When my youngest triplet daughter was 1-week-old in the neonatal ICU, she stopped breathing. Predictably, the monitors went crazy. This happened to all three of my babies from time to time; however, on that occasion, there were no nurses in the room. I stood rooted to the floor, unable to move, my pulse rate elevated to the point where I felt my heart beating wildly in my chest.
To say that I was petrified was an understatement, but I could not force my feet to move and go find a nurse to help. I couldn’t even call out for a nurse. When they say that fear paralyzes, I totally get it. It was one of the single most terrifying moments of my life. After what felt like an eternity, a nurse came in and calmly got my daughter breathing again.
After that traumatic incident, I watched the monitors constantly. I was obsessed with the monitors, my eyes scanning back and forth between all three of them, making sure that my three babies’ heart rates and oxygen saturation rates were stable.
A few weeks later, the neonatologist observed me keeping a vigil on the monitors. He came over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, looked into my eyes and said, “Watch the babies, not the monitors.” I told him that I was scared to take my eyes off of the monitors because I wasn’t sure that I would be able to tell whether the babies were breathing without them. He walked over to one of my daughters, opened her incubator, and took off all of the probes connected to the monitors. He wrapped her in a blanket and put her in my arms. Standing over me, he commanded me to watch the baby, and only the baby.
After a while, I was able to relax and “read” my baby. He showed me that my maternal instincts were there and that I could trust them, I just needed someone to coax them out of me. An act that took him an extra 10 minutes to perform during rounds gave me the base of confidence that I desperately needed as a mother, and that has greatly benefited me over the past 23 years.
Three premature babies meant lots of time at the doctor’s office. We were blessed with a wonderful pediatrician. One time, I brought my middle daughter for an appointment when she was around 6-months-old. When the doctor questioned the purpose of my visit, I sheepishly admitted that while I thought that she might have an ear infection, I had no concrete cause for my suspicion. She had no fever and she wasn’t pulling at her ear, but she wasn’t eating well or acting like herself and I thought that she was sick.
I apologetically told my pediatrician that I felt silly bringing an asymptomatic child to the doctor, but my instinct told me to do it anyway. He smiled at me and told me a story from when he was a resident at a local NY hospital. A mother had brought her son into the emergency room at midnight. He had a high fever and the mother was positive that he had strep throat. My doctor checked the boy’s throat and it wasn’t the slightest bit red. He told the mother that her son probably just had a virus. The mother insisted that my doctor give her son a strep test and my doctor insisted that there was no cause to believe that her son had strep. The mother would not give up her insistent and persistent demand for a strep test. While my doctor thought that the mother was a raving lunatic at this point, in the end, he did a rapid strep test to shut the mother up.
Lo and behold, it was positive.
He said that on that night, he learned the power of a mother’s intuition. Of course, mothers are not always right, but he always takes the time to listen to them and consider their instincts when diagnosing a child.
He then checked my daughter’s ears, smiled at me, and told me that she had a raging ear infection. “Learn to trust your intuitions as a mother,” he told me, “and don’t ever apologize for acting in your child’s best interest.” I had no idea how much I would need to rely on those words later on in life.
When my daughter developed an eating disorder at the age of 15, my maternal intuition was finely honed by that point. The problem was getting clinicians to listen to me. My instincts and intuitions were pushed aside in the name of medical authority.
For the second time in 15 years, I was terrified of losing my daughter. All at once, in my head, I felt like I was back in the neonatal ICU and that same child wasn’t breathing again. Instead of her oxygen saturation plummeting, it was numbers on a scale. The neonatologist’s words kept echoing in my head: “Watch the baby.” Except, this time, I was. I knew to watch my child, and I was seeing her disappear, in all senses. It wasn’t the monitors that were screeching this time; it was our parental instinct.
I came to realize that while medical professionals were certainly greater experts about eating disorders, there were no greater experts about our daughter than my husband and I, and that both areas of expertise were necessary to treat our daughter’s anorexia successfully.
Thanks to two extraordinarily insightful and caring doctors who guided a young mother to trust her maternal instincts 15 years earlier, I wasn’t paralyzed this time. I was able to run for help and find professionals who believe that maternal intuition doesn’t undermine or contradict medical authority; it complements it.
To all of you clinicians out there, I encourage you to take the time to empower the parents of the people you treat and listen to their intuitions. This is potentially the greatest gift that you can give your patients.