Andrea Curtis, “Small Mercies,” Toronto Life, December 2005
By Christina Fanioudakis
Whether parents or not, readers will connect with Andrea Curtis’s insightful account of not only her own experience delivering a premature son, but the reality of life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for everyone involved.
In 1999, Curtis, well into her first pregnancy, had experienced no morning sickness. She opted out of prenatal testing, “imagining myself too young and strong at 29 to bother. . . .” After 32 weeks and two days, the real story begins, and Curtis makes sure both reader and author embark on the same journey.
I was apprehensive of the story’s outcome—the title alone makes it clear that the pages of this article carry a heavy burden (brace yourself, in other words). Only halfway through the first GP, while on the way to Ikea. Shortly after arriving at Women’s College Hospital the doctor tells her, “You need to be prepped for a C-section. You’re going to have a baby in fifteen minutes.” Every detail Curtis chooses creates vivid, engaging imagery, and it’s too late to consider putting the piece down.
After giving birth, her son Ben weighs only three pounds. Curtis brings us with her into the NICU. It is place that does not get a ton of coverage in journalism, but the economic and ethical realities she presents are important:
Caring for premature babies also has an enormous impact on an already overstretched health care system. Women’s College reports that it can cost more than $100,000 per child ($1,000 a day) to support extremely low-birth-weight infants (those under 2.2 pounds) in the NICU. . . . But the biggest questions raised by our ability to push the boundaries of biological survivability are moral rather than financial: is it right to keep the tiniest, most at-risk babies alive outside the womb just because we can?
Curtis faces the issue head-on. As a writer, she is able compartmentalize her emotional self from to examine the monetary expense of the unit, as well as the effect of its operations on the child and the family.
This modulation between the personal narrative and the realities of prenatal care reads as effortless. Curtis explains what is happening in the NICU without overwhelming the reader with medical jargon. Her inclusion of minute details is never unnecessary. In fact, they make the story more relatable by evoking emotion. For instance, when the parents wait to hear the results of Ben’s test, the anxiety that seeps into them compels the reader develop sweaty palms and furiously flip to the next page. When the nurses recommend that they leave the baby alone to rest, her anger—“This is my child, I wanted to scream in her face”—has you in the hospital room, protective over Ben yourself. It’s heartbreaking when the truth of the matter is exposed—that many other families are going through similar ordeals, some successful, some not—and the reader cannot help but commiserate.
Curtis candidly writes of the private details of life in the NICU, the kinds of things outsiders typically might forget in the grand scheme of such a miserable situation. The pain of childbirth is quickly forgotten when a mother is clinging to the hope that her newborn will survive. Her pain is solitary, and even her partner cannot help her. She writes:
I’d come to dread the pitying tone people took when I told them about Ben; even kindly, sympathetic looks made me uncomfortable. I would lie and say he was doing well. . . . How could I tell causal well-wishers that my son would be having a head ultrasound in a few days to determine if he had a hemorrhage or was brain damaged? I couldn’t admit to anyone, not even Nick, that I worried every day, nearly every moment, that our baby was going to die.
As little Ben is poked, prodded, bruised and struggling to breathe, Curtis allows readers to be privy to the unbelievable amount of health risks premature babies encounter at such a fragile state. “My tiny child looked solitary and foreign, as if he weren’t of this world. I tried to say something appropriate, something motherly, but I had no words.” A human baby is fully developed from thirty-seven to forty weeks. Ben, born five weeks early, was farther along than other infants in NICU.
When Toronto Life published this feature nearly ten years ago, of the 335,000 women who had children, about 25,000 were expected to have a preemie. The story remains timeless because it resonates with families now: according to the Canadian Premature Baby Foundation one in 10 infants in Canada are born premature. Curtis’s story is an intensely personal one and yet, with its ability to touch the lives of so many, universal.
Christina Fanioudakis is graduate of Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. She is interested in art, culture and fashion, and currently works as a fashion assistant on The Marilyn Denis Show in Toronto.
Illustration photo by Mattman, via Flickr.