Our third child was born seven weeks premature with a condition known as intestinal malrotation. The doctor explained it like this: When you're in your mom's uterus, your intestines initially form outside of your body. Then they retreat into your abdomen, twist, and your abdomen seals up around them. If you're unfortunate enough to be born with this condition (5,000-to-1 odds, though more common in premature infants), that crucial twist never occurs, and you can end up with something called a volvulus, which sounds like a kind of Swedish superhero but is actually a dangerous condition in which the intestines get kinked, like a garden hose, and the path of digestion is cut off, restricting blood flow.
You must have your belly split open so that everything can be put back in the proper order, or else you will die. If you're among the lucky souls born with properly ordered bowels, you should thank those bowels the next time they process a two-pound burrito on your behalf.
They found out that the baby had the condition when he began vomiting thick green fluid after his first feedings. The bile that he secreted to digest his formula was getting clogged in his intestines and was gurgling back up into his stomach, causing him to vomit over and over again. They placed a tube down into his stomach to suck up all the excess fluid and hoped the issue would resolve itself. Nights before the surgery, I stood by his isolette--an enclosed plastic incubator-- in the NICU and stared at the output of that tube, praying that it would turn yellow or clear, hoping to God that he'd be spared the knife and that I'd never see that horrible green shit come out of him again. But I did see it again. I would come to the NICU during the day and ask the nurses if he barfed, my fingers crossed tight enough to break. And they often said yes, he had an "emesis." The first time I heard the word, I asked them if "emesis" meant barf, and when they said that it did, I wished they had just said that he had barfed instead.
The vomiting wouldn't stop. His insides weren't going to just naturally fall back into place. He had to be opened. No one makes it through life unscathed, but you usually get a grace period at the start. My son would not be so lucky. At the time, he weighed five pounds--large for a preemie, but still just five itty-bitty pounds. No heavier than a dictionary. I wondered how the surgeons' blades and instruments would fit inside him. Such a large surgery for such a tiny body, I thought.
The surgeon was talking us through the procedure as we all stood by the door to the OR. He had only a few moments to speak with us before our son had to go under. To wait any longer risked killing him.