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My Labor of Love

What would my preemie son's frailty teach me?

Recently I watched videos of our 27-month-old son Caleb's early days. It was hard to believe it was Caleb on the television screen—a tiny 1-pound, 15-ounce body covered with tubes, squirming under a Saran-wrap cover to keep warm. I cried as I relived those first few days after Caleb's premature birth. But it reminded me again of what God's patiently teaching me on my journey of faith.

My husband, Eric, and I were so excited when we learned I was pregnant with our first child. But I bled numerous times, endured erratic contractions, and had to be put on complete bedrest in the hospital after my water broke at 25 weeks. We faced the reality that our baby may come early. I felt like a prisoner, but as a pediatrician, I knew that every day I kept my baby inside my womb, the better chance he had for survival.

But on the afternoon of March 25, 1998, I started to experience contractions. A nurse noticed our baby's heartrate slowing with my contractions, and called our obstetrician. Since I was slightly dilated, my physician teasingly asked, "What are you trying to prove, Sharon?"

She ordered some sedatives to see if they could slow my labor, but to no avail. Eric held my hand and we prayed. Then, after rechecking my cervix, my obstetrician discovered our baby's umbilical cord had slipped out of the cervix. "It's going to be a semi-stat c-section," she called out. "There's a prolapsed cord!"

People swarmed in from everywhere, and I was whisked into the operating room. In a blur, I looked up at Eric as if I were never going to see him again. As I felt the endotracheal tube inserted into my throat before the anethestic took hold, I was terrified. God! I shouted inwardly, Take care of me and my baby!

The next thing I remember is a blurry Eric and a nurse telling me, "Congratulations. You have a son. He's 880 grams."

Although I was in terrible pain from the c-section, I managed to hear from Eric that Caleb was intubated and stable in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

That night, I met my son for the first time—by way of a Polaroid shot. He was only 1 pound, 15 ounces and 13 inches long. The next morning, I inched my way to the NICU. When we got to his warmer-bed, I saw Caleb wiggling under a Saran-wrap cover to keep him warm, tubes everywhere. A patch covered his eyes and the endotracheal tube overtook his whole face. I felt numb.

According to Chinese tradition, a new mother is to stay indoors for at least a month after delivery to regain her strength. But from the day I delivered, I knew I wasn't going to follow traditions. As soon as I was released, I went to the hospital daily to see my baby. Once there, Eric and I held Caleb's tiny little hands and prayed. Sometimes we rubbed Aquaphor (a skin protector) on his fragile, gelatinous skin. Most of the time, we just stared at him.

Caleb's first few days were fairly stable. He had a head ultrasound done on day three to check for head bleeds; it came back normal.

Although Caleb's head was doing well, when he was three days old, his lungs began to act up. They weren't able to get rid of carbon dioxide properly, despite a respirator. If that kept up, Caleb wouldn't survive. Eric couldn't hold back his tears; I've never seen him so distraught. When our pastor visited us that evening, it was the first time since my surgery that Eric let down his tough front and expressed his fears. Our pastor listened and prayed, which was exactly what we needed.

Eventually, at one week, Caleb was taken off the respirator. When I heard him cry for the first time, my tears fell. Although he was off the respirator, Caleb still needed oxygen support through his nose. We took a picture of me holding him for the first time that day. How I treasure that picture! Mommy finally got to hold Caleb!

Every morning at 5 a.m. when I got up to pump my breast milk for Caleb, I called the NICU to see how he was doing. Some of the nurses thought I was crazy for calling so early, but they soon got used to it. When I heard Caleb had gained weight, ate well, and had no increase in oxygen needs, we had a good start for the day. Otherwise, Eric and I would lie in bed talking, praying, and crying.

Friends suggested I tape record my voice so the nurses could play it when I wasn't around. So I taped Bible stories and sang "Jesus Loves Me" for Caleb to hear. Each day Eric and I were allowed to hold Caleb on our chest for an hour—they call it "Kangaroo Care." Whenever I held Caleb, I'd talk and sing to him. I told him daily, as I did when he was still inside me, about John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Our son's NICU stay totaled 16 weeks, and God's fingerprints were all over his stay. One incident, in particular, stands out. When Caleb was six weeks old, he had his first eye exam. Premature babies have the risk of an eye problem that could lead to blindness—retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). The ophthalmologist told us Caleb had stage 2 retinopathy, which meant early nearsightedness. He wanted to recheck Caleb's eyes in one week to see if they would progress to stage 3, which meant the possibility of blindness and would require laser surgery. We spent several days crying and praying, but we finally accepted the fact that even if God's will didn't make sense at the moment, we would accept it. Despite my anguish, I was ready to surrender.

A week rolled by. Eric and I waited all morning for the ophthalmologist to arrive. He finally came when we were at lunch. We rushed back to the NICU, where the ophthalmologist met us at Caleb's crib. "I don't believe it!" he exclaimed with a big smile. "The ROP has regressed. I've never seen this before!" Eric and I could only reply, "Prayers work!"

Afterward, other parents around Caleb also told us how excited the ophthalmologist had been when he examined Caleb's eyes. Eric and I went into one of the rooms in the NICU and cried as we thanked God for yet another miracle. God could have made Caleb's first exam normal and eliminated the whole episode. But because of what happened, God proved to us that he was in control. God was using a tiny preemie to teach his parents a lesson in faith.

Caleb finally came home on July 15, 1998, weighing 6 pounds, 6 ounces. He came off oxygen in March, 1999, but needed it for sleep until July, 1999. A few months after Caleb came home, he refused to suck his bottle while awake. We discovered, however, that he would swallow reflexively while asleep, so we were able to give him his bottle that way. This went on for months—but we thanked God for this discovery, which kept Caleb from being tube-fed.

Caleb's eating behavior still isn't normal; he has a hard time handling most solids and throws up everyday because of a gastroesophageal problem he'll eventually outgrow. Yet as I sit and think about the last two years, I realize how far Caleb's come. Our ex-1-pound, 15-ouncer is now a 28-pounder! And at two, he is into anything and everything, and tests his limits every day.

When I see Caleb now, I forget my worries in his early days. But as new challenges arise in rearing him, I find myself on my knees thanking God for his faithfulness. Prayer has become a big part of our journey, and we've passed that on to Caleb. Whenever we say "pray-pray," he clasps his hands together, and at the end of the prayer, he says "amen" with us. We tell him every day of God's love, and pray that as he grows older, he'll grasp what it's about and ask Jesus into his life.

God only requires us to have faith as tiny as a mustard seed, but often, my faith is microscopic! But I've learned that no matter how frail my faith is, God is a forgiving God—and he's faithful to us. I only hope one day, when I get to heaven, God will pat me on the back and say, "Well done, Sharon."

SHARON CO LEONG, a pediatrician, lives with her family in Texas.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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