ShawnnaLea Zemanek with her family for their first family photo with newborn twins Alex and Zack.

ShawnnaLea Zemanek with her family for their first family photo with newborn twins Alex and Zack.

Twins.

A small word with big impact. Upon hearing the news that I was pregnant with not one, but two children, my mind raced. Could we manage twins with no family in the area? Could we afford three kids? Will I need bed rest? How early will they arrive? Will they be in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)?  How much does the NICU cost? Those and about 100 other questions and thoughts overwhelmed me.

With the exception of lower back and hip pain almost the entire time, my pregnancy was pretty easy. I was bound and determined to make it to the birth with no bed rest and (hopefully) with that, no time in the NICU.  I successfully made it to my scheduled C-section on July 9, 2014.  I was 38 weeks – full-term for twins – and I was ready to meet my boys.

While I had read about the NICU at the University of Vermont Medical Center and had a few friends with kids who had spent time there, I had convinced myself that making it to 38 weeks would eliminate any NICU time for my little men. I was wrong.  Baby B, our sweet Alex, came out grunting and his heart rate was a little low. After briefly showing him to me, he was whisked off for further evaluation. I was wheeled back to my room with his tinier, older-by-a-minute brother Zack.

That night I learned that the doctors believed Alex had swallowed some blood during delivery and would be spending the night in the NICU. My first trip to see him was about ten hours after his birth when I could finally stand and walk to the wheelchair outside my room. As I sat in the wheelchair and gazed at my sweet baby, I ached to hold him. The next day, Zack struggled with low blood sugar levels and before I knew it, an entire day had passed and I didn’t return to the NICU until that night. I felt like a terrible mother. What kind of mom doesn’t get to her sick baby more than twice in 24 hours?

Baby Alex in the NICU.

Baby Alex in the NICU.

Alex ended up with a chest tube due to a hole in his lungs. I spent my recovery time nursing Zack and pumping for Alex on the fifth floor and then making trips to the seventh floor as often as possible. My husband and I learned the concept of “divide and conquer” as soon as the boys were delivered. From minutes after delivery until we went home, my husband Shaun went back and forth from the Mother-Baby Unit to the NICU multiple times a day.

While Zack and I were discharged on Sunday, Alex kept residence at the NICU until Friday. While I was home with Zack, I pumped for Alex and tried to help our four-year-old daughter adjust to life as a big sister as we juggled twice daily trips from our home in Essex to to the NICU at the UVM Medical Center. To say it was exhausting would be an understatement.

On our boys’ one-week birthday, I got a call from one of the doctors in the NICU. They took out Alex’s chest tube earlier than planned, and I could finally hold my baby. As much as I wanted to drop everything and run out the door to hold my boy, Zack had just woken-up and needed to nurse. Yet again, I felt like a bad mommy. Here was the chance to finally hold my baby and it took me more than two hours to get there.

While I often found myself passing judgment on myself, I found that the NICU staff never did.  The nurses and doctors were so supportive and never once made any comments about how they knew my husband better than me, or about my limited attendance at Alex’s bedside. In fact, I found comfort being surrounded by people who spend their careers caring for small, helpless little people – doctors and nurses dedicated to tiny miracles and their parents.

Brothers Zack (left) and Alex (right) together at last.

Brothers Zack (left) and Alex (right) together at last.

No one wants their baby to be sick, but if and when it happens, there are amazing people at the UVM Medical Center to make him or her better. While I had talked to parents with NICU experience and had an idea of what to expect, I wasn’t expecting the level of love and care that Alex, my husband, and I all received during those nine days. They understand why you are or are not there 24/7. They understand when you burst into tears and can barely talk when you hear you can come and hold your baby. They understand why a four-year-old big sister is devastated that she can’t see her new brother and make a card for her from her new brother. They are amazing men and women who no one wants to have to meet but if and when you do, you realize they are angels on earth.

ShawnnaLea Zemanek is a full-time, working mom of three. ShawnnaLea and her husband, Shaun, are both Vermont transplants, but consider the Green Mountain State their home. They are thrilled to raise their children in such a beautiful place.

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