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Thursday 16 August 2018

David Diebold: My advice to my two-pound miracle baby boy as a teen receiving his Junior Cert results? ... Don't sweat the small stuff, son

Like most modern-day fathers, I spend an awful lot of the time looking on in a mixture of bafflement and bemusement as the babies I helped produce begin growing into big, hairy, six-foot software engineers who sigh and roll their eyes while I still want to be in a rock group and buy a motorcycle.

We 21st-century dads bounce from milestone to milestone, often feeling like a sort of cross between Larry David and Niles Crane on Frasier, always trying to summon the right thing to say while uncomfortably plucking the lint from our band tour T-shirts and invariably feeling we've come up short.

At the time of writing, I'm waiting to find out my teenager Zach's Junior Cert Results. I call to ask him how he feels and to tell him not to worry.

"Hello," he says. "So," I say. "Do you want to talk to mum?" he asks. "Okay," I say. "I hope he's not worried," I tell her. "He'll be fine," she says.

Survivor

And I know he will because whatever he gets in his Junior Cert, Zach is a survivor.

It's his birthday very shortly, meaning almost 16 years ago to the day, back in San Francisco, I awaited a different set of results -- an amniotic fluid test to tell me whether my wife, who lay in agony under the effects of magnesium to halt a premature labour, would have to give birth at just 26 weeks.

Seeing her in such pain and distress was unbearable. "Can't we just go for it, get it over with?" I begged. The nurse took me by the arm and frog marched me to an intensive care ward.

What she showed me was heartbreaking.

Tiny babies smaller than toys, many covered with the light layer of blonde fur that normal babies lose by the time they're ready to be born at 40 weeks. Rows of little ones in glass cases with impossibly small, creased up faces, tubes running from their noses and from arms taped to little wooden spatulas, mouths taped shut around breathing machines, bleeping monitors.

An alarm sounded as one miniature baby's blood/oxygen level dipped. A nurse ran in and shook the child gently and the electronic shrieking ceased. "They forget to breathe sometimes," she said. "Which one is yours?"

I did what any father would do in the circumstances, gulped like a fish and picked the fluff off my T-shirt.

"I'm just showing him," said my nurse "why he really doesn't want his child to be born at 26 weeks."

The second nurse's face fell. "Oh. Twenty six weeks. That's ... pretty small. We only have one ... " She stopped short, thought better of it and whispered her excuses before leaving hurriedly.

"Listen," said nurse number one quietly, linking my arm and ushering me out. "We're a pretty good hospital, one of the best, for premature care -- so you're lucky in that respect. But I gotta tell you, at 26 weeks, there's just no telling, the lungs aren't fully developed yet, there are some serious downsides.

Disabilities

"The fact is, if he can't process oxygen very well, your child may go blind and never fully recover his sight. At worst he could suffer some severe disabilities. If he survives at all."

We returned to the room where my wife lay, burning and writhing under the drugs, being bombarded with steroids to hyper-develop our little fellow's tiny bellows.

The results came in: too many white blood cells, a sign of infection. It looked like there was no stopping this.

Niles Crane suddenly needed a chair.

When Zachary was born he weighed a little over two pounds. You could hold him in just one hand, though we couldn't. He remained in an incubator for many weeks and we could only look at him at first and stroke his tiny cheek, living day to day on hospital canteen vending machine food and hope.

Going home without him was terribly hard at first but we adapted. My wife would spend the day with him, I would knock off work at midnight and fly into hospital across an empty Golden Gate Bridge to be with him, to eventually hold him and help feed him with a tiny tube inserted down his little throat.

Time passed, a series of tiny milestones, until one day they let us take him home, still on a heart monitor, just in time for Christmas.

We were there one day soon after and the fire brigade pulled up outside -- one of those humongous red American engines with a guy perched on the back in a turret on the ladder. Within moments the house was surrounded with firemen barking orders and tramping around peering in windows.

The Captain was rapping on the door as we were frantically unplugging Zachary and gathering up diapers, a photo album. What do you save in such situations? I grabbed a potted plant.

Access

"Nothing to worry about, ma'am," he said, looking sideways under giant bushy eyebrows at the man in the rock T-shirt behind the leafy ficus.

"We've been informed that there's a youngster here who's just come home from hospital on a heart monitor and we're obliged to check out access.

"If there is an emergency," he explained slowly to our dropped jaws, "like a blackout?"

Blank faces. "A power cut? ... Your family are our priority. This him?" he asked, smiling down at Zachary, still tiny in his mother's arms. "Looks like you have a little fighter there," he said.

Zachary stayed unplugged. He bawled, soon crawled, eventually stood and before we knew it he was throwing food around and bouncing off the walls. If this was normal, and I sincerely hoped it wasn't, then he seemed to be suffering no ill effects from his prematurity.

In a couple of years we had another child, full-term, nine pounds this time and moved back to Ireland where we had two more, all big and bouncy.

As I write this, Zach awaits his Junior Cert results. I want to tell him not to worry, not to sweat the small stuff; that I know he'll do well in life. I want to say how proud I am every day of the tall, argumentative teen he has become, he who sits for hours staring at numbers pouring down a computer screen, like a character from The Matrix.

I want to say he's a fighter and a survivor; that everything will be all right whatever his results. Instead, I wait, picking fluff off my shirt, looking at a picture of a two-pound miracle, hoping he already knows.

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