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A letter to nurse Kelli

By Emily Steffel Barbero

Today’s children are born into diverse families, both big and small. Grandparents (even great-grandparents), siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, step families, half families – the family tree can boast many branches.

But not all children are blessed with nurses for family.

On a frigid and snowy January morning, our son, Ziggy, made up his mind to arrive at just 30 weeks. He had a mess of black hair, and he was a true wriggler.  His first cry burst my heart open like a firecracker, breaking it up into a million little pieces of joy that rained all over inside me.  We posed for one brief photo opportunity and then he was promptly admitted to the Special Care Nursery. It was in the nursery that he was cared for by many fabulous nurses, including Kirsten, Martha, and Kelli. Today I want to tell you about Kelli.

Sometimes when people ask me how long we were in the nursery, I tell them Ziggy lived in the nursery for 64,800 minutes (six weeks). As Ziggy’s primary nurse, Kelli was by our side for thousands of those minutes.  On any given day I would spend 720 minutes or more by Ziggy’s isolette, watching him sleep and cry and stretch and kick and try to free himself from the IV jabbed and taped into his ankle or foot or arm. Kelli taught me how to dab Vaseline on his lips when they cracked and position his head so his airway was clear. She patiently taught me how to pick him up when he had more cords attached to him than Clark Griswold plugged into his home at Christmas time. She made me smarter, making sure I understood all of his procedures, even checking up terms with me online. Every inch of his skin, literally, was touched for and cared by so preciously by a woman who had otherwise been a complete stranger to us.

After about 20,000 minutes, I began to notice how his eyes would seek out her voice when she entered his room. I would watch how he’d snuggle into the nook of her shoulder when she burped him, or smack his lips against her gloved knuckle when he was hungry.  When she talked with him, her voice was tender and sweet, with the tone of a healer and a mother and a cohort. She sat watch over his isolette, she fed him, she held him as he literally grew in her hands over time. Many mothers might be jealous of a relationship like this, and I would understand it. But I never was. I considered it an unbelievable honor that this woman was in my son’s life.

Toward the end of his stay, Ziggy surprised everyone by suddenly falling ill with a serious gastrointestinal illness with a high mortality rate. By that time, so many minutes had passed that Kelli knew Ziggy inside and out.  She was able to spot the symptoms when they were still minor, and, because of her attentiveness, an x-ray was given, treatment was started, and my son’s life was probably saved. It was an incredibly emotional time for me. One morning I collapsed into a chair by his isolette, completely beside myself with worry and sadness (and lack of sleep and physical energy). I just wanted someone to tell me when he was going to get better.  It was all I wanted that day, it was all I wanted for so many of those minutes we lived through. I just wanted someone at the hospital, anyone, to tell me he was going to get better.

Kelli didn’t do that.

Instead, Kelli hugged me that day, picked me up enough to keep moving forward.  She entertained me with conversations about reality television.  We looked at photos from blogs about Wal-Mart shoppers and discussed recipes for the CrockPot. We swapped movie recommendations, urging us to stop at a Redbox and watch a movie she and her husband loved (it actually turned out to be half decent).  She gave me fashion advice and we talked how I might recover from bang regret with my new haircut. She talked me through those 900 minutes, and the next 720 minutes after that, and the next 720 minutes after that. All while we checked his temperature dutifully, changed his diapers, monitored his central line, snuggled him through his hunger pains. But she never once told me he was going to get better.

She told me I was going to get stronger.

You know what? I’m proud to say I did. And my husband did. And my son did, too.

After all those minutes together, I realized I didn’t need false promises from anyone that my son was going to get better. Because the little boy who could turn my heart into a firecracker had more strength in his 3-pound body than a 300-pound lion. That was all that mattered.  No need to worry about future minutes when time is so precious right now. None of those minutes in the nursery ever got easier from one day to the next. But each day, with Kelli, we got a little more light-hearted, a little wiser, a little stronger.

You can’t just call Kelli a nurse.  Kelli is family.