Leon’s Birth Story

Today is my due date, and I have a five-day old!

​I’d been cramping for almost all of my New Year’s vacation, and at its worst I couldn’t sit or stand for longer than a couple minutes. On January 2, I had miraculously been cramp-free for a few hours, so I got everything ready for work the next day and went to bed.

At about 5:30 a.m. on January 3, I woke up and the cramps were back, but this time I had some relief in between every few minutes of cramping. I started timing the contractions at about 5:50, and by 7 I woke Minh up to let him know I was going to shower and we probably needed to go to the hospital because my contractions had been five minutes apart and a minute long for the past hour.

As I was putting on my coat, I felt “the gush.” I ran screaming to the bathroom because it was pretty much the most disgusting feeling ever. But it confirmed that we definitely needed to get to the hospital.

When we got to the labor and delivery ward, I was examined and immediately told that there was meconium in the amniotic fluid. It’s common so no reason to worry, they told me, but they wanted to put me on pitocin to keep labor from stalling.

After about 7 hours of labor (yet only 1.5 centimeters dilated), I opted to get an epidural (I knew I’d get one anyway, but 1.5 centimeters seemed so soon!). It was almost euphoric to go from experiencing the worst pain of my life to feeling nothing in just a few minutes. I slept quite a bit after that – probably eight or ten hours in total.

Initially, Dr. Roberts was sure I would have delivered by midnight, but by that time (hour 19 of labor) I was still only dilated six centimeters. It was taking hours just to dilate one centimeter. The doctor wasn’t sure why it was taking so long, but he guessed it was because Leon’s head was too wedged in my cervix for it to dilate well. He said I could labor longer if I wanted, but he didn’t think I would progress any further and suggested a cesarean.

I really didn’t want a c-section, but I wanted a healthy baby more than anything. So they wheeled me into OR #4 and prepped me for surgery.

The surgery didn’t take as long as I anticipated; after about 10 or 15 minutes — at 12:56 a.m. on January 4 — Leon was born weighing 7 lbs, 13.2 oz. Minh watched everything over the blue drape and told me when they pulled Leon out. They took him a few feet away to the warmer to suction his lungs and I heard him cry. Minh went over and announced his features as I was being stapled up.

I was in awe — my body just completed its own marathon. I brought a living human into this world. We shared a body for most of a year, and now he is his own person.

At about 2:00 a.m. the day after Leon was born, the nurses took him away for some standard 24-hour blood tests. I fell asleep and woke when a nurse came to tell me that they were taking Leon to the nursery as his blood oxygen levels were low. No big deal, they assured me — they’d get everything squared away. Minh woke up around 4 a.m. and we went to peek into the nursery window as he was being monitored. I was able to walk but had to be wheeled back.

After waking up later that morning, the doctor came to tell us that they were concerned about Leon’s heart in addition to the blood oxygen levels and wanted to take him to the NICU for a chest x-ray and echocardiogram.

To say I was devastated would be an understatement. I don’t even know the right word for the amount of fear and despair that crushed me as the doctor told us that they were officially admitting him. My baby was so new and perfect and fragile — and now he potentially had a heart condition? I thought the NICU was for premature babies or sometimes babies who were extremely sick; I assumed that since he was born full term we were in the clear, but now they’re telling me he falls into the latter category?

My body didn’t even wait to react — I broke down wailing such heavy sobs that my incision stung and I pulled a muscle in my ribs and I gave myself a bloody nose. Minh hugged me as the doctor and nurses left and reminded me that Leon needed me to be strong. Had he not been reminding me of how much our baby needs me, I’m not sure if I would have found the strength to eat or sleep those first couple days. I cried at the drop of a hat; I burst into tears when the NICU secretary told Minh and I that we were checking in my pumped milk incorrectly. I just didn’t want to be here. We should be preparing to go home.

Leon’s echo and x-ray came back relatively normal, thankfully. He does have an unusual valve that they’re going to refer us to a cardiologist for, but in the short term we had bigger things to worry about: he had fluid in his lungs, so he needed to be on oxygen and IV antibiotics.

Immediately, our routine was different from what we thought it would be with a newborn. Everything revolved around his eight daily scheduled “touch times.” I would pump as much as I could to bring downstairs to Leon, then we would check in to the NICU and visit him for as long as we could (a typical visit with him involved taking his temperature, checking his diaper, breast and/or bottle feeding, skin-to-skin contact, and another diaper change), then come back to my hospital room with about 90 minutes left to eat and/or sleep…and we did every three hours around the clock. We didn’t miss a single visit. One of Leon’s nurses suggested that we go home to relax after I was discharged, but I was sure that going home to an empty house without my baby would be more upsetting than staying in a hospital.

I never realized the amount of love and attention that NICU families get. In addition to group support activities provided by the hospital, volunteers provided mittens and cuddle blankets, among other things, for the babies. Leon used quite a bit of donated breastmilk to supplement his needs while we wait for my mature milk to come in.

On the second afternoon of Leon’s NICU stay, Minh and went to a support lunch for NICU families. The activity of that particular meeting was to decorate “babies” made out of socks filled with rice, which we figured would be a good distraction from the reality of our son laying in a bassinet just a few rooms away, covered in wires.

The only problem was that the activity involved making the sock baby weigh as much as the real baby weighed at birth. Minh and I were second in the line to add the rice to our sock, and we just felt so uncomfortable pouring scoop after scoop of rice (Leon was double the weight of the second-biggest baby there), so I told the coordinator that I needed to sit down so we could discreetly move to the back of the line. I sat on a chair and held back tears as Minh quickly finished decorating the sock baby so we could leave. When we got back to our hospital room, I bawled thinking back on the parents’ small talk about how many blood transfusions their babies have had or how many weeks they have left to wait. Despite being a full-term and average-sized baby, Leon was sick too. I was just ready to not be there anymore, but we still had a while to wait.

The next day was one of the worst days of my life. Baby blues kicked in, so in addition to dealing with plummeting hormones, everything reminded me of the depressing NICU ward. I was discharged from the hospital but my son wasn’t. Several times Minh woke up from a nap to hear me sobbing, and a few times I disappeared to the bathroom to cry. Both of us were hanging on by our fingernails, but Minh did a better job of keeping it together than I did — at least in front of me. I don’t know how many times I cried that day.

It really didn’t take long at all for Leon to get better though. He was off oxygen and antibiotics completely after two days and was monitored for two days after that before he could be discharged. Thanks to the donor milk he only lost a few ounces from his birth weight. He had a fairly good stay — all things considered — and it seemed like every time we went downstairs to visit him the nurses had another good update or commented on how fervently he was eating, but I still wouldn’t wish this experience on my worst enemy. Minh and I have both had nightmares — one of mine involved somberly pacing the halls of the NICU, looking over at the fuzzy heads of all the tiny sick babies. A couple times I woke up crying. Hardest were the moments when one of us had to just pause our conversation because it just seemed too overwhelming to talk about; most of my nurses and Leon’s nurses saw me crying at least once. Even though my son being born was one of the most exciting days of my life, I know it’ll take a while before I can think back to the days that followed without tearing up.

​​Our saving grace was “rooming in” at the NICU last night. We got to the room, excited to be closer to him to make our visits easier, when we learned that he could stay in the room with us! He was discharged this morning at 11 a.m. Despite the fact that he cluster-fed for over three hours as soon as we got home, I’m already so much less exhausted just from the better circumstances. Here’s to our new new chapter!


  • Whitney Bailey

    You poor thing! Glad little nugget is ok. I KNOW that NICU struggle. My girls spent 5 long weeks there. Kennedy has a minor heart problem that she still takes medicine for but all and all they were the healthiest babies there. Kennedy was 4 lbs 4 oz and Sophie was a tiny 3 lb 13 oz. I cried every day for months! But watching some of the other parents that had to take their babies home hooked up to oxygen or with huge physical or mental abnormalities, we consider ourselves lucky. Call or text me any time with questions or if you just want to chat.

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