When life begins in an ICU

Flickr image 'Grandson number 2 in neonatal intensive care unit, with his father's hand', by Martin LaBarInside the drawer of our lounge-room cabinet you will find the detritus of a modern woman and her hunter-gatherer husband: takeaway menus, a spare pair of car keys, old birthday and Christmas cards, unused TV remote controls.

But it's also home to something far more valuable — an envelope containing the ephemera of the first week of our son's life: cards welcoming him into the world; hospital information detailing his birth weight, height etc., his birth certificate, a tiny polystyrene arm splint, a hospital wrist band and photos of him moments after birth.

It's not a drawer I often open, let alone look into. In fact, due to the visceral nature of those photos (showing an unconscious newborn fighting for his life) I usually go out of my way to avoid it. So why did I feel compelled to rifle through it now and fan out the envelope's contents before me? Two words: Peter Costello.

Allow me to explain.

Last week, as the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Bill was passed in the Lower House, I caught myself doing what I never thought was possible: siding with the man known for his Cheshire Cat smirk as much as his sound economic record.

On the eve of the release of his memoir, the Liberal Party's former deputy leader and federal treasurer took the opportunity to wade into the abortion debate.

'We will have a situation in this country when in one part of a hospital babies will be in humidicribs being kept alive,' he said, 'and in some other part it will be legal to be aborting them.'

With this off-the-cuff comment Costello achieved what he never could under the pressure of his former leader's thumb. He hit the mark and crystallised the debate, taking those of us on the sidelines along for the ride.

As Frank Brennan pointed out in Eureka Street last week: 'Peter Costello is not alone in his ... quandary.'

For one long week my husband and I knew what it meant to be on the other side of a humidicrib's perspex window while our son lay strapped to an arsenal of tubes and wires in the Royal Women's Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

To us, our son, who found himself in such exalted company courtesy of a bilateral pneumothorax (collapsed lungs) at birth, seemed as fragile as a fig. And yet at full term and just over 3000 grams, he was positively sumo-like next to the wisps of premmies, all born less than 32 weeks.

Those such as Molly-Rose who came into the world at 26 weeks weighing just 880 grams.

'It took me 15 minutes before I could approach Molly-Rose's incubator,' writes her mother on the support site lifeslittletreasures.org.au. 'All I could see at first was a lot of tubes and wires, then somewhere under them ... the tiny form of our little baby girl ... we sat by her all night, praying God would let our little girl live and give her the strength to battle this.'

In most cases, the difference between premature babies such as Molly-Rose and foetuses aborted at, say, 22 weeks is a few weeks and a world of circumstance.

As Costello intimated it's quite possible that medical staff will be terminating a viable unborn life on one floor while on another an equally dedicated group bends over backwards to give a child a fighting chance, despite knowing that one in five premature babies will be left with a disability.

Abortions (including those that are late term) are funded by Medicare, yet it costs $2000 a day, according to some estimates, to keep each premature baby alive, adding up to the tens of thousands as they remain in intensive care for weeks or even months.

And while there are those not yet ready to become parents, overwhelmed by the thought of bringing up a disabled child or pressured into making a terrible decision, in amongst the NICU hubbub you'll find the ever-grateful walking dead (aka 'the premmie parents').

Lost, confused, and fighting for control where there is none, they quickly become part of the décor, existing for the day they can pluck their precious bundle out of the humidicrib and hold them close — and preferably forever.

In this parallel universe known as NICU there's one other thing in abundance. Hope. And for those parents born under a lucky star, a year or so after the sheer terror and trauma of that experience, and the trepidation that follows, they fall into bed exhausted not by anxiety but by the non-stop energy of a happy, healthy toddler.

A child, whose right to life was never in question, and whose perilous start is now a memory; a keep-safe tucked inside a rarely opened envelope in the back of a drawer.

Jen VukJen Vuk is a staff writer with the Salvation Army's magazine Warcry.


Topic tags: jen vuk, neonatal intensive care, peter costello, victoria's abortion law reform bill, pro-choice



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Existing comments

Wow Jen, that is beautifully put. Work of the Spirit in this troubled self seeking age. Like Mary, it's the "yes" in our livs to accept His ways and not ours. Truly an inspirational reflection. Thank you. I have six children and understand perfectly.

Murray J Greene | 16 September 2008  

wonderful!!! what else could I say

patricia vaughan | 16 September 2008  

Jen you said it all.
Our youngest, now 29, was in that position. Google Peter Robertson chef to see him today.
On the other side I recently had to switch off life support for my wife in ICU. Just now it feels like half of me died with her. Your experience in ICU and the term "walking dead" resonates..

Ian Robertson | 16 September 2008  

Thank you Jen for that beautiful reminder of how very special and sacred each of these babies are. Watching the Paralympics and seeing the courage and inspiration of these athletes is a little reminder of how we are each a gift from God.

Brian F. Wing | 16 September 2008  

Congratulations Jen on a lovely recollection. Just one question: how is his career going in sumo wrestling?

Claude Rigney | 16 September 2008  

A compelling story worthy of being passed on to those on the barbed wire fence!

Mary Ann Buhagiar | 16 September 2008  

Thanks Jen. The vital vote in the Vic upper house will be taken on 7 or 8 October. Your readers might like to lobby their local MLCs to sway the undecided. It appears the 2 or 3 undecided could determine the result.

Bill Barry | 16 September 2008  

People often forget that in this debate about the parents having a choice, the child has no voice or choice. Who speaks for the voiceless? I read somewhere that true power is in knowing that you can, but don't. Perhaps true responsibility (and maturity / morality) is knowing that you should, and do live with the unfolding of life instead of trying to control every aspect to our supposed advantage. Life is surprising and we often find our best selves when we relinquish control for the privilege of life.

judith | 16 September 2008  

Thanks Jen! You have lifted an 'older' man's spirit!

Thomas Curran | 17 September 2008  

What a wonderful and insightful piece of writing. Thank you Jen Vuk for the amazing experiences and insights you have shared with us. I pray God's message of love will reach our elected leaders as they cast their votes.

Paul Brockhoff | 19 September 2008  

The discourse we should be having is that we as a society appear to value killing. We have an army, navy, airforce that teaches to kill, we have supported the death sentence of the Bali bombers, we don't say anything about the people waiting to be executed in the USA, computer games with violence and killing are sanctioned in our market place. It does not amaze me that we have one part of the hospital saving lives whilst the other does not. It merely reflects the immaturity of our society.

Nilva | 19 September 2008  

Abortion has become a matter of convenience, another contraceptive. It's a pathetic indictment of our country, a sign of our failing belief in the value of life. As a young father it angers me so to imagine killing the epitome of innocence for mere convenience, we as the tax paying public should refuse to pay for it as practical step to stopping this abhorant practice.

Crimson | 15 October 2008  

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