The $23,000 Flight That Earned No Miles

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Today is a huge day in the Mommy Points household.  Even bigger than snagging a coveted international first class redemption or mistake fare.  It is our daughter’s birthday.  For us, her birthday is a big deal.  In addition to all the normal reasons a child’s birthday is a big deal, it is an even bigger deal to us because shortly after her actual birth day, when she was just a few days old, we had to watch her fly away from us.  It really reinforced the whole fragility of life thing that many are lucky enough to not encounter with their own kids until much later, if ever.  I told this story before on her 2nd birthday, but thought I would share it again today on this 4th celebration of her birth day. 

I know it seems sacrilegious for a self-proclaimed point-a-holic to spend $23,000 on a flight that earned zero miles, but just a few years ago we did just that.  I’ve been waiting for a while to tell this story, and I think tonight is the right time.  Apologies in advance for the length, it is just that kind of story.

Four years ago today we celebrated the birth of our baby, known here as “Little C”.  She was due on Christmas Day, which is fitting considering how crazy my family is about Christmas.  In fact, her middle name is actually an ode to Christmas.  I was in labor for 27 hours (which royally sucked), but other than a little scare with the umbilical cord around her neck when she was born, we had a perfect delivery and a healthy baby girl.

We were discharged home from the hospital on Christmas Day 2009.  Like most new parents, we were exhausted, overwhelmed, but excited to begin our life as a family of three.  We celebrated Christmas that year at my house in Austin.  We were lucky enough to even have my parents temporarily move in with us to help us get settled with our new baby.

When C was four days old, she was due back to the hospital for a newborn check-up.  Because of the holidays, the pediatrician’s office was closed, so we had to go back to the labor and deliver floor for that check-up.  We could tell that she was somewhat jaundiced, and she had been “difficult” at night, but we thought that was mostly normal.  We planned to go up to the hospital for a quick check and then get home in time to watch the Kansas City Chiefs play football on TV.  Within minutes of getting to the hospital for the check-up, they drew blood to check her bilirubin levels.  A few minutes later, she threw up what appeared to be old blood.  Then she did it again.  I don’t even remember reacting to that – I think I was in a bit of shock at what was happening.  Naturally, the nurse who saw her vomit blood was concerned and phoned downstairs to the ER.  She then walked us down (quickly I might add) to the ER to get C looked at.  We were no longer at a routine check-up.

I remember in the ER that C was starving and crying, so I went ahead and nursed her.  They checked her vitals, but I don’t remember much other than that.  I do remember pretty early on that it was clear she was not going to be going home with us that day, and that she was going to have to be admitted to the hospital.  Not only that, but she was going to have to be admitted to the Children’s Hospital that was about 90 miles away.  I do remember crying some.  I remember my husband crying a lot.  I sent a text to my mom to let her know what was happening, because I just couldn’t get the words out.  I asked her to pack up some overnight things for us, and meet us at the hospital 90 miles away.  I remember it being hard to tell her what to pack for me – I had just delivered C four days ago, and the list of things I needed was quite long, but my mind was having trouble focusing on logistics.  After we had been waiting for the ambulance transport for about an hour, the doctor came back and said he had “more news”.   We had gotten to know all of the nurses that day in the ER and we could see all of them sticking their heads into the door frame as the doctor gave us “more news”.  He said that because of the holiday traffic, and the fact that the head of the neonatal ICU is very concerned about a four day old infant vomiting blood, they have sent the neonatal transport team by helicopter to bring her to the hospital.  They were to arrive any minute.

The neonatal team arrived and promptly pumped her stomach – the milk I had just fed her was now being pumped back out, and it was all tinged with blood.  Of course, C was absolutely hysterical.  They couldn’t get an IV in her despite multiple attempts.  They then put her in one of those transport containers they put E.T. in when he got really sick.  I held her hand through an opening in the container as they prepped her to go to the helicopter.  Because of the weight limit, neither of us were permitted to fly with her.  It would be fair to say that we were sobbing through much of this – honestly many of the nurses were, too.  In fact, one nurse told us that the Vietnam Veteran who flew the helicopter was also seen with a few tears sneaking out.  It was heart-breaking for all of us.  We walked with her out to the helicopter pad, and I had to watch my four-day-old baby take-off into the air without me as the nurse, my husband, and I held each other.  I can’t tell you how much that hurts.  We didn’t know what was wrong with her.  We didn’t know what would happen once she got to the hospital.  We didn’t know what news would be waiting for us once we got to the hospital.  All we knew was she was now in the air heading towards the NICU alone.  Her first flight was a $23,000 solo flight at four days old that earned no miles.

My parents actually beat us to the NICU and took a few pictures of us arriving and getting ready to go back and see our baby.  My family takes pictures of all things – good or bad.  These photos help me remember what that day was like.

The next few days were extremely difficult.  They didn’t let her nurse or take a bottle for 24 hours, so she essentially wailed with hunger for 24 hours straight.  We couldn’t hold her because she was under bili lights for her jaundice.  All we could do is watch our baby scream, and try to rub her to calm her down.  The Ronald McDonald House near the hospital graciously took us in so we could stay as close to the hospital as possible.  However, since I was a nursing mom, I had to wake up every three hours at night and drive back up to the hospital to pump the milk I was producing.  By the time we would get back to sleep it would be time to wake up and do it all over again.  The parents in the NICU, ourselves included, all looked like the walking wounded.  Still functioning, but yet not.

The short story of what happened over the next few days was that they never found any thing horrifically wrong with her.  The best guess of what happened was a very irritated digestive track and/or a lesion that developed and ruptured from her bad reaction to cow protein in my milk.  She also had pretty severe acid reflux.  We were the lucky ones.  During our stay in the NICU we saw many babies who weren’t in near as good a shape as C was.  We saw a family there with the chaplain as Last Rites were read for their baby.  If that doesn’t impact you as a person, nothing will.  If we didn’t know this already, we certainly saw first-hand how fragile and short life can be.

Most thankfully, we got to take C home from the hospital (for the second time) on December 30, 2009.  However, much of her first year was very hard.  She continued to have real pain after eating, I had to cut out all dairy (amongst other things) from my diet so I could continue nursing her, and to say she had colic would be a dramatic understatement.  She would cry though the night and then through much of the day, especially for the first three to four months.  She had severe projective spit-up/vomit many times a day for months and months.  It was very, very hard.  We didn’t travel with her during those months.  In fact, it was the furthest thing from our minds for most of the time.  We were just trying to survive.

Photo by Johanna McShan

As her first birthday came around, things got much better.  She outgrew her digestive issues and we were able to slowly start living, instead of just surviving.

Photo by Johanna McShan

We took our first airplane trip with her when she was eleven months old.  And then our second.  And third, etc…  Today as we celebrate her second birthday (now fourth birthday), I am just thankful for my healthy, rambunctious, smart, beautiful daughter.  For me, birthdays aren’t just a party – they truly are a celebration of birth and of life.  I know that not all of the babies in the NICU with her had the gift of being able to celebrate a another birthday.  So, when we do birthdays we really celebrate.  Today she got a new swing set, rode fake ponies, and even had two real ponies in her backyard.  She was thrilled.  Update: For her fourth birthday, we did much the same as for her second birthday, only this time with many more “school friends” in attendance. 

Second birthday swing set!

Second birthday celebration


Fourth birthday celebration


Fourth birthday fun – tissue paper is awesome!

I wish we could have really enjoyed more of our time with her as a newborn, but I am also certain that what we all went through made us individually and collectively stronger.  I think it also is part of what drives me to keep her connected to family around the country (and as a result, obsessed with earning the miles and points to be able to do that).  I am certain the experience has helped shape who C is as a person.  I mean, how many people can say they flew as an “unaccompanied minor” at four days old?  Also, it is because of our experience and the generosity of the Ronald McDonald House that they will always hold a special place in our hearts (and wallets).

Happy birthday, C.  Here’s to many, many more.


Photo by Johanna McShan

Oh and one more thing Little C, if you ever have a $23,000 flight again, please be sure you are on a mileage earning fare.

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  1. A fellow mother whom spent 10 days after my sons birth in NICU, never holding him, only touching him through those “openings”….I can so relate. To have the chief of staff come into your room after emergency c section and tell you you’re lucky to have a live child was devastating. Now he’s 23. I put those memories behind me but will never forget the pain and suffering. God bless you and C. Cherish every moment.

  2. Very touching. Thank you for sharing and I can only imagine what you and your husband must have felt when little C was in that helicopter. Have a very Merry Christmas and happy 4th birthday to little C!

  3. Thanks for sharing. I can’t imagine seeing my child taken away like that and at that age to boot. I’d say that the $23k flight had the best service you’ll ever get in the air. NICU nurses and doctors are real heroes in my book. Next to maybe hospice nurses it has to be a tough gig emotionally. So maybe she didn’t earn any airline miles and didn’t earn her “wings” that day I’d say it was FIRST class.

  4. Don’t, does the same to me. In fact, re-reading it last night was really interesting as I had forgotten many of the details. Like reading it for the first time. Thanks for sharing.
    Julian, you are most welcome. Thanks for reading.
    Kristen, NICU moms are a club no one wants to join, but that everyone who was one understands. So glad you baby was okay and has celebrated 23 birthdays!
    Jana, no, thank you for sharing!
    wolfgang, thankfully yes. At the time I had very good insurance.
    Joey, yeah that moment was a pretty low point. Makes the high points better though I suppose…once it is all over at least. 😉 Merry Christmas to you as well!
    Dan, indeed. The service ratio was about 4:1 – won’t find that in any First class cabin. 😉 Agree that NICU staff and hospice staff have tough jobs, and we are very thankful for them.

  5. Summer,

    Wow, quite a story. I’m so glad it all turned out okay.

    I am humbled that I can relate to only two tiny parts of your story (having to cut out dairy for many months to continue nursing a baby who had a bad reaction to it) and rushing my daughter (at age ELEVEN, not 3 days) to be admitted to the hospital.

    I know how emotional, challenging, and draining those two tiny bits were, so I can just barely imagine what you and your husband went through.

    And I totally know what you mean about seeing the other families in the children’s hospital. We knew from the start that our daughter would be okay (It was urgent, but not critical) and that we’d be there 3 days. Many of the other families were there for the long haul, and were looking forward to grimmer outcomes.

    I think I’m going to make time today to take some Christmas toys over to our nearest children’s hospital, and some goodies to the nursing staff. And the helicopter crew.


  6. I’m not religious enough to know if Amen or Hallelujah! fits better.

    Pick whichever one makes you happiest 🙂

    In college I worked in a NICU. Changed me forever.

  7. I am so glad Little C is doing much better – She is precious! Brought tears to my eyes. I have a daughter too – an only child – and she means everything to me so I can totally relate.
    Happy Birthday Little C. I wish you many many more years of good health! Happy Holidays everyone

  8. Poor tiny Little C. and poor Mama and Daddy. 🙁 I can’t even imagine how difficult that experience must have been. Praise God your precious C. recovered and continues to thrive!!! Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas!!

  9. I remember reading this on your blog before, but love that you shared it again especially at this time of year. Happy Birthday to Little C. And Merry Christmas to your family.

  10. Life is so very precious and every day we have with our loved one(s) is a gift indeed. Happy Birthday to Litte C and Merry Christmas to you and yours. Thank you for sharing. Your story brought tears to my eyes.

  11. Doesn’t sound as if it would have made much of a difference in your case – but my brother-in-law (who is an ER doctor) told us to make sure the hospital we delivered in had a NICU – Having those facilities on-site can save a newborn’s life.

    Happy Birthday, Little C, and happy holidays to all (at what age will she become not-so-Little C?)

  12. We had a similar experience, although she got an ambulance rather than a helicopter flight to the level 3 NICU at a different hospital. We had already had her at home, which introduced issues in the NICU (she had to be in isolation), and luckily, the hospital she was taken to was “only” 20 miles away from our house (that’s 45min to an hour in DC traffic). The nurses and doctors in the NICU are very special people. Happy birthday to Little C and may she thrive for many, many more years.

  13. Anita, I’m sure that rushing a kid to the hospital is nerve racking and scary regardless of the age! Love the idea of sending them treats. We did that on her first birthday and thanks for the reminder to do it again.
    Tim, I think both work just fine and I agree that any time in a NICU changes you
    Simon, thanks for reading and Happy Holidays to you!
    Nkk, totally understand. These kiddos are pretty special. Happy Holidays!
    Buzzy, we’re glad it all worked out as well. We think she’s a keeper. 😉
    Carrie, it certainly wasn’t our finest hour, but it’s an experience we will always remember.
    Denise, wow I’m honored you remember it from two years ago and Merry Christmas to you!
    FullMoon, Noel indeed. 😉
    Jeff, thanks!
    Coda, we are all very thankful that is all behind us as well!
    Paul, aw well thank you and Happy Holidays!
    Theresa, agree totally that every day is special.
    April, thank you and Happy Holidays!
    Connie, well I certainly don’t expect everyone to. Happy Holidays!
    James, you are right it wouldn’t have mattered in this case, but sounds like good advice when you have that option. You just never know what will happen.
    Mom @ Three is Plenty, sorry to hear you had a similar experience. They are special people indeed and hope yours is thriving as well!

  14. Made me cry. Made me smile. Always like reading of your exploits with C as our daughter is a year younger so we treat your trips and experiences as inspiration for the coming year. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  15. Your daughter is beautiful. I can’t imagine how difficult that was, and it brought tears to my eyes. Don’t worry about the foregone miles. Nobody wants to redeem on NICU Air. Wishing you and your family all the best for years to come.

  16. Beautiful story!! As a father of two young girls, one of which was born 6 weeks premature about a week before the holidays (in Amsterdam nonetheless!! where we were living at the time) I can relate on so many levels. The feeling of walking out the door of the hospital knowing that your little angel will be spending the night in the NICU alone, the emptiness of a Christmas tree filled with presents but without a family to enjoy them, and the amazing joy of a New Year’s Day reunion, finally taking her home with us for good. Seven years later you learn to appreciate the quiet moments together, her head resting on your shoulder watching one more cartoon even though it’s past bed-time, and the magic that is Christmas.

  17. MP and family,

    Have a joyous Christmas and New Year, and God bless us all !

    This “point game” is very significant to us all in many ways, especially by allowing us to do and see many things together. Things that we may not have been able to do so. Spending quality time with our kids, and others we love, is truly a gift.

    Thanks !

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