In honor of Neonatal Nurses Day, I'm posting a letter we wrote nominating Tracy Hullett for a hospital nursing award. We wanted her to win so she could get a closer parking space. More than that, though, we just wanted her to know.
She won, by the way.
During our daughter's six months in All Children's NICU, an army watched over her. From the day Juniper was born and wheeled upstairs to the sixth floor, weighing 570 grams, she and her parents were in the hands of dozens of excellent nurses, respiratory techs, lactation specialists, nurse practitioners, PCAs, neonatologists, surgeons and a myriad of specialists. To all of you, we owe more than we can say.
But anyone who wandered near Juniper's darkened room over the months will understand why we feel a special debt of gratitude to Tracy Hullett. Without Tracy, Juniper would not be alive today.
When we asked Tracy to be our primary, she hesitated. We didn't yet understand how long our daughter's odds were, or how difficult the months ahead would be. Tracy did. We were tossed at 23 weeks gestation into a situation we couldn't comprehend. Tracy joined us willingly, for what turned out to be the worst days of our lives, and also the best.
We have a video of our daughter in one of her first days alive. In it, Tracy's hands are delicately unwrapping tape from her skinny, fragile ankle. Our baby's skin is still nearly translucent, and she still looks more like a plucked chicken than an infant. In the video, Tracy is steady and meticulous. She has the same calm approach that we would come to count on every time she started an IV or a PICC in our girl's impossibly tiny and squiggly veins, every time she removed a dressing and tried to leave the skin in place. It wasn't dramatic acts of heroism that gave us such faith in her. It was the everyday things. How she cut down the smallest diapers so they would fit better. How she could arrange the blankets just so and put our daughter snugly to sleep. Tracy made the smallest bow you can imagine out of gauze, and stuck it to our daughter's head with KY Jelly. From the start, she wasn't just a patient, she was a little girl.
Over the months our baby got bigger, but sicker. She had four abdominal drains, intestinal surgery, chest tubes, blot clots, ROP. She swelled with fluid until she couldn't move or open her eyes. We came in one day and Tracy had put her in a dress. Not just any dress, but a black and white number with a pink tutu and matching headband. It was a dress made for a Chihuahua, but it was one in a series of Tracy's small gestures that made the tiny, scary, foreign creature in the incubator recognizable as our daughter.
When things were at their worst, we dreaded Tracy's days off. Not because the other nurses weren't wonderful, but because Tracy knew Juniper and knew us, and we depended on her to set our emotional compass. She prepared us for the possibility that our daughter would not come home, that she would come home on oxygen, monitors or a feeding tube, that she would have eye surgery, abdominal surgery, and any number of life long disabilities. On the day we most feared our daughter would die, Tracy walked with us to surgery and told us to give our baby a kiss on her forehead. We had never kissed her before. It was a gift that sustained us through the terrible hours that followed.
When we made it to Mother's Day, Tracy made a little "Mom" tattoo out of tape and put it on our baby's shoulder. You have no idea how that feels when your status as a mom is so much in suspense. When our daughter was two months old, Tracy traded days off so her father could hold her on Father's Day. Later that day she dressed her in a Harry Potter robe -- a robe Tracy had made herself, complete with blue sneakers and tiny broomstick. Using tape again, Tracy had even made a lightning bolt scar and placed it on Juniper's forehead, just like Harry Potter's. In the books, the scar marks a baby who has escaped death through an act of love.
For months we existed in the suspended state of the NICU, the rest of the world rushing about its business outside as our baby lingered at the frontier of life and death. Through all of it, Tracy was our guide, our friend, our rock. As the weeks passed, we watched her calmly assert herself with doctors and surgeons in our daughter's best interest. When our daughter mysteriously started to throw up rocks, labs were ordered and pathology was consulted. Tracy, employing her Hoosier practicality, performed bedside experiments with meds and formulas until she found the mixture that was clumping in Juniper's gut. Tracy told the doctor, and fixed the problem.
The NICU is filled with experts, but by necessity is a place lacking in continuity as doctors and nurses rotate in and out. Tracy, along with nurse practitioner Diane Loisel and our night primary Kim Jay, became that continuity. We saw Tracy thinking several moves ahead, then marshalling the rest of the team and steering them, sometimes subtly, sometimes bluntly, toward the best course for our daughter.
She checked on Juniper on her days off. She held her. She kept her stocked in hair bows. After she saw the movie The Help, at a period when Juniper was confounded by the bottle, Tracy started whispering in her ear that she was smart, she was important . . . and she was a good eater.
Some of this might sound trivial -- Harry Potter and Chihuahua dresses. But it's hard to describe how shocking it is to meet your child when they are months from being ready for birth. We have heard how some parents can't bring themselves to engage with their babies until they are older, plumper, more baby-like. Tracy was a big part of helping us understand that it was not too early for us to put our hands on her, to be her parents, to take the colossal risk of connecting with her. And that we were not doing it alone.
On Oct. 25, on Juniper's 196th day in the unit, Tracy came in on her day off and walked us -- the three of us -- out into the sun. We joked that the baby wouldn't know which of us was her mother until we got to the car. We all cried, and in the weeks since, we've cried a number of times thinking about Tracy and what she did for our daughter. We did not understand until recently the risk that Tracy took when she agreed to be our primary, that she was signing on to love wholeheartedly a little girl who would one day leave her, and who might not even live. We only knew we felt safer with her there, and we think Juniper felt safer too.
As we write this, Juniper is sleeping in her bassinet, with no monitors, oxygen, tubes or wires of any kind. She now weighs more than nine pounds, coos and gurgles at us, and grabs at her toys with her newly chubby fingers. The improbability of her is staggering.
Along the way there were several people who stepped in and made a critical difference. But the first one whose photo we framed and put in her nursery is Tracy Hullett. We tell Junebug to grow strong and behave herself, because Tracy is still watching.
Please give Tracy the good parking space. It's the least you could do.