Christmas Eve. Sure enough, not a creature was stirring, but that was because it was 11:00 pm in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Parkland Memorial Health Center and the little ones were too sick to be active.
McKendra Gordon sank into an empty swivel chair at the nurses’ station on third floor. She reached for her cup of coffee, trying not to remember that her college-age children were gathered around the dining room table at her home, playing board games with their father. There was, no doubt, lots of laughter as the siblings regaled each other with tales of childhood pranks. There would be cocoa, Christmas cookies and a crackling fire in the fireplace. The blue spruce tree decked in country-style would be shining from its corner.
But this was the year that she pulled Christmas Eve for her holiday shift. And, she had determined early that she would be cheerful about it, if it killed her. So far, it seemed it might.
A beeping pierced her reverie. Labor and Delivery. A newborn was in trouble. Jerking up, she quick-stepped down the hall, joining her colleague, Taneeka, in the sprint to the L&D unit.
Inside the birthing room, both nurses began their well-rehearsed routine, assessing the infant, starting the life-sustaining procedures. A tiny baby boy lay in an isolette, his fragile lungs struggling to take in oxygen. He was preterm – 6 weeks early. His was a textbook case – there was not enough surfactant to expand the air sacs in his underdeveloped lungs.
As they prepared to wheel the baby to NICU, McKendra’s glance took in the terrified eyes of the pale, young mother and the rigid shoulders of her husband, both of them weary, scared and trying to be strong. Unexpectedly, she reached out and grasped the mother’s hand.
In a quiet voice she said, “He is with us, you know. Emmanuel. That what Christmas is all about.”
Then she and Taneeka were gone, racing the baby into the sterile environment behind the secure doors of the NIC unit.
Dr. Jameson joined them, inserting the tube for the ventilator, staring the intravenous line in the baby’s scalp. Such invasive procedures for this tiny human, and on his first Christmas in this world.
McKendra watched as the newborn took shuddering gasps of air through the mask. Taneeka was easing him into the incubator. They stepped back, and looked at each other. Taneeka laid a gentle black hand on the infant’s life-giving cocoon of wires and plastic and began softly, “Oh, Jesus . . ."
McKendra reached out her own hand, joining her friend in their special ritual. “Thank you for this special Christmas gift. Hold this little boy close to Your heart. We ask for Your healing. And give his parents strength and peace. In Jesus’ name . . . .” They both whispered “Amen.”
McKendra needed a break. She excused herself and headed for her favorite, quiet place. There was a little alcove in a scarcely-used side waiting room. It had a window looking out over the back lawn of the hospital. She wished she could personally thank the architect who designed the little space. She had spent many a solitary moment here, nourishing her soul in the Lord’s presence.
Tonight the view was a blanket of snow, as soft as the flannel coverlet on the infant she had just left. She leaned against the window, feeling through the glass the chill of the frost outside. And in the early morning stillness, a verse from the gospel of Matthew formed in her mind. “For I was hungry ,., , . ." (Matthew 25:35, 36, 40) The least of these . . . a baby coming into the world naked and hungry, a newborn stranger.
McKendra smiled through misty eyes. She and Taneeka had served Jesus while they cared for the little preemie in NICU. What a glorious way to spend Christmas Eve! The third floor of Parkland Memorial suddenly seemed a cathedral.
The lights on the silver and red trimmed Christmas tree winked at her as she swished by the nurses’ station on her way back to the babies. Beside isolette number 4 stood the young parents – the mother wrapped in a wheelchair, both she and her husband gazing intently at the baby.
The father spoke. “He seems to be breathing better, doesn’t he?”
McKendra hesitated. NICU parents were characteristically overly optimistic, often in denial. But she leaned over to check the baby anyway. And couldn’t believe her eyes and ears. Beautiful pink color filled tiny cheeks which already looked plumper. His breathing was even and getting stronger.
She looked up and smiled.“Yes, he’s improved a lot. It won’t be long until you’ll hear those lungs all the time!”
The young mother grabbed her head. “Thank you for taking such good care of our Matthew. Thank you so much.”
On impulse, McKendra leaned down and hugged her. The little stranger’s name seemed to fit. And she whispered ever so softly, “You’re welcome, Jesus.”