Hello, baby! (and my time in a Czech hospital)
Well! I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing this at this point, but I have so much to update you about! We are so proud to announce the birth of our little Milo Mouse (who henceforth will be referred to in this space as “Mouse”) in the setting sun of Friday, June 10, 2022, several weeks ahead of schedule! I’ve been hanging out with him for about a month now and he is sweet as can be and thankfully healthy. We are loving soaking up all of these sweet newborn moments with him in our little family.
Our Mouse surprised the heck out of us – he came in fast and furious in more ways than one! On Wednesday, June 8th I had just finished my last strenuous work day of the year as my maternity leave was set to officially begin just days later, and that week I was tying up any loose ends and saying goodbye. That day I had even stopped by a supermarket in between lessons and schlepped a bag full of groceries home, over a kilometer at nearly 34 weeks pregnant in the hot sun! For better or worse and to our great shock, my waters broke while I was at home that night so I threw some things in a bag (from a hospital list I had made only the night before!) and when I arrived was told, yep, this is the real deal and I would be staying! I spent the next almost 48 hours on bed rest before giving birth on June 10th, with Alex and my doula at my side in a “record” six hour labor from first contractions to baby’s arrival! I am so happy to say that the labor and delivery was such a positive and beautiful experience (unintentionally without any pain relief), perhaps thanks to my preparations using hypnobirthing methods. Because the birth took place in the high risk ward, it was such a quiet, calm area (very unlike the normal busy delivery room I had heard about) and I felt so at ease. My doctor and midwives also both spoke English, which was a huge relief to me.
I knew that our little baby Mouse may spend some time in the neonatal ward because of his early arrival, but what I had no idea about is that… so would I. The next two days were spent in a perinatal ward as I recovered from the birth, and after being examined and given the OK, I was moved down to the neonatal ward (in the same building) where I would have the possibility to room with my baby.
I would now like to discuss my extended time spent in (Czech) hospital as there is so much to say – it was such a journey, so to speak. Of course, on June 8th I had no idea I would be staying for the next 16 days – the whole thing was, of course, quite shocking to me. My stay in the high risk ward was the most confusing and unnerving as I really didn’t have much of an idea what was going on until the day I gave birth – all I knew is it was imminent so I better read up and get mentally prepared for and to accept all that was about to happen. In hindsight, I’m really glad I had about 2 days in which to do this instead of immediately giving birth that night. The next day and a half in the perinatal ward was pretty uneventful as my job was just to eat meals, visit Mouse downstairs in neonatal, and recover.
It was when I entered the neonatal ward (four days in) that I started to “get it”, to grasp how it was to stay in hospital and to get with the daily program. The most important thing, of course, is that you get to be with your baby. Initially, Mouse was in an incubator which was wheeled into my room in the day so I could be with him, and wheeled back to the “školka” at night. The program at neonatal is very much one of “baby steps” – they give your baby all the help they need and slowly as they grow stronger and bigger, take away the implements such as oxygen and heart rate monitoring, the heating pad the baby sleeps on, feeding assistance (including breast milk from a milk bank and feeding tubes, etc) as no longer needed. Mouse eventually moved into my room in a crib, then finally the crib to be left in my room over night.
Having your baby overnight in your room for the first time is a trip. When it was announced one day that Mouse would be in my room 24/7 from the next night onward, my roommate turned to me and said, “Enjoy your last night of sleep.” (She wasn’t wrong!)
At neonatal, there is a strict program. Every three hours on the dot, a nurse comes in and checks things such as temperature and pee/poo status with you, and then assists with feeding if necessary and notes the amount eaten. Even if you have never taken care of a baby before (and I definitely hadn’t), you get to know everything real fast. Although the every three hour schedule (including through the night, of course) was tough and rigorous (an absolute Baby Boot Camp in Czech language), nothing could have prepared me better for adjusting to life at home, but boy, at the time it was tough. It meant that your life, while in neonatal, is ruled by the every three hour system. You eventually plan your day around it.
Of course, all of this is happening around me in Czech language. My roommates (two out of three who did not speak English well), the nurses, many doctors, the consultants — all of this took place in Czech and let me tell you, I wasn’t winning any prizes for improved Czech language. In fact, my brain felt so scattered that I was downright embarrassed. Some nurses would congratulate me on speaking rather well and call me “šikulka” whereas The Cranky Nurse would tell others that “she needs to learn Czech” right in front of me. Although the “big” doctors (who came for routine checks every morning in the window of 7-9am) would likely speak some English, nobody else did. Fortunately 90% of the nurses were very kind to me and treated me equally to the Czech mamas.
The care was at an incredibly high level. The system to teach you how to care for your baby and help you with care, breastfeeding, anything you need to know was fantastic. One lovely nurse in particular– everyone’s favorite (apparently they call her “The Milk Whisperer”) can get anyone breastfeeding, one very kind English-speaking mama told me. It was also wonderful not to worry about meals and just concentrate on your baby and what you need to do to help them get stronger and well enough to leave.
There were very strict mealtimes to be observed: breakfast from 6:45-7:45, always a slice of bread, pastika of some kind (a spread, usually with meat), an apple and the delicious and ubiquitous lemony black tea that is served in every department at Ceske Budejovice hospital. In true Czech nature, lunch was always hot and the biggest meal of the day, but served from 10:30-11:30 (strictly! I found out the hard way back in the high risk ward). Dinner was on your own time, but always provided in little packets: usually something like a pack of salami, a box drink of milk, a fruit, and as much bread as you wanted. (I have to note that I became so very accustomed to this light and easy Czech-style dinner that I’ve started implementing it at home!) Also every meal had loads of cheese, almost always Madeta products, of course. I’m in no way a picky eater, and I actually really enjoyed the meals while in hospital. My roommate on the other hand wasn’t too impressed – she remarked that nearly every hot meal seemed bland because it was made with “UHO” – univerzální hnědá omáčka, also known as “universal brown sauce (gravy)”. I don’t eat a lot of UHO at home so I did not mind at all.
Lessons from a Czech hospital: When you are served breakfast (snídaňe), DON’T SLEEP ON THAT, you better have it NOW, like THIS INSTANCE pic.twitter.com/eTAiKPgN7L— Cynthia (@cynthj) June 11, 2022
There were, of course, very low moments. The Cranky Nurse berating you for doing something wrong in a language you don’t understand while dumping your breastmilk down the sink? (twice, actually) I definitely held back tears. The loneliness, isolation and total lack of freedom of being in this environment while a beautiful June summer played out outside your window? Even harder. (Although I happily missed the entire height of grass pollen season there in the “Great Indoors”) Eating your meals in the canteen in silence while some other mamas chatted and got to know each other, whereas your language level is nowhere near conversational (even though you are a nice and friendly person)? Disheartening.
The fact that I didn’t know how long I would be in hospital was maybe the worst of all. I had met long-term mamas there who had been in for months. Unlike the U.S. system, you stay with your baby as long as they need to be there. Days ticked by, weeks started going by… I took the opportunity to ask the kind Milk Whisperer nurse how long she figured Mouse and I might be there. With the beginnings of tears in my eyes (unintentional), I asked “Do you think we’ll be here another month?” “Neeee! Neboj se!” she replied, clearly taking pity on me. “Probably only another week or two”. As I had got it in my head at that point that we’d be here quite a while, it lifted me up so much to hear those words. Additionally, my third and final roommate at that point spoke very good English so things were just seeming friendlier and better day by day at that point. I became a breastfeeding ace, as did Mouse, who got better and better by the day. When I learned that his feeding was the only issue holding him back and that our stay there hinged upon his breastfeeding progress, my will was so strong that I probably could’ve breastfed the town if I had to. We were going to succeed and go home!
Finally, with big gains, I was notified that we could leave the very next day. And we did. I had my last delicious (really!) hot lunch at the hospital, got Mouse all ready in his car seat and going home outfit, and we were out of there. After watching roommate after roommate be released and look on with envy as their husband brought the car seat in and they packed all their things away, finally, it was my turn. It was a bit emotional – by that point it was 16 nights in hospital. We both had done it, and it certainly hadn’t been easy.
While there, Alex visited us every single day, bringing me everything from treats, to roses for our anniversary, to clothes and books from home. On the day of the summer solstice, I left the ward for an hour to meet with Alex in the cheery outdoor café on the hospital campus, which is surrounded by gardens and colorful flowers at the peak of their bloom – just getting outside a building that day, such an important day to me traditionally, not to mention the perfect weather – it felt like everything. I am so grateful for his support through such a tough time.
On Friday, June 24th – the day we left, perhaps it was one of the happiest days in my life. We were all together again. We entered our building and I walked up the steps, finally not pregnant nor huffing and puffing. The smell of our building was almost foreign to me after not being there for so long and having so many other experiences. Even entering our flat for the first time (with our new baby!) was a trip. This is our house? This beautiful place? Alex had cleaned and organized everything over the past two weeks to prepare for our arrival, because, of course, nobody knew when that would be. Everything was so carefully and thoughtfully arranged. It all looked incredible to me in that moment, looking as if for the first time all over again.
I held Mouse and sat down in the brand new rocking chair (I had never seen before) in the bedroom. There were three roses on the table, one for each of us. I just had such a sigh of relief and let it all out, the tears flowed. It’s definitely one of those life situations in which you don’t know how you’re going to react, but I was indeed so happy. We had done it.
Big ups to the fantastic neonatal department in Ceske Budejovice for being kind to Mouse and I, despite our Czech language struggles. The staff there seem to truly love their job, caring for the babies and mamas, and seeing us all succeed. The passion for their work was easy to see and good energy was all around. If I had to, I would do it all again there, and I can’t recommend them enough.