I Just Ran Into the NICU Nurse Who Taught Me to Breastfeed My Preemie

17 years later, I got to express what her compassion meant to me

The author and her son
The author and her son

Something very special happened to me tonight. While out to dinner, I heard a voice that I recognized, after 17 years, from the next table over. When I looked up, I knew the face. It was as lovely and kind as I’d remembered.

She was a significant figure in my life—for six weeks of it—the first weeks of Tonio’s life, in the NICU. What a wonderful introduction to the world he was given there, to true human goodness. In fact I think they spoiled him with it, those NICU nurses; he grew up to expect it from the rest of the world, and we too often disappoint him.

Those were pretty wonderful weeks, and they came back to me tonight in blissful flashbacks upon seeing Paula. She was the nurse practitioner/lactation consultant who tried to teach me and my little 3-lb. preemie to breastfeed. Alas, too weak yet to latch on, he took in my milk through a gavage tube in his nose as his lanky body wrapped itself around my breast. He was all arms and legs—he hadn’t gotten the chance to beef up before he got sprung—but those bony, wrinkly limbs on my bare skin felt like heaven. My breast was, quite literally, a body pillow. Oh man, I’m crying happy tears of remembrance as I type.

Mother and son, just after birth.
Mother and son, just after birth.

I had to go over and say “Hi.”

Paula confessed she’d glanced over and recognized me too. She remembered me and Tonio and my breast all tangled up in hairy preemie. She’d taken a picture of us to document our bonding, and to show to the next crop of new moms whose preemies would be too weak to latch on but savvy enough to know, and cling to, the body that had nurtured them for perhaps-not-quite-long-enough yet, but would continue to nurture them still.

After we left the hospital Paula made a house call, to help us give it a last go at latching on. It never happened—I would pump every four hours for the next nine months. But her lessons were not in vain. She taught me about non-nutritive sucking, and kangaroo-ing, and how to gently soothe his surly. What a gift she was!

Paula’s husband was with her tonight, too; they tag-teamed in the NICU at Rush University Medical Center (though he’s since retired). He was the doctor in charge and was easily as kind. He approached his charges as if they were delightful little curiosities. And he eased my fears one day by assuring me my little guy had nothing more than a case of “immature protoplasm.” I’ve quoted that many times since. They laughed to hear me recite it back to them tonight.

She wanted an update on her patient, so she pulled up a chair and smiled at my photo of the teenager who towers over me and noogies me with relish. I told her of his oversized heart and his passion for world cultures and wildlife and his work at the zoo and the challenges he fights through. Paula gave me her card to keep in touch because she has a colleague somewhere who studies primates and maybe there might be something interesting for him there. As kind as I remembered her.

It was a pretty special night.

Lisa Milam-Perez is the senior editor of Employment Law Daily in Chicago. I Just Ran Into the NICU Nurse Who Taught Me to Breastfeed My Preemie