After Elsie’s birth, we learnt very quickly about infections. For premature babies who are already vulnerable, infections are a serious complication with frightening immediate risks and potential long-term effects.
They have immature immune systems and fewer antibodies from their mother, and unfortunately infection in these precious little people is also common. Many of the interventions, like ventilators and intravenous lines, increase the risk of infection. It was the least we could do then to minimise the introduction of any germs from ourselves and the outside world. It was our responsibility.
The hand-washing procedure before entering the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) was an important ritual. And as I scrubbed and rinsed and disinfected (front and back of hands, right up to the elbows. I can still see the blue, black and white sign clearly with its instructions and diagram of how to remove your watch and rings), I’d wonder whether we were walking into good news or bad this time.
The words of one paediatrician still ring in my ears:
‘If someone so much as sniffles, don’t let them in your front door.’
I don’t remember which doctor said it in which of the four hospitals, or how long they meant to do it for, but it’s an order that I find hard to let go of.
I do my best not to keep Elsie a ‘premmie’ – I don’t want her growing up thinking that she’s any different or more special than any other kid. But it’s so hard when it comes to health issues; when we were so well-practised in protecting her from infection, it feels strange to let that guard drop.
I’ve just dropped Elsie at child care. It’s the third time she’s been and she was quite excited to go. In a way, I think I know why my dad was crying at the airport when my parents visited me overseas (I was 23) and he said, ‘You’re happy to stay and we’re happy for you to stay, so why am I crying?’
Well, perhaps it’s not the same. Probably it’s nothing like it.
She was happy to go. In fact, she suggested it a couple of weeks ago. I knew then that she needed more stimulation, more interaction with other kids. She needs to find out that toys are going to get snatched off her and she’s going to get pushed or punched in the stomach and she needs to learn how to cope and deal with that. She’ll learn how to take orders and follow directions from someone else and by playing with others how to take turns and share. And she’ll get to have lots of fun.
Okay, already I’m feeling a little better about it. It’s only four hours and it’s only once a week.
The problem, I guess, was the sign on the door at child care warning about confirmed cases of hand, foot and mouth and conjunctivitis.
And the fact that as I was leaving the room, I saw a little boy with crusted snot on his nose bring Elsie’s water bottle out of his mouth and return it to the shelf with all the others.
Maybe it’s some sort of obsessive-compulsive thing on my part. Maybe it’s a result of the need for strict germ control in her early life. But to me that water bottle now screamed ‘infection’.
It makes my fingers itch to think about it even now.
Okay, so it probably is some obsessive compulsive thing. My fingers itch after touching a children’s book in the waiting room at the doctor’s surgery and touching buttons at an ATM or pedestrian crossing.
Is it our responsibility now to let her catch things—something about building antibodies—or do I baulk every time there’s a sign on the child care door about illness and take her home to make aliens out of playdough and cotton buds?