left the wards in the afternoons to catch a nap it was at our room in the Ronald McDonald House. Emmanuel organised all of our clothes and belongings into the draws and wardrobe so that when I got back there It felt a little bit like home.  

We arrived at Ronald McDonald House and walked through the reception area. Emmanuel nodded to the receptionist and said hello. He had made friends already. Typical Emmanuel, he made friends everywhere we went. I love that about him. We went to the lifts and down to the end of the second-floor corridor. All the rooms were named after famous London land marks. Our room was the Tower of London. It sat opposite the laundry room and a shared kitchen and dining area. The room reminded me of a Premier Inn hotel. It was clean and comfortable and a little bit like home, but definitely not home. We don’t have an en suite bathroom for starters.

When I got back to the room I burst into tears. Emmanuel held me as I sobbed into his shoulder. He is going to be fine, he told me. “I know”, I mumbled back with my voice muffled. We sat on the bed and talked. We discussed how strong he was and how we know he will fight through this. I told Emmanuel that I a good vibe from his surgeon and had a good feeling about him. He said that it was reassuring to hear that from me. I often have a ‘gut feeling’ about things that tend to be fairly accurate. But it doesn’t stop your mind wondering. I kept thinking that the electricity would cut out and his bypass and breathing machine would stop mid-surgery. I thought his anaesthetist would lose attention and Zach would wake up half way through. Or that the surgeon would get shaky hands and cut something wrong. I couldn’t stop the onslaught of terrible thoughts. The worst was the image of his tiny body looking limp as he fell asleep right before we left him. His tiny body being cut open. His tiny little hands laying open without me holding them. I would have sat with him in the operating theatre if they had have let me. Just in case he had a sense of where he was, he would have known I was there with him. I would have held his hand as they took the blood away from his heart. I would have watched as they let a machine take it and become his heart for a period of time. I would have watched as they put a ‘line’ in his neck. I would have watched as they placed electrodes on his head. I would have watched as the numbers appeared on the monitors. I would have stayed through all of it and sat by him if they would have let me.

I took a shower and got into some fresh pjs. Emmanuel put on some lounge clothes as well. We had some snacks in bed and decided to play a game. Emmanuel had bought an Emoji card game from the supermarket. You had to guess the movie from the Emojis. We laid in bed and laughed as we tried to guess the movies. The first one was a crown and a Lion so I shouted “King Lion!” The actual title of the movie is of course ‘Lion King.’ We laughed together. It was such a small thing but we found the game funny. I needed to release the tension and keep my mind off what was happening. I also needed to just be with Emmanuel. I felt like I had not been close to him for a while. Not sharing a bed made me feel far away from him. He was my anchor and I was drifting. We finished the game. My stitches sore from laughing so hard. We curled up together and slept. Our phones on loud sat next to us ready for the phone call from the surgeon.

At 5.31pm the surgeon called my phone. I answered within one ring.

“Hello” I said with a high-pitched urgency to my voice.

“Hello, everything went well with the surgery.” Said the surgeon

“Thank you.”

“He is being sorted out now and will be ready to move to PICU soon. You should be able to see him in half an hour or so.”

“Thank you so much. Thank you.”

“You are welcome.”

“Thank you.”

We hung up. I turned to Emmanuel who was waiting. “Everything went well, He said. We can go now.”

I showered again and got myself dressed. So did Emmanuel. We both grabbed another snack and a drink on the way out of the door. A proper meal was something we would not have for a while.

On the walk back to the hospital I felt so relieved that the surgery had gone well. The surgery was over. It was done. We just had to get through the recovery and we could soon be home. I wanted to run to the Evelina. We both called and messaged family on our way. Letting them know things were ok.

We arrived at the Evelina and out of habit nearly went to the Savannah ward, but remembered ourselves and found our way to the ‘Big Lift’ at the back of the hospital entrance area. The lift was empty as we went up. As we left the lift, we turned right into the small cupboard area to hang up our thick winter coats and wash our hands before entering the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). We stood together holding hands and waited as the doors opened to the unit. Zach was in bed four. We walked through, looking around to locate bed four. We found it and walked forward.

If you would like to know more about the Ronald Macdonald houses charity follow this link. Donate.