One of the first things any good golf teacher will tell you: develop a routine. Get a pre-shot ritual and do it the same way every time. The theory being consistency breeds success. The more you do it, the more you’re comfortable doing it. Yeah, no I’m not talking about that. Stay with me smut merchants. If things start to fall apart, your routine is there to fall back on and possibly steady the ship. I am not consistent at it, which is one of the myriad of reasons I am no good at golf. But this is one of those areas where golf has a life lesson to teach. I’m referring of course to our time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
It gets pretty crazy in there as you might imagine. The first time you see it is on the mandatory tour before the birth of your child or in our case, children. They poured Tracy into a wheel chair and we rolled over from her hospital room where she had been on bed-rest for about five weeks, across the hall to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or NICU, pronounced Nick U. It might as well get certified as its own University, it has been a college level education every minute we’ve been in there.
After rolling through the secured double doors, access granted only through a phone call to the admin desk on the inside, the first thing you see that requires your attention is The Sink. Two of them actually. The silent sentinels of the NICU. If you don’t visit The Sink and pay the proper homage, your journey ends, immediately.
No place can be germ free, but the NICU has to be as germ free as possible because the little babies who couldn’t wait the full 40 weeks, left behind their coat of immunity on their dash to freedom. So if you want admittance to a true Magic Kingdom, you must appease The Sink. In return The Sink will wash away your germs and deem you eligible to enter.
Here’s how it works. You go to the sink, step on the two pedals on the floor to start the water. Bare your arms to your elbows. Although I have learned that if you want your sleeves to be dry at the cuffs you need to push them well past your elbow. Get your arms wet from elbow to finger tip and start soaping. If there is a chance you still have some pulled pork or curly fry remains under your fingernails, there is a cup with, what I would call miniature Punji Sticks, but is conveniently marked Finger Nail Cleaners. Lets just say if the NICU is ever attacked or a particular doctor is not giving me the info I want, that cup will come in handy. Dull they aint.
After sufficient soaping of the hands and arms from the fingertips up to and including the elbow, you rinse, completely. Then repeat. And then again, until you have done this for three minutes. Oh, three minutes doesn’t sound like a long time? Try it, every day, for two months straight. The fear of bringing in a microbe that might wipe out the entire preemie population is what keeps me going for three minutes. Tracy is a rule follower, she’s just afraid of getting in trouble. My three minute commitment is much deeper.
Anyway, after the three minutes is up, you dry, completely. No medical reason for this, just function. If your hands are a little wet the next step is not pleasant. After washing and drying, you apply an alcohol based sanitizer to your hands. Now I have seen people do that up to the elbow as well, but only the hands are required, some are more committed than others. Here is where the drying completely comes in. So strong is this sanitizer that it takes several minutes to get it rubbed in to a point that will allow you to separate your fingers. If your hands are even a little moist, you can forget doing anything but Spock’s “Live Long and Prosper” gesture for at least an hour. I’m talking about the real Spock now, Science Officer of the Enterprise, not that fake Dr. dude who wrote all those ludicrous childrens books.
Once the sanitizer is applied, your identity has been transformed. You are now recognized as a welcomed member of the NICU and are free to pretty much wander and do what you want. This is evidenced by my friend John who went everywhere and touched just about everything in the NICU yesterday when he came to visit Anne Marie. I mean the dude was touching critical life saving equipment, putting his fingers through holes in Iso-boxes, looking in on other babies, you name it. But, he went to the sink, he’s good, free to be himself.
Here is the golf tie in, aside from my golf buddy John. The sink, once viewed as a three-minute burden that felt more like an hour, has become a safe haven. Things can get crazy in the NICU and they have been getting more crazy over the last three weeks. Babies we’ve come to know have passed away, others are clinging to life. Anne Marie, on two separate occasions over the past two weeks, had such major setbacks we thought this might be the end of the line. When things are, or appearing to, fall apart you need something to anchor to. Something routine, something you know won’t be different as all other circumstances change at a blinding pace.
The sink has become my pre-shot routine. It’s consistent. I know what to do when I get there, doing it everyday for two months now. It gives me three minutes to gather whatever mental clarity I may need to make decisions for Anne Marie when I get to her room, after having to walk past other rooms where other babies are fighting the fight. When a call comes early in the morning and a doctor is on the line, you know it’s not good. The normal crazy will be ramped up on your visit that day.
There may be a new nurse in your babies room, uneasiness starts to rise. No matter that she is the best at what she does, highly trained, abundantly qualified in technical and personal skill and will probably save the life of a baby that very day; maybe your baby. She’s new to you.
There are 10 doctors in the group of physicians that handle the NICU. Today might be the day you meet a Doc you’ve never seen before, anxiety now. Will she change the medication or feeding plan? Who knows. All these things occur on a daily basis, each one knocking you off your pins* just a little bit more than the last thing did.
But The Sink, The Sink has become invaluable. The Sink never changes, the routine – never changes. There is solid ground there. It really is the only solid ground in the place.
My hands have never been cleaner.
* pins – noun; northeastern in origin, used mostly by indigenous populations in South Jersey; meaning legs or supports – not indicative or dependent on size or shape of legs