How Stigma in the Hospital Almost Killed My Baby

How Stigma in the Hospital Almost Killed My Baby

I had two perfect, wonderful, healthy children. And with each pregnancy I grew more and more worried that something would go wrong. I mean, the odds were just stacked against me by my third, right? I took a prescribed medication that was more dangerous to discontinue than to remain on. And I was still fairly new to my most recent recovery efforts. I was right to be worried. But I didn’t make my baby sick. I didn’t cause my baby harm. Negligent doctors and stigma did.

Because of the medication and my status as an addict, I had to spend a mandatory five days to monitor Atlas for complications. I also had to drive over an hour away to the hospital because there is no NICU nearby. Plus it was my first boy following two girls. So, I expected the worst.

The nurses in the delivery ward were pleasant and supportive–much better than the first time I attended that hospital when Nova was born. (I had vowed never to return, but they had the most knowledgeable staff. They were my best chance at another healthy baby.)

After the normal three-day postpartum stay the hospital transferred us to the children’s hospital across the street. Everything seemed fine until they weighed him and discovered that he had lost an entire pound, and wasn’t gaining it back.

I was producing enough milk. I knew that because the staff asked me to pump and they told me I was producing more than enough. But he wasn’t gaining weight. He latched perfectly and immediately fell asleep and was impossible to wake for feeding. They said it was because he was lacking the energy to stay awake due to not eating. He wasn’t eating because he didn’t have any energy and he didn’t have any energy because he wasn’t eating. What was I supposed to do?

Eventually, after several lactation consultations and some extremely rude doctors, they insisted that I stop breastfeeding and pump him full of formula. By the sixth day we had already spoken to our trusted and amazing pediatrician (who gave us her cell phone number and answered her phone on a Saturday). She told us all we had to do was keep him from losing more weight. So we did just that. They released us on the seventh day and only had to make it another two days for our visit.

He was still losing weight. We visited twice with instructions to try different formulas, different feeding schedules, different activities to try to get him to eat. I had all but lost my supply entirely by then, but we had to get him gaining weight.

Poor, sweet Atlas was just a little shell of a baby boy, he seemed so limp and lifeless. He slept for an entire day and then cried for an entire day and nothing could wake him, and nothing could soothe him. He had a terrible diaper rash that the hospital blamed on the medication I had taken, just like they did for his weight loss. It was all my fault. The junkie mother, right? It had to be–there was no other explanation.

I wanted to die.

On our third office visit, less than a week after leaving the hospital, our pediatrician proposed a milk protein sensitivity. She tested him right then an there. And that was it! We had our answer.

After he rejected the non-dairy formula we switched to a soy formula and suddenly he was eating again. The light returned to his eyes, he was awake, he was still crying but not constantly.

He gained weight. Thank you, Jesus, he gained weight.

I’d taken to measuring him in a glass baking dish on top of a kitchen scale. I weighed him just before leaving for the doctor and as soon as we got home so I could compare it to the doctor’s scale so I could be relatively sure of it’s accuracy. And he was gaining.

On that first visit back I cried. Our pediatrician cried. My husband nearly cried. Atlas, for the first time, didn’t cry.

He had a bit of a developmental delay due to the lack of nutrients in the first two weeks. And I swear that after sleeping nonstop those first two weeks–he stayed awake for two full weeks. It seemed like he had to make up for lost time.

He’s a perfect, wonderful, healthy boy now, just like his sisters. His development is back on track and he’s smiling, laughing, playing, teething. He’s so chunky!

I tell you this story for one reason: my son could have died. I lost my last chance to breastfeed my baby. We spent two weeks in the deepest Hell we’ve ever experienced. We didn’t sleep, we barely ate, I cried more than I’ve ever cried in my life, and we were all so, so terrified. Exhausted. Ashamed. I was ashamed. It was my fault.

But it wasn’t. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t because I was a junky, or because I followed my doctor’s and OB’s advice to stay on the medication.

Nope, it was because a doctor decided that it was my fault. It was because she zeroed-in on the one thing she knew instead of finding the real answer.

My doctor found in 3 visits in less than a week what the entire hospital staff couldn’t–or wouldn’t find with 24-hour, round-the-clock care over a course of 7 days.

A milk protein sensitivity.

They could have told me not to eat dairy and it would have solved everything. Instead, they forced me to pump my baby with high-calorie formula which only made him worse.

This is what happens when stigma allows insensitive, uneducated doctors believe that they know our bodies and our babies better.

This is what happens when we sit idly by–when we don’t challenge and fight the stigma of addiction, mental health, and the stigmas of using medications to treat those illnesses.

We as a society need to do a better job of protecting the millions of individuals not only struggling with addiction–but who are actively seeking help. We as a society should demand our medical communities provide the care that they promise us; to listen to us when we say that we know our bodies; to treat us as human beings, not as statistics, and not as junkies.

My baby nearly died–not because I am was a junky, but because a doctor at a hospital couldn’t see past my identity as a junky.

I thank God every day for Dr. Bennett and the care and attention that she gave us, calling and texting to check on us every day and answering her phone on the weekend to ensure that our baby recovered. For seeing me as a mother and as a person, and for hearing me when I told her that someone failed us.

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