The room was small. Down in the basement floor of NorthSide Hospital in Atlanta. My wife, at the time, Philia, was in emergency surgery just down the hall. The doctors were trying to save our daughter.
10 days earlier
I was at work when I got from a call from a family friend, Philia thinks her water broke and she's heading to the hospital. The words almost sounded like a foreign language. She was only 6 month pregnant! Here we go again. We had been here before. We had never gotten this far, but we had been here.
We had experienced 3 miscarriages. Each event carrying it's own emotional weight. Events that lodge themselves deep into the fabric of one's cardiac soul. Passing through you like a spiked stone, as you relive each memory.
I remember the resigned sadness at the 3rd miscarriage. Sitting in the ER, watching the ultrasound as the nurse looked for the heartbeat. Remembering the sinking feeling when she solemnly stood up and said ominously, "I'll be right back with the doctor". I had a resigned sadness that laid upon on the searing memory of the first one.
I remember hearing Philia run out of the bathroom screaming "Something's wrong! Something is wrong with the baby!". Remember rushing to the hospital. Remember the ER nurse checking, only to look at me gravely. "Sir? Can you come here?". Remember the buzzing in my ears, as I walked around to see what she is was trying to show me.. Remember seeing 2 small, pink fleshed feet, protruding from Philia. Remember the earth, feeling like it swayed beneath me.
I can still hear her wailing cries of “What?! What?!”, when I told her of our loss… I consoled her but never telling her what I had seen till many, many years later. Now this day, we return here, again.
I rushed to the hospital, and I see her in an ER room. "Is Z ok?", she asked, filled with fear. "She will be fine", I said having no idea if that was true, fearing the worst. We called her Z, because we knew we were going to name her, Zakiyyah, after the mother of my family friend. This was the furthest we has come. She had a name. We couldn't lose her.
Her water has inexplicably broken and she was dilated, But we needed to keep Z inside as long as we could. It was far too early for her to be born. They strapped on a heart monitor to keep tabs on Z’s heartbeat, and the tilted the bed head downwards, begging gravity to assist. We needed to keep her inside. The doctors immediately admitted her. They needed to do whatever needed to be done to keep Z “cooking”. Life's tectonic plates shifted and our paradigms collapsed. Our new reality had begun.
I went to get my eldest son, who was 7 at the time, and took him to house of a family friend, Chudi and Maureen Obiofuma, for the night. I went back to the hospital and spent every night there. I would wake up early, head out and get my son from Chudi’s house, take him home, get him ready and take him school, then head to work. I would get him from school, and take him back to the Obiofuma’s and then head back to the hospital for the night. This went on for about 10 days.
Till the morning of November 11th 2000
Since I had spent all these nights at the hospital, I began performing some of the duties a nurse would.. I would get her food, adjust her bed, or even move her catheter, if she needed to reposition herself. On this day, while adjusting her catheter and cleaning her, I saw something. She saw my face change “What?”. “Nothing,” I said, “But I want the nurse to check something out”.
When the nurse came I asked her to look at what I was seeing. She looked and said “Oh that just the catheter”. “No”, I said as I pointed directly at what I was seeing, “That!”. The blood rushed out of the nurse’s face. She looked at me wide eyed and said “I’ll be right back” and walked briskly out of the room. Philia looked at me confused and said “What is it?” I told her I wasn’t sure but wanted the nurse to check it out.
Then the door burst open, 4 nurses and the doctor rushed in.
The activity was furious and urgent. They immediately looked at what I had pointed out. The doctor said baby was in distress, she needed to come out now. There was a hint of panic in some of the nurses, but they worked professionally transferring Philia to a gurney. They whisked her away, as she began to cry. I ran along side trying to comfort her. When we got to the ER, I was told I couldn’t come in, it was an emergency C-section. A nurse led me away to a small waiting room where I sat, stunned.
Z was only 26 weeks old.
The time I spent in that waiting room is blurred by a sea of emotions, that ranged from despair to hope to sadness, then back to despair. I waited, and prayed. Ever since I was a child, when I was overwhelmed with emotions, my ears begin to feel as if there are being inundated with bees. It is as if a rush of blood floods my lobs, generating a buzzing hum I perceive. It overtakes my vision and clouds my hearing. My senses begin to shut down as I zone out focusing on the one source of my emotional distress.. I was so unaware of my surroundings that I hadn't noticed when the nurse had come back to the room and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Do you want to see your daughter?”
Till this day, that sentence makes me cry……
I jumped up and followed her out to the swinging doors that lead to the operating rooms, just as a gurney was being pushed out, with Z on it. Her eyes wide open, her pinkish, reddish skin stretched over her arms, as she reached them over her head, arching her back almost unnaturally. The doctor look at me and said
“She’s a fighter!”
And then they were gone. Leaving me, leaning against the wall, weeping uncontrollably.
Zakiyyah Adaeze Anekwe was born weighing only 1 lb, 13 ounces and only 13 inches long.
We were told that the umbilical cord had wrapped around her neck and in distress she had used a foot to push a portion of it out of her mother. That was what I had seen. So she had to come out at 26 weeks and needed to stay in hospital for 3 months after that. Which we lived with the constant fear that with every day there was the possibility of a new challenge for her. Every day something new could threaten her health, even her life. Every visit, every call, was preceded with anxious halted breathing. The physical restriction felt deep in our lungs, as we braced for anything. But Z? She fought on. And she fought hard, She progressed through those 3 moths with little to none of the myriad of issues or side effects that could have befallen her. The doctor was right.
“She’s a fighter!”
I was soon known around the hospital as the father who saved his daughter’s life. I didn’t see it that way. It was Z who was the fighter. She wanted to be here. She didn’t want to go away like a mythological “Ogbanje” child, that is known in the culture of my Igbo tribe. It is said a family with multiple miscarriages or still births is plagued by an evil Ogbanje spirit residing in the unborn child. Who taunts the mother, and family, by inhabiting the mother's womb, only to refuse, to be born. No... Z was not an Ogbanje.
It was discovered that Philia had an incompetent cervix, which had a propensity to open prematurely.. Future pregnancies would be protected by simple sutures, early in the pregnancy, that would prevent premature dilation and would keep everything in tact, till the baby was ready. All other pregnancies, my youngest daughter, and then Z's half brother and sister, were perfectly fine. It was Z that had to fight..
“She’s a fighter!”
We took her home after 3 months where she continued to progress wonderfully. She fully caught up developmental within in one year. Her own doctor was amazed. At 13 months he said he could not tell she was a premature baby.
Fast forward 15 years and Z, has become Zakiyyah. A wonderfully smart, funny, confident, responsible young high school lady, whose smile and humor is a joy to her parents, step-parents, sisters, brothers and everyone she comes in contact with.
She joined her high school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program and marched in the NYC Veteran’s Day parade. She was born fighting, on Veteran’s Day, and now honors Veteran’s on her very own birthday…. Life’s irony
“She's a fighter!”
I met up with her at the start of the parade, on 23rd street. And before staying there for 4 hours and walking along side her, the whole length of the parade route, up 5th avenue, all the way to 52nd street, I found a quiet bench where I sat alone, watched her, and cried…
She joined JROTC in lieu of a sports, but she is beginning to enjoy it. Beginning to seriously think about the military. She is still young and has the whole world ahead of her. All things will be at her feet. Whatever she decides to tackle, she will succeed, because