Melissa Marr met her adopted son Kaden just hours after his birth on Dec. 14, 2012, at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. He trembled and cried restlessly, already withdrawing from addictive narcotic drugs he was exposed to in the womb.
Doctors began treating Kaden with methadone on his second day of life, mediating the effects of neonatal abstinence syndrome, a group of withdrawal symptoms that includes tremors, twitching, rapid breathing, and seizures.
“He had stopped breathing at birth and was in the NICU already when I got there,” Marr recalls.
She held and rocked Kaden often 18 hours a day to calm his intense irritability and discomfort, hallmarks of babies with the syndrome. In his crib, the tremors were so violent he’d shake himself awake.
Dr. Mark Brown, a pediatrician and neonatologist at EMMC who treats drug-affected newborns, suggested that the sound of Marr’s voice soothed Kaden, she said. He encouraged her to sing or read to the struggling little boy, who would officially become Marr’s and her husband’s several months later.
Marr, author of the New York Times bestselling young adult novel “Wicked Lovely,” narrated the journey she and Kaden had begun as she paced the hospital corridors, toting him in a kangaroo-style pouch. She told Kaden she’d always be there for him, and that everything would be OK, she said.
As he slept, she typed out the story on her iPhone, likening his symptoms to the characteristics of various animals. In those early days, Kaden shook like a bunny, kicked like a kangaroo and howled like a wolf, she said. Marr described how the furry creatures’ mothers comforted their babies, shoring up her own resolve as she spent more than 40 days at EMMC, away from her family in Virginia.
“I wrote and revised it over a number of weeks there at Eastern Maine, in the hospital, in Room 851,” she said. “I remember exactly where I was.”
The tale has now become the first children’s picture book for Marr, author of several young adult and fantasy novels. “Bunny Roo, I Love You,” featuring pastoral watercolors by illustrator Teagan White, was published on April 14 by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Books USA. It was featured by Barnes and Noble in a recent Mother’s Day collection.
“It’s kind of fun thinking about other mommies getting to read it,” Marr said.
With a now 21-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son, Marr was already an “experienced mom” when she instructed the adoption agency to find her a baby born exposed to drugs, she said. She felt ready to meet the challenge, including delicately weaning Kaden off anti-seizure and acid reflux medications long after his discharge from EMMC.
“He’s a fierce little thing,” she said.
Marr still keeps in touch with some of the nurses she met during Kaden’s hospital stay. Among them was Denise Genham, who worked the day shift and whose husband, Bill, treated Kaden in the NICU.
“It’s not easy to sign up for, let me tell you,” Genham said. “I don’t know that I could do it and I’ve been a pediatric nurse for 33 years. It takes special people, that’s for sure.”
Genham follows Kaden’s progress on Facebook and recently brought a copy of “Bunny Roo” to EMMC for other parents to share with their children, she said.
Marr remains grateful for the “phenomenal” care the pediatric medical team provided, particularly the nurses who held Kaden while Marr squeezed in a few hours of sleep during those weeks at EMMC. They even cared for her when a bout of the flu knocked Marr off her feet, she said.
“Not only were they there for my baby, they were there for me,” she said.
Today, Kaden is a happy 2-year-old, small for his age and “exceedingly high energy,” Marr said.
“I could not have received better care anywhere else in the world … I feel this connection to the people there,” she said.