A few days ago Josh asked me to find my passport. I haven’t used it in twelve years so the idea was a bit daunting but eventually, after filling my whole car with dump fodder, it turned up. While I was sorting the wheat from the chaff I got to thinking about the last time I needed to know where it was.
You may remember the story of Noah’s entrance into the world. Unlike the more common scenario of everyone wishing the baby would hurry up and get out, we all spent a lot of time willing Noah to stay in. He kicked a hole in his amniotic sac at 27 weeks and everything changed in the blink of an eye. I spent a week in hospital while the people who know these things made sure that he was as safe as he could be, then I went home with a long list of conditions from taking my temperature four times a day to needing a full-time baby-sitter myself. I dropped in at the baby assessment unit every couple of days to say hi and spend some time hooked up to machines and after five weeks they decided enough was enough (the consultant’s exact words were, ‘What’s she still doing lurking in the community?’) and they wouldn’t let me go home again.
The issue was that the baby’s heart rate was dropping too much and too often. On that particular Friday there were no newborn intensive care incubators free at Waikato hospital so the plan was to wait for space then get Noah out. I was quite happy with this because I’d been getting more and more anxious as time went on. I’d started off fairly relaxed but as he grew bigger he didn’t have space to move without the benefit of amniotic fluid to cushion things and I was spending a lot of time awake at night convinced he’d died because there had been no movement for so long and if only I’d done something earlier. It was too much responsibility.
So being in hospital where it was someone else’s job to keep him alive was a big relief. Until the night nurse turned up.
She put her head round the door and said, ‘Have you got a passport?’
Now this was my third child and I’m pretty sure I’d seen every ‘things you need to take to the hospital’ list ever written and not one had mentioned a passport. I said yes but not, you know, right there on the bedside table, and why?
Because, she said, there is not a single newborn incubator available anywhere in New Zealand and if your baby gets into distress you’ll be flown to Australia.
You think you’ve pretty much got it all covered by your third baby but they can still surprise you. I had no idea that popping over to another country for delivery was an option. She assured me that it was, and that I could take someone with me, and off she went.
I texted Josh to ask him to dig out our passports and he rang asking if I was joking. He found them and dusted them off and discovered that while mine was current, his was not. He went off to put the kids to bed and I lay awake worrying. I went through a mental list of everyone I know hoping to find someone who could come with me and drawing a great big blank. Anyone living any distance away was out because a baby in distress isn’t going to wait for someone on a four-hour drive. All my friends had babies or toddlers and couldn’t just disappear from their lives for some unspecified amount of time. My mother does not have a passport. My cousins and aunt were busy at that moment in another hospital having (or helping to have) their own baby. The idea that I might have to fly to a country I’d never been to, where I know no one, to deliver a tiny, possibly sick baby who might not be able to travel home for ages, by myself, because there wasn’t room in the whole of New Zealand for one four-pound baby was just plain horrifying.
As it happened Noah didn’t require urgent attention for another thirty-six hours. By that time someone had gone home (I hope) and he was able to be accommodated right there in the basement dungeon that, back then, was the Waikato NICU. As I met other parents in it for the long haul in that strange environment, I found that I’d been the lucky one.
There were people who had arrived at the hospital with some worrying symptom or in pre-term labour and been sent off to Palmerston North, Whakatane, New Plymouth, even Invercargill. They were invariably surprised and unprepared, as you would be. One couple whose baby boy was born on the same day as Noah had driven in from Raglan, been put on a plane and returned ten days later. The wife had a bag of handy stuff – toothbrush, spare undies – but the husband had no such luxury. I can’t remember now whether he’d been accommodated in the hospital or had been left to hang out for a week and a half in a strange city on his own devices. They were delivered back straight into the NICU and started discussing their car which had, of course, been parked in the pay-and-display carpark for nine and a half days too long. They assumed they’d have to pay a fine more or less equivalent to the cost of raising the baby – the wife’s opinion was that the car wasn’t worth it and they might as well just leave it there – but it turned out that if the head nurse writes you an excuse note the carpark people forgive you. It was just as well it was their first baby. Abandoning a car is one thing; being nine and a half days late to pick up a child from kindy is entirely different.
Another lady had gone into labour at 35 weeks with twins. She went to the hospital with her husband and was told that Waikato couldn’t possibly fit two more babies but Whakatane could. They lived just around the corner, could her husband please pop home and get a few things, she wanted to know? Just the camera even? No. Righto, she said, lead me to the ambulance. No, they said, we have a plane for this kind of thing. Now this lady had a bit of a fear of flying but nobody was interested in that. They also, during this process, threatened her with Australia. As she was in active labour she said she thought that Australia wasn’t going to be an option. One of the (hopefully young and inexperienced) doctors said, perhaps she could stop for a while? She stared at him in disbelief and said, ‘You are a real doctor, aren’t you? Did you go to medical school’ and that plan was abandoned.
So they loaded her onto a stretcher on the little plane and from her perspective – lying down and looking up – she could see that although one propeller was whizzing around nicely the other was not. The pilot walked past her holding a wrench and said ‘Not to worry, I’ll just fix that up’. Let me say again: in labour, fear of flying. So she got up (with great difficulty because of the twins) and announced that she didn’t care what anyone else was doing, she would be going by road. The midwife wrestled her back onto the stretcher and pointed out that the pilot would be in the plane too and wasn’t going to fly if it wasn’t safe. And, with the active labour and all, a three-hour road trip really wasn’t the way to go.
Unhappily she lay back down. The pilot twiddled around for a while then, on his way back past her to the cockpit, said, ‘Now if you see smoke coming out of the engines when we take off it’s just some spilled oil. Nothing to worry about’. So she shut her eyes tight and didn’t open them again until they were safely on the ground in Whakatane, where she delivered her babies with a lot less drama than getting to the hospital had caused. At least it took her mind off being in labour.
It’s a funny thing with babies, as it turns out. The smaller they are the more space they take up. So much so that above you right now a network of small planes is shuffling pregnant women around hoping to find room at the inn. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes and they don’t tell you any of it in the ante-natal classes. My advice would be: toss out the whale-music CDs and scented candles and make room for your passport and a toothbrush for your husband.
So as well as finding my passport this week I’ve remembered another story of Noah’s life that I can tell him: the story of the time he was nearly born in Australia. As much as my life has been lacking in adventure in recent years that was one free overseas trip I’m very glad I didn’t get to go on. Whatever comes next for my passport and me, I’m very happy to say that delivering a premature baby alone in a foreign country won’t be part of it.