This story is by Rebekah A. Fernandez and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My world revolved around sanitizer and stethoscopes. Twelve hour shifts wore me down a little faster with each passing year. I dragged myself into the neonatal intensive care unit on my last shift of the week. Every inch of the NICU lay under a thin veil of dread, uncertainty, and prayer.
Reyna hadn’t slept a wink since she gave birth. At twenty-five weeks gestation, Everly had emerged pink and screaming. Off she went to the NICU, to me, her nurse.
“How is she, Anna?” Everly’s mom asked, a quivering smile beneath ragged eyes.
“She’s had a rough day,” I said in a soft voice. “Has the doctor talked with you yet?”
“He said she has an infection.” Reyna didn’t yell at me, but I could tell she wanted to scream. I took her hands and led her to the isolette, the plastic box that kept Everly warm. It hummed with vibrations of the ventilator.
“See those tiny fingers clamped in a fist?” I said. “Everly is a fighter. I can’t tell you the outcome of the fight, but I can tell you we won’t stop fighting for her.”
Reyna reached a shaky hand inside the porthole. She cupped her fingers around Everly’s head. Everly’s arm flicked up. She grasped the tip of her mom’s pinky and let out a weak “mew” as if to say, Hi, Mom!
A shadow in the doorway announced Everly’s dad, Marcus. He wrapped an arm around Reyna. They sat together, observing their child from the other side of the plexiglass, like an exhibit at the zoo.
Hours later, I made my way to the break room. I tried to eat but a sudden chill pricked the back of my neck. I hurried to Everly’s room and found Reyna and Marcus huddled around the isolette, whispering.
“Something’s wrong. Look,” Marcus said. “Show her, Reyna.”
Reyna caressed Everly’s arm. Everly lay still. Reyna picked up her pea-sized hand, but it didn’t grasp. Everly’s fluttering heartbeat strove in vain to keep up with her falling blood pressure.
My stomach cinched. “She’s lethargic. It may be that she’s tired, but it may be a sign of something more serious.”
I stepped out and called my charge nurse, Steph. “I need you here, now.”
Everly’s parents didn’t notice when I reentered the room. “Help is coming.” I gave them what I thought was a hopeful smile, but it probably looked awful.
It’s ironic, I thought, in life there is a calm before every storm. But in medicine, the storm comes first and the calm that follows is even more devastating.
Marcus wrung his hands. “Is she going to be okay?”
I hated those words. Any answer skirted the line between comfort and false hope. “I promise I will do everything I can. The rest is in God’s hands.”
Marcus nodded even as the monitor shrieked. Everly’s heartbeat dropped below one hundred beats per minute. Esther, the respiratory therapist, jumped into action beside me. I slipped gloves over my hands, hating the way they numbed the senses. I rubbed Everly’s chest and feet while Esther suctioned secretions from her breathing tube. We repositioned her and paused to assess any changes in her condition.
The blaring alarm continued as Everly’s heart rate dropped further. Her oxygen saturation dipped painfully low. The twisting in my gut exploded into full-fledged fear. Oh, no. Not now. Please, God!
The on-call doctor bounded into the room and stopped short.
“She’s not coming up,” I yelled. “Get the code cart!”
Nurses and respiratory therapists charged in to help. Though my veins were full of ice, beads of sweat rolled down my hairline. I wiped my face with my sleeve and stripped Everly of all her cushions and blankets. She lay bare on the isolette bed, arms and legs spread-eagled like a rag doll flung into the corner and forgotten.
Over the din of organized chaos, I could hear Reyna sobbing. How easily we forget the parents once the chaos starts. Though Everly was the doll, it was her mom and dad who we flung into the corner.
Dr. Santiago barked out orders. “Start compressions!”
My jaw went slack. On a body this small chest compressions can do more damage than good. I positioned two gloved fingers over Everly’s sternum and began to count with each pump. One, and two, and three, and breathe. I blew a rebellious strand of hair out of my face and found a steady rhythm. One, and two, and three, and breathe. . .
Another nurse slammed a dose of epinephrine into Everly’s umbilical line. I kept up my mantra as my mind split in two. One half counted, the other half prayed: Lord, guide our hands. Bruises spread on her chest where my fingers pumped her heart. I thought I heard her tiny mews, but the sound was only in my head.
What am I doing? In three short days Everly had wrapped herself around my heart just as firmly as she wrapped her hand around her mom’s pinky. I didn’t want to let go. Her delicate eyelashes, her button nose, images of everything she will never become passed through me. I don’t think I can take it anymore. With all my knowledge and experience I’ve never felt so powerless!
“. . . Anna! I’ve been calling your name forever.” Steph placed a hand on my arm. “You can stop.”
In my muddled fumings I hadn’t noticed Dr. Santiago call off the code. I squeezed my eyes shut against a flood of tears. When I opened my eyes, Reyna stood over me. She jabbed me in the chest with a finger and shouted, “You said you wouldn’t stop!” Her jab sent a shock wave through me. I felt that I was Everly and her mom was trying to jump start my heart.
Reyna was right. I told them I wouldn’t stop.
Inside the isolette, Everly’s eyes fluttered open. I gasped. Instantly, a warm feeling washed over me from head to toe. The feeling intensified inside me until I was on fire. Not a burning fire. A fire of life, of breath, of atoms in motion, and forces I didn’t understand.
I knew I had one more thing to do. I removed my gloves. As my bare hand passed into the isolette a spark ignited deep within my soul.
The skin inside Everly’s mouth had been rubbed raw by the breathing tube. I touched a fingertip to her lips and came away with a drop of blood. I took that drop of blood and gently touched my fingertip to her chest, directly over her heart.
Reyna sucked in a breath. “Is Everly going to live?” she whispered. On hearing her mother’s voice, Everly closed her eyes. She smiled. And then, her heartbeat stopped.
I withdrew my hand from the isolette and clutched Reyna’s arm. Before I could apologize, the room around us grew dim and quiet. A ray of white light burst from Everly’s body. The light grew in size and shape until a woman stood before us, her body as ethereal as a wisp of morning fog.
“Hello.” The woman spoke with the voice of a breeze. Her familiar eyes crinkled into a smile. She leaned into Reyna and kissed her on the forehead.
“Everly?” Her mom shuttered. “How is it you?”
“I’ve been permitted to say goodbye. Do not lose hope, mother. I will see you again. I take your love with me to a place where it will never end.”
Silent tears streamed down Reyna’s face, her eyes wide. Everly reached out and cupped her hand around her mom’s cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Then, Everly turned to me. I wondered by what merit I had earned the right to witness such an exchange.
“Do not wonder,” Everly said, reading my thoughts. “You never gave up. But I. . . I was not meant for this world. Where I go, I am free.”
I tried to speak, but no words would come. Everly kissed my forehead. I felt only the prickling of the hairs on my skin.
As quickly as it came, the vision melted away and the sounds and lights of the NICU reached my senses once more.
My eyes met Reyna’s. An understanding passed between us. We had seen Everly’s soul, and she had given us a peace that I’d never felt before or since.
Everly came into this world too soon, and she left even quicker. But in that moment she taught me that though our lives are full of struggles and limitations, so much out of our control, our souls are not constrained. Our souls are endless. Our souls are free.