Montreal·Point of View

'She looked nothing like a newborn baby': The unexpected when you're expecting

Helen Wolkowicz was expecting a baby, but she was never expecting the baby to arrive three months early. The experience prompted her years later to become an advocate for parents with babies in neonatal intensive care units.

Helen Wolkowicz's newborn daughter, Robin, came 3 months early and weighed 755 grams

In this photo, Robin is about 70 days old, and ‘finally starts to look like a real baby,’ her mother Helen Wolkowicz says. (Submitted by Helen Wolkowicz)

I sat slumped as my husband pushed the wheelchair.

It was around 2 a.m. Tommy stopped at the double doors with a large red sign: NEONATAL INTENSIVE CARE UNIT.

These words made me queasy. The pain-blocking effects of the anesthesia and adrenaline dissipated. My pain receptors fully acknowledged the unexpected, violent birth that occurred six hours prior. Every inch of me felt bruised; my body shivered.

Tommy rang the bell and a voice asked who we were. He said our names and the doors unlocked. We were told to scrub up to our elbows. Tommy helped me put on a yellow hospital gown. Germs are the lethal enemies of premature infants.

The resident guided us to the rear of the unit — all the babies in this section were in incubators and on ventilators. My heart raced as I couldn't identify my own child. Isn't a mother supposed to recognize her baby?

The resident pointed to the incubator that housed my infant. I gasped and covered my mouth with my hand.

I stared. She looked nothing like a newborn baby: her skin's wrinkly texture and translucent purplish colour resembled that of a newborn mouse.

For the first several weeks, the only physical contact Helen Wolkowicz could have with her daughter was through the incubator porthole. (Submitted by Helen Wolkowicz)

I gazed at the pink card affixed to the incubator. I read the information over and over in a futile effort to somehow change the situation of my baby being born three months premature.

  • Baby's Name: Blank
  • Gestation: 25 5/7 weeks
  • Birthweight: 755 grams

She lay sprawled on her back, her eyes covered with pads. A network of wires and tubes engulfed her — there were more tubes and wires than baby. Her right heel glowed red where a sensor was taped to the sole. A hose protruded from her mouth — the ventilator. Electrodes placed strategically on her chest and torso recorded her vital signs.

My mind struggled to process it all — punishing thoughts of what did I do wrong? Why did this happen?

Nausea pounded me again, my face was drenched with tears.

 Isn't a mother supposed to recognize her baby?- Helen Wolkowicz, mother of a premature baby

Tommy wheeled me back to my room to rest. While my husband, conked out from exhaustion, slept on a cot beside my bed, my mind desperately searched for answers, meaning and hope.

I found none. In my despair, I prayed because there was nothing else I could do. Parents are supposed to protect their children — we couldn't.

Several hours later, we returned to the unit and were introduced the primary nurse who would care for our baby. A long fraught journey lay ahead for our infant, she explained.

"Day by day" is the mantra. Most preemies stay in hospital at least until their original due date — in our case, this was 107 days.

The monitor sounded an alarm, the nurse looked at the baby, grabbed a manual pump and pumped oxygen into the baby's lungs. Our baby "crashed" right before our eyes.

I scrutinized the monitor, hoping it would give me answers. The display of numbers and letters was meaningless to me.

Another nurse ushered us to the family room so that the medical team could deal with the baby.

Tommy and I hugged each other tightly. I sobbed. This was day one — I wasn't sure how I was going to make it through the next 106.

Once the baby stabilized, we were by her side. Tommy opened the incubator's porthole and spoke to her in a soft voice, introducing himself as "Daddy." He told her we loved her.

​After graduating from the incubator, Helen Wolkowicz'z daughter was placed in an open cot. Robin spent her first 3 months of life in the neonatal intensive care unit. (Submitted by Helen Wolkowicz)

Unable to hold or caress her because of her paper-thin skin, I lay a finger on her leg — with that contact alone, she would know her parents were there for her.

Tommy slipped off his wedding band and placed it around her ankle. It was huge. I gave him my ring to try — still too large.

With each gram of weight gain, we cautiously celebrated, because with a preemie, a potential health crisis looms like a storm cloud.

Spending anywhere from 12 to 15 hours a day at the hospital, then going home with no baby, meant lying awake at night, emptiness gnawing at me, feeling scared that the nurse might call in the middle of the night and tell us to rush over.

We could finally hold our child  …  It was the first time I felt like a parent.- Helen Wolkowicz, mother of a premature baby

Weeks went by and we could finally hold our child. It is a practice called kangaroo care; the nurse placed my baby on my bare chest, my skin tingled with euphoria. It was the first time I felt like a parent.

During this precious interaction, a powerful symbiosis occurs: the baby's breathing is regular and their body temperature stabilizes. And in these much-anticipated, precious moments, my stress melted away.

After 21 days, the ventilator was removed and a small tube with two prongs was inserted into the nostrils to deliver supplemental oxygen. At last, we could see her entire face.

We rejoiced when she progressed and achieved milestones such as graduating from the incubator to an open cot, and we languished when she regressed such as when her kidney function was impaired and she was swollen due to water retention.

I was in awe of her fierce determination to live.

Today, Robin is a healthy 18-year old, second-year CEGEP student studying Pure and Applied Science.

She continues to amaze me.

Today, 18-year-old Robin, right, is healthy and ‘continues to amaze’ her mother Helen Wolkowicz. (Submitted by Helen Wolkowicz)


Helen Wolkowicz

Freelance writer based in Montreal

Helen Wolkowicz is a freelance writer. Her family, along with two other families, created Tiny Survivors, a fundraising event that benefits the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Montreal Children's Hospital.


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