ECMO, NICU, and the Defining Joke

I had the opportunity to do an on-line interview last week and one of the questions was “What is your writing style?”. My response was “Joking in the Graveyard.” My humor is a response to the cruel realities of the world, a frequently confirmed belief that if you can’t laugh, you’ll cry.

Or run away screaming.

Or curl up in a ball under your desk.

But you get my meaning. One incident a few decades ago pretty much defines how my sense of humor works and I would like to share it with you.

My daughter was born eight weeks premature as a result of what the doctors call an occult abruption. This had nothing to do with magick, Wicca or the paranormal, it simply meant that the placenta separating from the uterus and the accompanying hemorrhaging on my wife’s part were “hidden”. My daughter’s birth day was a long grueling afternoon enjoyed by none which leads to another dark joke about equipment lockers.

Within two days, my daughter was whisked away to the NICU at our local children’s hospital. She was put in the farthest reach of the unit, next to the massive ECMO unit.

ECMO is a Frankensteinian device, miraculous in what it can do, horrific in direct experience. An infant attached to it has its blood removed through a tube; aerated and filtered; and then pumped back into its body. This gives the patient’s lungs and kidneys a chance to develop or heal and has actually saved many lives. The device is huge, the size of two or three refrigerators side-by-side, and it makes a constant grinding mechanical sound like a production line for putting potted meat into jars with pictures of smiling babies.

My wife and I would visit our daughter beside the ECMO, in some ways thankful for the vampiric spectacle and oppressive noise. We knew that when it stopped, more than likely it was because the infant was beyond needing it. We sat beside our daughter’s crib, stroking her receding hairline where it was shaved back for IVs and reading her Winnie the Pooh and Bunnicula. A constant stream of New Age music came out of her pillow speaker. She really seemed to enjoy that, though her ability to react was limited. The doctors and nurses called us unrealistic parents as they believed she was little more than a vegetable. Our stance was that if she was only a plate a broccoli, we would push her to grow to her limits: perhaps broccoli with cheese sauce.

Our daughter’s condition was rather involved due to her birth incident. She had damage to her cranial nerves which prevented her from suckling, swallowing, or gagging. Her fine control of her muscles was nil and she required a tracheostomy and a feeding tube surgically placed into her stomach.

Strictly because she was a premie, she also had under-developed hips, the sockets were still to form around the ball joint of the femurs. For her it was perfectly comfortable to lay on her back, folded in half, with her ankles on either side of her ears.

One visit when we found her that way, I stroked the remains of her hair and said loudly enough for all the nurses to hear:

“Honey, Daddy loves you, but you are not allowed to date until you learn to gag and put your legs together.”

And that’s the definition of my sense of humor.


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