“The Hope Parade united NICU families from across Florida. The story below written by NICU mom and volunteer Valerie Hernandez is a beautiful testament to the power of community.”
When my son, Reese, was born I didn’t get to meet him until he was three days old. We were both very sick. I was recovering from HELLP syndrome, a life-threatening pregnancy complication that causes liver failure in the mother while slowly depriving the baby of the nutrients needed to grow. Reese was also recovering a few floors down in the NICU.
When I was finally well enough to see Reese, I was so scared. He wasn’t just small, he was skin and bones. He reminded me of a bird who was pushed out of his nest too soon. I knew my body did this to him. I pushed him from his nest and the guilt was overwhelming.
Because he was so fragile, I didn’t know how to hold him. How to protect him. How to be his mom. My husband encouraged me to touch him, but I couldn’t imagine how. We spent the next five weeks in the NICU together; Reese grew stronger and I found my courage, forgave myself, and learned how to be the mother of my tiny little bird. (Fifteen years later, I still call him “Chicken Little” even though he is now more than a half-foot taller than me.)
The trauma of a premature birth experience isn’t something that society talks about. We are blessed with advancements in science and clinical care that have increased the survival rates of mother and baby exponentially in the last 50 years, but we gloss over the psychological difficulties of traumatic birth stories.
It’s for this reason, I am so grateful to ICU baby, a volunteer-based non-profit on a mission to create a better NICU experience so both baby and parents can thrive together. I started volunteering at ICU baby over two years ago with the intention of taking my traumatic experience and turning it into something positive.
During this time, I’ve spoken with countless mothers with stories very much like my own. Sometimes we talk together. Sometimes we cry together. But many times we celebrate together – the little things like the removal of a breathing tube or the first bottle feed. My personal mission is to let parents know that they too can find their courage and they aren’t alone on their journey.
The entire experience came full circle a few weeks back at the ICU baby Hope Parade, a community walk that brings together NICU families, staff, and volunteers while also honoring babies who didn’t survive.
At the Hope Parade, I saw babies and parents who I had supported months earlier and met new families each with a unique story to share. There were plenty of smiles, many hugs, and some tears, but I couldn’t help but notice a commonality with our NICU warriors – they were chubby! These tiny little birds, who were pushed from their nests too early were now beautifully plump with sweet cherub cheeks and their parents were rightfully proud as they paraded them through the park. “Look at all these Chicken Littles,” I thought! Our ICU baby families will forever be united by our stories of finding courage in the scariest of times.