It was June of 2012. Hot. The weather in South Texas rarely changes. Windy, sunny, rains occasionally. One thing you can almost depend on is the weather here. I was a little over 5 months pregnant and working part-time.
I thought my paranoia would ease as the months went on, but it didn’t.
You see, Robert and I are the parents of two preemies, now 7. Surprise twins, born at 31 weeks. They were the tiniest beings we had ever seen at under 4lbs each, and that moment in time was easily the scariest event of our lives, thus far. Little did we know it was only to prep us for what was to come. With this pregnancy, the thought of revisiting that place was consuming my every thought. From the minute I found out I was pregnant, fear enveloped me.
As each week passed, issues presented sort of resolved themselves, and I felt a little relief. Progesterone low – pregnancy will not remain viable. Trisomy – possible serious chromosomal issues. Car accident – torn placenta. Growth restriction – body is 2 weeks behind head in growth.
But why was this happening? I was 30 years old, healthy, in good physical shape.
A multiple pregnancy often results in early birth, so the actual explanation for prematurity was easier to swallow. This pregnancy was a singleton. It made sense that it would result in a full term, healthy birth.
Back to June. 4:20AM. Driving down FM-1781, the moon was full and it was shining brightly on the water below. Two deer were sprinting across the road, and I slowed to watch them arrive safely to their destination. My spirit was grateful. We live in a beautiful place and nature is always a positive distraction.
Then it happened. I felt an enormous gush of fluid.
This isn’t something you ever want to experience before 37 weeks gestation. It seemed endless, and I spent a few seconds mentally calming myself down so I could turn around.
I assumed my water had broken. This can’t be happening again, I remember thinking. Sadness began to overwhelm me. In my mind’s eye, I had created a vision of what I hoped this birth would be like, and there it was, crumbled, crushed in one second.
No packing a hospital bag at the end of the last trimester for a “just in case,” no calling friends and family excitedly so they could rush to be there for the on time arrival of our new baby. No balloons or flowers with congratulatory messages without an underlining tone of sympathy. Almost to my house, I turned right, and the same moon I had previously admired provided just enough light for a cruel reality.
The clear fluid I envisioned was gleaming bright red in the moonlight, it was unmistakably blood.
My thoughts shifted in just brief moments, from thoughts of possible prematurity to survival. The words late term miscarriage ran through my mind over and over like a message on a scrolling marquee sign. I pulled the car into my driveway and took a deep breath. When I opened the front door, my husband was sitting on the couch with the twins cuddled up beside him watching cartoons. They couldn’t comprehend the severity of this situation. I couldn’t shield them from this moment. And in those seconds, I felt completely powerless, questioning my abilities as a mother. I couldn’t protect them from life’s cruelties and couldn’t keep the one inside me safe from harm.
I could have sworn hours had passed. It was only 4:34 am.
My hands were covered in blood. My blue jean pants were streaked red. As the door opened, six eyes watched me. Robert gasped, Riley immediately started crying, and Reese soon followed. I froze. There are nothing but blurs in front of me as Robert quickly prepared everyone to leave for the hospital. My dad was suddenly behind, me touching my back. My sister picked up the twins. Robert’s parents were on the way.
My husband took care of everything while I was still. Frozen. Suddenly, we were in the car. I guess he carried me there and buckled my seatbelt.
The hospital was 45 minutes away. We could get there driving faster than we could by an ambulance. (We had been through this multiple times before).
Arrival. The emergency room clerk wants me to fill out paperwork. I hold my hands up. They are still blood streaked and shaking. She stares at me blankly. I knew my voice would shake but I spoke anyway.
“I can’t right now, ma’am.” She shrugged and said, “it’s mandatory.”
She closed her window and turned away while I was still standing there. A nurse walked up behind her and glanced at me. Her eyes grew as big as saucers. She disappeared and then, suddenly, appeared beside me with a wheelchair. Thank you for that, angel.
Wires and monitors. Robert can’t go in until I’m situated.
The nurse asks if I have felt the baby move. No. Not even a slight kick.
The silence in the room was deafening. No heartbeat. No heartbeat. “Let’s keep trying, we aren’t giving up,” the nurse said out loud. I don’t know if she is talking to me or to herself, but I can tell by her tone she means it. Maybe the baby is over here or… here. Silence followed by even more silence.
Then I hear it. It grows in volume by the second. One of the most obvious signs of life, a heartbeat.
The nurse smiled, her yes were tearing. She quickly shook it off and got down to business. But I saw it.
The next 24 hours were full of monitors, bed rest, bedpans, ultrasounds, starvation, and immense relief but no answers. Why was I bleeding? Placenta Previa? No. Abruption? Negative. Robert was sleeping uncomfortably in a chair with his head on a table. I was not sleeping because moving would disrupt the monitors.
The Maternal Fetal Specialist arrived. I was told that my baby was very small, and that if his heart rate continued to decline, he would be safer outside my womb. The doctor told us that the umbilical chord had stopped working, so the baby was no longer receiving nutrients.
I knew this NICU well. Our twins spent 30 days here, 4 years ago. I knew our baby would be in the hands of some of the most amazing doctors and nurses out there, without question. But the unnatural aspects of what comes along with prematurity is always overwhelming. The baby’s heart rate dropped 4 times while the doctor was in the room. I saw in the doctor’s eyes before he spoke that it was no longer a question. He would be born today.
I was only 25 weeks along. All the emotions from the past two days collided. It was then that I lost my composure. I shook uncontrollably. Tears flowed. The nurses grew wings and flew me to the operating room. In less than 30 minutes, I was prepped, given a spinal block, cut, and sewn back up.
River Ryan Riojas entered the world, pink, feisty and kicking at 1lb, 2.8 ounces and 10 inches long.
He was a micro-preemie.
He could not breathe on his own and was bagged and intubated immediately.
Once he was settled, the doctor wheeled River over to me so I could see him. But in a flash, he was gone. Robert followed. Down to the NICU they went, where River would be taught the art of breathing, not by machines but by the beautiful hands who would touch him and speak life into him when I couldn’t. His NICU nurses.
I knew what to expect, I knew we would spend months there. Robert and I rechanneled our energy into connecting with other parents, we were seasoned preemie parents and we knew our place. Beside River, beside those parents who needed us. We had bad days, but we kept on.
Though intubated, River was taking his own breaths. He was enormity bottled into a few quaint words. He was a giant and he wanted to live.
The next year was full of ups and downs. River graduated from the NICU only to be readmitted to the children’s hospital two months later when double pneumonia and parainfluenza almost took his life. We tasted death more than ever and it was bitter. He was resuscitated over 7 times and spent weeks on an oscillating vent. We said yes to certain medical interventions and no to others. We had choices and we made them clear. People all over the world prayed for him, loved him, and thanks to social media, he has many fans!
And the little boy we called MIGHTY from birth personified his nickname. He lived.
River turned 4 years old on June 27th. He is small in stature and still experiences absent seizures, respiratory issues, and health concerns. But he is full of fire. He spent the first years of his life needing therapy to learn to crawl. Then to walk. Then to feed with a bottle and spoon. Today, he tests in the 7-8 year old range cognitively, socially and for most academics. We walk down Great River Road daily and I wouldn’t turn back, not for a second.