When baby boy Cole was born with a serious birth defect, I, as his grandma, became part of a team that spent a year nursing him through a series of surgeries and treatments required to save him. He is twelve now, and we have a special bond. When the realities of the 2020 pandemic hit, he said to his mother, “I don’t want my GoGo to die.” So I sequester diligently.
I had never been good at anything medical. It took extreme fortitude just to get a flu shot or to give a blood sample. Yet there I was in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit—a medical abyss—racked with fear. Somehow, I had to muster the strength to support my daughter and son-in-law as they faced a medical crisis with their newborn. I searched for a full measure of courage as my insides churned like waves against rocks. Little did I know I would soon become a warrior—hell bent.
I spotted my son-in-law, Chris Corbin, in profile as I strode down the hall in the Intensive Care Unit. A new father, he sat in a chair cupping the baby’s head in his hands and talking to him softly. A bed labeled Baby Boy Corbin sat nearby. Nurses hovered. Wires dangled in all directions from the baby’s body. His head moved slightly from side to side as blinking eyes struggled to focus on a world foreign to him. The little guy would be in surgery soon. I imagined the words spoken by his rookie father—the promises made. “Daddy’s here. We’re in this together, buddy. I’ll take care of you, no matter what. I promise. You can count on me.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. I wiped them on my sleeve. Be strong, Grandma, be strong. You can do this. Another nurse entered. Soon the baby wailed as needles jabbed at his tiny body.
My daughter, Mel, and son-in-law, Chris, learned that morning their baby was born with a serious condition. I was at their home preparing for the homecoming of the newborn when the phone rang. I knew immediately by my daughter’s voice something was wrong. Her words stormed into me. “The baby is not okay.” To this day, those words echo in my mind, replaying a chilling, defining moment that changed everything. “I’m sending Adrian to bring you to the hospital,” she said. “Cole is scheduled for surgery as soon as the doctor gets here. I need you to come.”
She could hardly talk. I asked no questions. “I’ll be ready.” When I arrived at Mel’s hospital room, Chris had accompanied the baby to intensive care. Mel’s best friend, Victoria, sat at her bedside. Adrian, Victoria’s teenage son, had dropped his mom off at the hospital before coming to pick me up. Victoria, under chemo treatments for breast cancer, required a driver. She was pale. A scarf covered her hairless head. This was her second fight with the disease. She shouldn’t have been there, but nothing could keep her away.
I learned only a few details about the baby’s life-threatening intestinal condition before a nurse entered with a wheelchair to escort us to Intensive Care. We marched urgently through the hospital halls and an underground tunnel to reunite with Chris and baby Cole in a nearby building. The air was tense as we traversed the long, narrow tunnel. The claustrophobic atmosphere, symbolic of my world at that moment, closed in on me. The nurse pushed a sobbing Mel in the wheelchair as Victoria and I, wanting to be strong for her, tried to stifle tears. We couldn’t.
The walk had to be hard on Victoria, but she kept up. I glanced over at her. Our eyes spoke—the message clear. She was in. I was in. Adrian marched along behind us. A teenage boy, he could have dropped his mother off and gone on to age-appropriate activities, but his demeanor showed the same fortitude his mother displayed. He was in. I knew in that moment that whatever it took to save this baby, we would do it. He was ours, and we were his. Team Corbin was born, and we became soldiers—hell bent.
Nurse Debbie in intensive care was assigned to Baby Boy Corbin. She dropped hints of what to expect, no doubt preparing us for what was to come. His intestinal condition was often part of a syndrome which included kidney and heart issues, to name a few. After surgery, more tests would determine the extent of complications. Debbie advised us, “Just take one step at a time. Don’t borrow worries. Right now we’ve got to manage this surgery thing.”
A rock, this woman stood between us and desperation. As the days progressed, we realized she not only cared for babies clinging to life, she nurtured parents searching for hope. Now, years later, we are grateful for the doctors who saved our baby—whose names we cannot recall—but it is Nurse Debbie we remember.
After several hours of hell in the surgery waiting room, the real battle began. Days were filled with a litany of tests, some of them painful. Cole’s daddy stood by his side for every one. We were fortunate. No other conditions related to the dreaded syndrome were found. The intestinal issue was bad enough, though. Considerable special care, surgeries, and various treatments during Cole’s first year of life were required. The residual effects of those measures were unknown.
Team Corbin kicked in, and our individual aptitudes and skills complemented each other. Chris, his focus fierce, stayed at the hospital every night. He changed diapers, tended wounds, interacted with doctors, learned to read monitors, and understood the mechanics of every tube, wire, and machine. I was with him in intensive care one day when Nurse Debbie became distracted with a crisis. She asked Chris to perform a procedure he had helped with before. It involved several tedious steps and sterilized supplies.
I watched him meticulously prepare for and execute the required care and helped where I could with a screaming, kicking baby. When we finished, the baby settled. I sat down in a chair drained and sweaty. Chris stood there, looked around, and said, “I need to clean up my station.” He gathered up wrappers, scraps of tape and gauze, and other refuse from the procedure; disinfected the countertop and his hands; organized his station; set things up for the next treatment; and looked around for the next thing to do. I was wowed. I liked my son-in-law before this experience. I loved him when it was done.
Mel and I covered the day shift. Her primary role was defined by Cole’s needs. He couldn’t eat yet, but it was imperative he have breast milk when he could. A satisfactory prognosis depended on it. My primary job was to keep Mel fed, rested, and on schedule in the midst of chaos. Victoria, an always positive, can-do gal, took on the role of rallying friends, providing updates, and keeping Mel’s hopes up. Adrian was available for transportation and errands.
When Cole finally got to go home from the hospital, Nurse Debbie and I watched Mel and Chris strap him into a carseat. Debbie said, “I see a lot of babies go home, and I worry about the care they’ll get. I don’t worry about Baby Boy Corbin.” She was right about that. He had capable, devoted parents. And he had me, Grandma GoGo. I had no idea what that meant yet, but I was about to find out. This tiny creature would enrich my world in a way I could not have imagined. I would soon realize my greatest life accomplishment. I would become the baby whisperer.
We had home health support and were able to savor the joys of a new baby, but intimidating challenges and menacing prospects threatened. Potential risks and future surgeries hovered like angry poltergeists. This was when Momma Mel kicked in. Her motive set, her focus clear, she became warrior mom.
She searched the Internet and found a support group—online mothers of babies with the same condition. They joined Team Corbin. Determined to obtain the best possible care for her baby, Mel engaged in serious medical research. After discovering cutting-edge procedures that were better than those Cole’s doctor proposed, warrior mom got a new doctor and ran over her HMO like she was Desert Storm. She was, by god, going to fix her baby, and no one better get in her way. This included me. When I worried the intensity of her quest was upsetting her, she shut me down. I felt somewhat like her HMO.
She was right, though. The original treatment plan would not have produced an optimal outcome. There was a better way. To this day, when I look at the little guy, I think about what she did for him. Her tenacity and intervention changed his future and gave him the gift of normalcy.
Mel’s struggle was not easy. I arrived for a visit one day to find the house in disarray. Letting housekeeping go was out of character for her. She lay on the sofa with Cole curled up next to her sleeping contentedly after breast feeding. She didn’t greet me. I asked if she was okay. Without opening her eyes, she said, “I’m just taking care of my baby.” It was clear, that was all she had in her. My role on Team Corbin kicked in. By three o’clock in the morning, the house was in order, and I slept with Cole resting on my chest.
Mel was desperate for rest. I stayed over many nights, nestled on the sofa with Cole sleeping on my chest so I could comfort him when he stirred. This stretched out the time between feedings. When I couldn’t stall him off any longer, I delivered him to her bedside. After she fed him, I gathered him up for another episode of sleep. If necessary, I gently danced throughout the house while singing I Love You a Bushel and a Peck. Although exhausting, this was a blessed time. Happiness is holding a sleeping baby.
Mel pushed an inconsolable, fussy Cole in my direction one day and said, “Take him. You’re the baby whisperer.” I knew then my purpose was clear, my mission set, and my role defined. The baby whisperer. I’ll take that.
After Cole’s third and final surgery, we were in a hospital waiting for his body to deliver his first bowel movement, which would determine the outcome of our efforts. Once he pooped, we could take him home. We wanted poo. We needed poo. We must have poo. Day after day we waited for poo. Mel provided daily updates to an Internet group of concerned family, friends, and support-group moms. Finally, one day she sent out word, “We got poo. We’re going home.”
When we arrived home, a morphine-induced state had Cole’s eyes glazed over. A sheen of sweat shown on his face as his body fought to heal from wounds carved by a scalpel. As I rocked and patted gently, he transformed in my mind into something more than a baby. He became a creature of the universe, a being fighting to live. I wished I could somehow transfer my life force to him, to make him whole. Even with the intensity of those feelings, a peaceful contentedness prevailed within me. I felt profound gratefulness for his existence. Emotions welled up and took me over—their potency producing soft, polite tears. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as he settled on my chest, his weight pressing against me. I wondered how he could sleep so contentedly with all that stirring in my core. Although salty tears made trails down my cheeks, a euphoric state took over as I held that vulnerable little soul fighting for his life. In that moment, I, the baby whisperer—a weeping, ordained warrior woman—felt more full and whole than ever in my life.
Cole is twelve years old now. I call him my sidekick. Because of Team Corbin’s efforts, he’s a normal little guy. No one would guess the challenges of his beginning. Over the years, I’ve sat with him in cardboard boxes with flashlights, built couch cushion tents, and danced the Hokey Pokey. I’ve used a toy screwdriver to feed him macaroni and named meatballs after villains in cartoons to get him to eat. I’ve conducted chemistry experiments with Fruit Loops, shown him how to hide peas in a glass of milk, and reminded him often of how fortunate he is to have such wonderful parents. Doing so is one of my jobs on Team Corbin. When he was three and I mentioned this blessing, he responded, “Okay” and went on with his play, “I’m a lizard.”
Mel occasionally delivers care packages to parents at the hospital going through what she and Chris experienced. Chris does volunteer search and rescue work, finding hikers lost on mountain trails and delivering them to loved ones. Victoria beat the odds of her disease, had another baby, and runs her own business. Adrian, a grown man now, has a child of his own. And me, well, I’m retired and enjoying my second career as a writer.
Adrian and I had a chat recently. He said, “Every time I see Cole, I remember how the little guy’s life began, and I look at him in wonder.”
“I do the same,” I said. “We saved him, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
Cole is on the threshold of life. I’m on the tail end of mine. His newness, his essence, influences me in a way I find difficult to describe. It has to do with the wonder of the universe and the connectedness of all living things. It has to do with legacy. But mostly, it has to do with the rustling inside of me when he was two and we sipped chocolate milk through straws from a shared glass and when he was ten and hugged me when I wince with back pain. Now, at twelve, he teases me unmercifully.
Some say love is about how people make each other feel. Cole makes me feel like I matter; like I make a difference; like I’m relevant; like, through him, I’ve made the world better. I wonder if he will ever know about Team Corbin. Will he know about his mother’s fight that gave him the gift of normalcy? Will he know about the promises made while his soft newborn head was cupped in the palm of his father’s hands? Will he know about the tears I shed as I rocked his tiny body fighting to heal? Will he know about Victoria’s sacrifices and Adrian’s devotion? Will he know about Nurse Debbie? Will he know about Team Corbin, that we were warriors—hell bent?
Yes, someday, when he’s older, he will know all these things. He will know them because his Grandma GoGo is a writer.