Today marks the last tour of Memorial Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for the 2013 “Mr.” pageant fundraising season, my first. Over the course of the last four months, young men and women from Toppenish, Davis, West Valley, Eisenhower, Sunnyside, Wapato and East Valley High Schools got a brief first-hand glimpse into the seemingly endless trials and even greater victories of pre-maturely born infants in Yakima – as well as the pressures felt by families.
In case you didn’t know, Memorial Hospital’s NICU is the the perinatal center for central Washington. Which means anywhere from Ellensburg to Sunnyside, Othello to Harrah, Moses Lake to Mabton, if there is a child born prior to 37 weeks gestation in need of monitoring and treatment, they will find themselves on the third floor of Memorial Hospital.
On the third floor of Memorial Hospital, every day, little ones are learning to breathe. As the lungs are among the last organs to develop in utero, it is often the case that most pre-mature babies find themselves on continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines or ventilators for assistance, gently reminding them of the rhythmic lullaby of inhale-exhale.
On the third floor of Memorial Hospital, whenever a young group of high school students (or anyone who has never experienced the quiet thunder of unparalleled intimacy comes into the NICU), it is amazing how swiftly they are reminded of their own breathe. When seeing a 2-pound child, isolated in an incubator, with tubes and probes poking out of every orifice: A gasp, forget to exhale.
Without fail, every first visit to the NICU is uncompromisingly transformative. An impossible blend of tragic and inspiring confronts every sense, and we reframe everything we ever thought we knew about “need.”
For me, this is the best moment in all my work, and I take absolutely no credit for it. Even the greatest teacher in the world cannot teach the sudden awareness and clarity of mind that that moment brings.
This is the critical junction, the fulcrum and the axis. This is Aristotle’s peripeteia, around which everything falls:
When I first visited the NICU, I met a 17-week premature baby girl with underdeveloped vocal cords. She was asleep, comfortably heated in her isolette until she woke up, crying. She turned to me, open-mouthed, full-throated, silent. I think of her every time I get off the elevator on the third floor of Memorial Hospital.
Six years later, I’m taking my seventh school up to the third floor. I’m wondering how many patients are checked in, if there are any parents with them, and if those are the type of parents – somehow, against all odds – that wants to share with complete strangers the most precious part of their lives. I cannot imagine, so I thank them. I thank the nurses, and I thank the children.
This really is the best part of the job.