Hospital room 8608 is packed with doctors and family, but no one is talking.
It’s been more than 24 hours since Liam was first hospitalized with high blood pressure and doctors have grown increasingly worried about both his health and the baby’s.
One doctor tells Liam he’s a high risk for having a seizure and his body could stop sending oxygen to his baby. Then Duane hears someone order a CT scan to check whether there’s bleeding around Liam’s brain.
The hospital gives Liam a steroid shot, which accelerates fetal lung growth. If there’s time, he’ll get another one before delivery.
But a doctor’s knock on the door means there’s no more time.
Liam’s in bed, his face, hands and feet all visibly swollen.
“Are you ready?” the anesthesiologist asks.
“I’m nervous,” he says.
Liam and Duane lock eyes as three nurses gather around his hospital bed.
“I’m sorry,” Liam whispers, resting one hand on his stomach and holding on to Duane with the other.
He tells Duane he’s worried the baby will be too small. As Liam hangs his head, the blue surgical cap he’s wearing falls down over his brow. “I thought I had more time,” he says, his voice shaking. Duane tells him: “You couldn’t help it.”
Then the bed begins to inch away from the wall and Liam’s mother, Rosalyn, jumps up. She leans over the side of the bed and kisses him. They embrace, cheek to cheek, and she steps back.
“Y’all take care of my baby now,” she says as he’s wheeled through the door, down the hall and out of sight.
‘Daddy loves you’
Duane scrubs in and takes a seat near the head of the table inside the chilled operating room. Liam’s awake but numb from the chest down and a blue drape covers his lower half, where two doctors are standing under bright surgical lights.
One doctor make several cuts into Liam’s abdominal wall then aims the scalpel toward Liam’s uterus.
First, they hear a tiny scream.
Then, a wailing cry fills the room.
At 4:16 p.m., Cypress Kendell Fox Danielson-Johns arrives in the world, weighing 2 pounds and 15 ounces.
Liam counts 10 little fingers and 10 skinny toes. The doctor holds their baby in the air and Duane thinks Cypress — for a preemie — looks much bigger than he’d imagined.
But this baby is fragile.
At the hospital, the smallest, sickest babies go to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In the operating room, NICU nurses swoop in before Liam even gets the first stitch. They place a soft pink and blue knit hat on Cypress’ head and hand the baby to Duane.
He hurries to the operating table and bends down to hold the baby close to Liam’s face.
Liam lets his cheek rest on the baby’s chin, then he presses his lips against Cypress’ forehead.
“Daddy loves you,” he says as Cypress is rushed from the room.
The NICU nursery
In the NICU nursery, new moms and dads with tired, worried faces pass through a set of locked double doors. A nurse’s station looks out over the dozens of large, box-like incubators lining the walls.
In here, the lights are always dim. And everyone speaks in hushed tones, barely audible over the low hum of heart monitors and ventilators.
Near the nursery entrance, on the left, the baby in box #16 is sleeping.
Inside, an oxygen tube pumps air to tiny lungs. A feeding tube helps Cypress gain each critical ounce of weight. Every moment spent outside of the box is carefully planned by nurses and doctors. With little body fat, Cypress needs the help of a small heater in the incubator to stay warm enough.
Liam couldn’t hold Cypress until two days after birth. Now, four days later, Liam and Duane visit the NICU nursery multiple times a day on the 7th floor of the Levine Children’s Hospital. But until Cypress’ health improves, the plastic box will almost always be between them.
Duane wheels Liam inside the nursery. Liam slowly stands up and winces, still sore from the C-section.
He goes to the incubator and pulls back a quilt covering the top. Sensing the light, Cypress’ eyelids twitch.
“Daddy’s here,” Liam says.
A wisp of dark hair peeks out from under a hat on the baby’s head. Two deep brown eyes look up at Liam.
“Hi Cypress,” he says, poking his arms in two holes on the side of the box.
The baby wiggles as Liam moves closer and gently touches Cypress. He watches Cypress squeeze both hands into newborn-sized fists and one gets snagged on a clear medical wire inside the box. As Liam untangles the wire, he feels five tiny fingers land on the edge of his hand.
Tears roll down his cheek.
They should be at home, beginning life as a new family. But earlier in the day, Liam was told he’ll be discharged from the hospital tomorrow and Cypress has to stay.
Read “Gender N/A,” Chapter 5 of #TeamPregnantDad.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Reporter Anna Douglas and videographer Diedra Laird spent more than a year chronicling the lives of Liam Johns and husband Duane Danielson through Liam’s pregnancy and the birth of their child.
Almost all of the conversations and details in #TeamPregnantDad were personally witnessed by Douglas or Laird. In story scenes containing flashbacks or details the journalists did not witness, the Observer has reconstructed that information following extensive interviews with Liam, Duane, their healthcare providers, friends and family.
Liam had previously been featured in 2016 in an Observer profile called “Becoming Liam,” which was published around the time North Carolina lawmakers passed HB2. The law (which was later repealed) restricted access to public restrooms for transgender people who had transitioned but had not changed the sex listed on their birth certificate.