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Heaven Sent


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1 Michaleen

It was in the evening, Easter Sunday, a time before the sun set, a time when others were enjoying a festive meal after a long Lenten season. The astringent smell of antiseptic infiltrated the hospital waiting room in downtown Detroit. A voice rang out through the speakers, sharp, with a tone of urgency and authority.  

    “Oxygen Technician to Pediatrics STAT”

    “That’s for your new grandson. He’s having some respiratory distress.” John said walked into the waiting room. John’s voice was stoic yet soft. A voice forced perhaps, but calculated to calm the fears of his parents and Mary’s. Their fears founded in the call they received but an hour earlier interrupting their dinner. Concern for their daughter only thirty-two months pregnant, too soon to be in labor. A voice that would announce a first born son. A voice that knew it might announce before the night was over that he no longer had a son.

    “Will he be all right?” Michaleen, John’s father, asked.

    “Too early to tell, his little chest is caving in like it might touch his backbone with every breath he takes. He’s a fighter though. Not one to give up easily. Sorry to ruin your dinner but we had to rush Mary to the hospital . . .”

    “Did you get caught in that snow squall?” Michaleen interrupted.

    “Yes, but it wasn’t too bad, no one was dumb enough to be out in that mess so we made good time. Mary seemed to be in quite the rush once I managed to get her motivated to leave the house.”

    “What did you name him?” Colleen asked.

    “We named him after dad,” John began.

    “Oh God no, not Michaleen, he will be scarred for life.” Mick shouted.

    “No Dad, we will call him Michael John.”

    “That’s much better. More American.”

    John’s mood was somber, as grey as the hospital halls when he turned to walk back to be with his wife. The joy he felt at being a first time father tempered by the reality he might not be in the morning.


    When Mary’s water broke at four o’clock in the afternoon on the twenty-fifth of March, nineteen hundred fifty-one, she was very surprised. She had been napping on the couch prior to getting ready to go dinner. Her plan was that the baby would wait until late May like it was supposed to. But children have a mind of their own and their own sense of timing. Dr. Kuhn said that he was probably experiencing bouts of no oxygen and decided to try the real world where at least there would be a constant supply and maybe just a little more room.

    After her water broke, she just could not get motivated refusing to accept the inevitable. Mary took a shower then sat around in her bathrobe while John scurried around packing her bag and collecting the things she might need in the hospital. She had heard all the stories of women, friends, with false labor pains that were sent home from the hospital. She didn’t want to be one of those women. She just couldn’t believe all this was happening now. John and Mary planned to go to John’s sister’s house for Easter dinner with the rest of the McMichael family later in the day. Slowly Mary got herself dressed then got in the car for the forty minute drive to the hospital. In the beginning the contractions were pretty mild, but frequent – about every two minutes lasting about fifteen to twenty seconds. It was surprising that they were so close together from the beginning. Mary had cramps in the legs that hurt worse than the first few contractions. She could manage them with the candle-blowing technique she learned in Lamaze class.

    John was driving faster than the speed limit but not so fast as to draw attention to the car. Mary was becoming increasingly quiet holding her breath with each contraction. Contractions that  began getting stronger. Mary grabbed for John’s hand on the steering wheel squeezing it tight. A powerful grip as strong as the contraction she felt.

    Now she was beginning to panic. Would she be able to keep the baby in place until they arrived? Frantic now, she  suggested John drive faster.

    Now she wants me to hurry. Why couldn’t she have gotten this motivated when her water first broke? What started out as a routine trip to the hospital suddenly turned into a race against time and the elements.

    Freshly fallen wet snow covered the pavement making it more treacherous than the previous week when John and Mary had completed a trial run to time the drive and do some preliminary paperwork at the hospital. The lack of dinnertime traffic facilitated their passage. Still the combination of high speed and wet pavement made for a white knuckle drive.

    Finally John pulled the car under the covered Emergency entrance in the back of the hospital and slammed on the brakes. He climbed out and rushed around to the other side of the vehicle in order to help Mary inside. When she was comfortably sitting in a wheelchair a technician by her side, he left to park the car not wanting to risk having it towed away. Although seven months pregnant, Mary looked more like a pumpkin than a swollen grape. The technician wheeled Mary over to the elevator.

    “Are you in labor?” the woman asked (naturally during the middle of a contraction).

    Mary managed a little laugh and a shaky “yeah” as her fingers dug deeply into the padded arms of the wheelchair. Trying to stay in control of a contraction became all she could handle. Relaxation was very important. The technician took the mom-to-be up to the second floor. Mary was put in a labor room with instructions to strip and put on a gown. It seemed forever before John came back. Even with the small amount of Lamaze practicing they did Mary knew she couldn’t go through with the birth without John’s help. She was nervous, frightened by the prospect of what was to come, the thought of being a mother.

    By the time John met up with Mary upstairs in Maternity the nurses had already completed their preliminary examination; they felt a pulsating sensation. Fearing a prolapsed umbilical cord, they began prepping her for a Caesarean section. Doctor Kuhn came in just ahead of John and was examining Mary when she began having a strong contraction. Though small in stature, the strength with which Mary squeezed the nurse’s hand made it feel like it was clamped in a vice.

    One of the nurses was monitoring the fetus with a fetal stethoscope pressed against Mary’s abdomen. Every time Mary had a contraction the baby’s heart rate went down, it even stopped once; the complication of the prolapsed cord. A second nurse was responsible for monitoring the mother’s vitals. A third was positioned near the doctor to assist his needs. So many professionals giving up their family time on Easter Sunday to help in the creation of a new family.

    The baby’s spine was pressed up against Mary’s back, adding to her pain. Mary wasn’t doing very well on concentration and relaxation at that point. The nurse stationed at her legs kept telling her to relax and Mary shouted at her “I can’t”. The nurse patiently said that Mary could try anything she wanted but that she’d have to relax to help Dr. Kuhn deliver the baby. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. The doctor had made his decision that the baby had to come out; two of the nurses pushed John back against the wall while the staff worked efficiently but very quickly to get Michael born. Knowing the baby was in distress Dr. Kuhn reached in and grabbed the baby by the feet and pulled him out.

    Mary opened her eyes and what a surprise she saw. It never really dawned on her until that moment that the doctor was delivering her baby. There were these two little feet and legs right in front of her; Dr. Kuhn was working on the shoulders and head.

    Mary said “oh, look, it’s a baby!”

    Don’t know what else she was expecting to see but up until she saw those tiny legs surrounded by the doctor’s big strong hand she hadn’t realized that the doctor was bringing their son into the world. There was a momentary pause as an episiotomy had to be performed in order to release the head.

    Mike began breathing right there in the labor room (it was six thirty two in the evening). He was quite blue and very small – just a shade over three pounds. The doctors and nurses worked feverously on him as he struggled with each breath.

    Everything happened so fast that the time from the doctor’s first examination until the finish of the delivery was just a blur. The doctor and nurses, all dedicated professionals, were terrific. Nobody hollered or said anything derogatory about how Mary handled the delivery. She was glad they were able to do the things they were trained to do and that the training allowed Mary to hear her baby’s first little whimper. No lung screecher, just the most beautiful little whimper she had ever heard. That was all she got as the baby was whisked away to the nursery so others could bundle him up and keep him warm. The fact that she was a mother now was slowly sinking in.

    The baby was taken to the nursery where he was worked on by a pediatrician, an oxygen therapist, an intern and several nurses. Very quickly they decided they needed to transfer him to the neonatal intensive care unit at the nearby Henry Ford Hospital. Placing him in an isolette they stabilized their little charge and brought the baby by the recovery room for Mary and the rest of the assembled family to see. All manner of family had rushed to the hospital concerned by the urgency of the call Mike had made earlier. By then the lady at the front desk just said to anyone walking in to go up to the second floor waiting room as Mrs. McMichael was in the recovery room.

    One of the nurses who assisted in the nursery called Michael her baby. She was playing with him as he fought to push the trachea-tube out of his mouth. She told Mary that he worked the tape loose from the nose tube with his tongue and started sucking on the tape. He was hungry already. Forget all this wiring and paraphernalia; he was ready to get into action. So the nurse let Michael grab onto her finger while they finally got him set up for transfer to intensive care. Mary, wrapped in a warm blanket, got to touch his hand for just a second as the doctor explained the hospital procedures; the attendants were waiting, anxious to get their charge the proper care he required. Mary was so tired and groggy that a lot of what the doctor said was taken in but not remembered. She just kept staring at her boy; that dear little treasure. She couldn’t wait until it was her turn to hold her precious angel.

    It was tough for Mom to say good bye to her newborn son. But he needed special attention and she needed her own care. Mary wanted to grab little Michael out of the isolette and hold him forever but it was for his own good that he had to go.    


    Mary tossed and turned all night but felt pretty good by the time morning came. Everything happened so quickly the night before that she was having a hard time believing she was a Mom now, especially when the baby was miles away in the intensive care unit of a different hospital. She cried every time she thought about him as they couldn’t bring him to her for feedings. One of the nurses took pictures and that’s was all she had. He was so tiny; his entire body was no bigger than John’s hand and his arms and legs looked more like a man’s fingers.

    Mike spent those first few days under an oxygen tent. Fashioned like a dome for a cake plate and about as big, it had an opening in the side that fit over his neck. A constant supply of oxygen rich air was fed in through a tube fitted to the top. On his head was a stocking cap, pale pastels. Kept the heat in. The cap was no bigger than a doll’s hat, his head the size of an orange. He was only allowed out of his dome for feedings. Those too were not of the ordinary kind. A thin gastric tube was inserted into his mouth and down to his stomach. This gavage method was necessary due to his respiratory distress. Mary would use a breast pump to produce a supply of milk that the nurses would transfer to the other hospital where it was kept in reserve for feeding time. This became a definite advantage as Mike was put on a very rigid feeding schedule right from day one.

    Michael spent the first six weeks of his life in that hospital intensive care unit. The first time John fed him was by that gavage method. Not being accustomed to holding a newborn especially one so tiny it was an uncomfortable experience. One that was not without difficulties. John anxiously watched his newborn son as he cradled him with one arm holding the measured quantity of milk above his head with the other. He carefully monitored the situation and became concerned when Mike started to change color. He wasn’t choking really it was just that something seemed off. John called the nurse over and she took one look at Mike grabbed him from John’s arm and ripped the feeding tube out of his throat. She placed the infant over her shoulder to clear the milk. When she was convinced he was breathing normally again, she carefully reinserted the tube and began the process again. Reluctantly John accepted his son back and finished the feeding, convinced that the problem was all his fault.

    Those first few days were frantic ones for John, drive to Detroit Memorial Hospital and spend a few hours with Mary then drive over to Henry Ford Hospital and spend a few hours with his son. Drive home, eat, get a few hours rest then repeat the process.

    After Mary had been discharged John drove her over to Henry Ford. Mary paused outside of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and cried the first time she looked in the window. Just seeing her tiny little boy under that plastic hood was more than she expected. With time she became more comfortable with the situation. John would faithfully drop her off every morning on his way to work then pick her up each evening on his way home. Mary, dressed in hospital garb, would spend the day in the intensive care unit, changing Mike, feeding him, touching him, talking to him, reading to him. Anything to pass the time. The nurses encouraged all of this telling Mary that it was good for the baby’s development to hear other voices and feel the tender touch of love.

    To be sure, Michael wasn’t the only one in the NICU. There was a boy weighing about five pounds who was born with a heart defect. His parents, from India, were in the United States while the father was working for one of the auto companies. There was a problem orchestrating health care coverage between his insurance company in India and the hospital. The insurance company wouldn’t pay for the necessary operation overseas and wanted the newborn stabilized then transferred back to India for the necessary procedures. The stateside doctors were reluctant to merely stabilize the child so the discussion continued.

    Then there was the newborn girl that was brought in. At almost nine pounds it seemed more appropriate that she walk in, sit on the doctor’s lap and explain exactly what the problem was.  She didn’t stay long in the intensive care unit.

    Mike made steady progress under the watchful eye of the doctors and nurses and his mother’s loving care. His breathing became more stable and less labored as his lungs matured. He was wired from head to toe with stickers that connected to a twenty-four hour electrocardiogram monitoring system. It was under the center lead that a strawberry hemangioma about the size of a silver dollar appeared in the first few days after birth. The vascular anomaly, a benign tumor really, was non-life threatening. It resembled a red badge of courage in the center of his chest.

    After three weeks, the doctor’s were confident enough to let Mike out of his oxygen tent permanently. By then he was also feeding from a bottle with a special nipple that required minimal sucking to feed; the nurses didn’t want to stress the lungs and abdomen any more than necessary.

    With the daily blood tests, Michael’s poor little heels were constantly black and blue. He rarely cried when the nurse came in to perform the task. A real trooper. In the fifth week the doctors decided that they needed to do a blood transfusion. John offered his blood for his young son but was told the process didn’t work that way and that he needn’t worry as transfusions were generally safe.

At six weeks when Michael was discharged he was feeding the way God intended and putting on some much needed weight. Still at slightly over five pounds he was small for a newborn. After his feedings Mary would lay him across her lap face down and gently pat him on his diaper. The rhythmic motion was a comfort to both Mother and son.

    By the time he was six months old, Mike was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a condition that resulted in the accumulation of cerebral fluid in the brain. He was returned to the hospital and a shunt was surgically implanted to drain the excess fluid.

    At fourteen months, Mike was back in the hospital again. This time for croup. He spent two weeks in the pediatric ward with a special oxygen tent built around his crib to help him breathe. But then all kids go through these travails and Mike managed to make it through kindergarten without any more complications. That was when the formation of his character began in earnest.