Hand to Hold's Official Blog: Written by Parents for Parents

Surviving the Long Winter Quarantine

Our first public outing as a family

Our first public outing as a family

I called it the Long Winter, the one that barricaded me in my home with my preemie son. So far, it was the most challenging period of my life. People said that they felt sorry for us during the 150 days we had a preemie in the NICU, but as gut-wrenching as both NICU stays were, for me the Long Winter was worse.

When we left the NICU in October of that year with our son, we were inundated with the horror stories of RSV, the virus that could be fatal to a baby as fragile as J. He didn’t look fragile. In fact, he looked like a 6-lb newborn, not a 3-month-old born 14 weeks early. After more than two months on oxygen in the hospital, he was breathing on his own. He was even slightly chubby. Nothing about him suggested that RSV or the flu could cause life-threatening complications.

We had moved to a new city six weeks before J was born. Our closest family was a 5-hour drive away. I had no co-workers in our new city and no way to meet people. We were so alone.

During the Long Winter, we couldn’t go to playgroups. We couldn’t take J to church. I ran errands during my husband’s lunch breaks and at night while J slept. People didn’t call, because they said they assumed we were busy. I’d look up from a string of days and comment to my husband that I hadn’t seen or talked to an adult other than him in three days.

I thrive on human relationships. I need to interact with people to feel whole. Of course, I was overjoyed to have J home. He was a delight, and I relished his slow progress. But, I felt guilty at my conflicted emotions: gratefulness and despair. I felt that I had no right to complain when some moms didn’t leave the NICU with a baby, so I muddled through each day.

I wiped door handles with alcohol wipes. My husband changed his work clothes before he handled J. We were vaccinated. We washed hands, even after touching mundane items like our mail. For five months, we rarely took J to a public place and never to one where he had contact with other people.

If our family and friends thought we were excessive in our protection of J, only a few actually complained. We had a few “germs build immune systems” comments. And there was the time a houseguest kept suggesting ways to spend our Saturday, conveniently forgetting what the word public meant. Breakfast at Cracker Barrel? A trip to the Apple Store? It was a backhanded way of telling us we were being overprotective that cut me to my core.

Were we overprotective? Every precaution we took was one that a doctor or a nurse suggested. Our NICU friends were a respite for me, because they reminded me that I was only following the advice we’d been given. We laughed at how crazy we were, a way to defuse the negative comments we received from some of the people we loved best, people who didn’t understand our journey. I can also say this: my son is fantastically healthy now, and I am not sorry I gave him that winter to get stronger before I introduced him to the world.

During that time, I learned ways to cope, like finding all the open-air public places where we could safely take our son. On pretty days, we’d look at plants at a garden center, or we’d go to the zoo. In the early spring, we ate outside at restaurants with patios. We had a few playdates a month with other NICU families who were also on lockdown. I maintained a connection to the outside world through Facebook and blogs, and I invested in my relationships with J’s therapists, who were sometimes the only adults I saw on a regular basis. I also threw myself into finishing my dissertation; even if I only wrote for thirty minutes a day, it gave me some professional satisfaction. I began reading again, my dearest hobby that has supported me in all life’s rough patches. And on really long days, I told myself over and over that this phase would not—could not—last forever.

And it didn’t. I remember our first real public outing with J. We sat at a table outside our favorite breakfast restaurant in the warm sunshine and waited for our food. J was 8 months old. We looked like a normal couple with a full-term baby. A stranger offered to take our picture, one of the first of us as a family outside of the NICU. In the picture, my smile is enormous.

The Long Winter was over.

Summer Hill-Vinson About Summer Hill-Vinson

Summer (MS) delivered her son 14 weeks early in July 2010 as a result of preterm labor, and he was in the NICU for 3 months. She unexpectedly developed severe preeclampsia with her daughter, almost had her in another state while on vacation, and delivered her 11 weeks premature in January 2013. Both babies weighed 2.5 pounds, and they were in the same NICU for a combined 150 days. Summer, a journalism instructor, is writing a book about her family's NICU years.

Comments

  1. This is great! Our 26 weeker came home on 10/24/08, and we too had a Long Winter, missing out on family Thanksgiving and a Christmas adventure to Great Wolf Lodge (no germs there, right?). We were so excited the first time she went to Target in February 09!
    It seems like forever ago now!

    • Summer Hill-Vinson says:

      Melissa, it’s unfortunate that so many fun holiday events come in the winter! And you know I can’t help but see them all a little differently now–they look much more germy. 🙂

  2. Michelle HenselMichelle Hensel says:

    Oh, how I remember our Long Winter too! The hardest part for me was staying home; it was explaining to family and friends why we couldn’t do anything. I felt like a crazy mom, but I knew it was for the best. One of our first outings was to a party supply store to buy stuff for their big sister’s birthday. It was so funny because the twins were in sensory overload looking wide-eyed at all the brightly colored plates and party decorations. They had pretty much only seen the NICU and the inside of our home.

  3. Summer Hill-Vinson says:

    Michelle, I remember the first time I took my son to the grocery store. He was probably 9 months old, and his eyes looked like they would pop out of his head!

  4. Summer, I am so grateful you shared this story. I will share it over and over again to let all those others in similar circumstances know they’re not alone and that they too will get through these difficult times.

  5. Been there.. Three times! Thinking of all of those preemie parents going through this now!

  6. Oh this brings back memories. That first winter quarantine was SO HARD. xoxo

  7. Kate Daniel says:

    Wow – what a terrific post. My 27 weeker just came home on 11/23 and I’m knee-deep in the Long Winter. It’s definitely isolating but reading about your experience is incredibly helpful. Thanks for sharing this story!

    • Summer Hill-Vinson says:

      Kate, I am sorry that you’re in the throws of the quarantine, but know you are not alone in your isolation!

  8. Thank you for this! So much. We are in our second season of lockdown (V came home in January for our first one) and it.is.hard. It is everything you described it to be. So lonely, isolating, frustrating, everything. Of course we are doing it to give our son his best shot at being as healthy as possible. But the lack of social interaction and support wears thin very, very quickly. thank you for writing on behalf of all of us who are still quietly waiting for our turn to enter into the world!

    • Summer Hill-Vinson says:

      P, I am so glad that my post resonates with you. I know you’ll be thrilled to put the winter lockdowns behind you!

  9. We brought our both our preemies home on May 5th but still had to live in the “bubble” even though it wasn’t RSV season. I heard the “overprotective”, “build their immune system”, even “paranoid” comments. And every time I had to remember, you didn’t see my babies connected to some many tubes, including one that went down their throat and was connected to a machine that breathed for them; you didn’t experience the infections, blood transfusions, days when it seemed like the alarms went off more than they stayed silent. If not bringing my child to church, to your house because you have school age children, out to a restaurant, asking that you wear fresh clothing your school aged children haven’t been exposed to before visiting and you want to call me overprotective, paranoid or whatever, that’s fine. I’d rather be called names than go through the ventilator and life threatening infection process AGAIN.
    It was VERY lonely for us too. Not many people understood and though we’d invite people to come meet our babies, once they heard the “guidelines” they invariably declined. I was grateful for text messaging and facebook and the ability to be online. It helped me maintain my sanity to some extent. It’s hard. My husband and I try to stay in the grapevine about local couples who’ve had preemies and offer our friendship and support to them.
    Thank you for writing this. So many people just cant understand…

    • Summer Hill-VinsonSummer Hill-Vinson says:

      I’m just now seeing your comment. You are very right–some people just don’t understand! I think it must be hard for them to understand when they’ve had such vastly different experiences from us. But, a little empathy goes a long way, doesn’t it! I hope your preemies are well this winter.

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