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#218 - Father's Day Special with Alex Zavala aka The NICU Dad



Hello friends 👋

In this special Father's Day episode, Daphna interviews Alex Zavala, known as the "NICU Dad". Alex shares his emotional journey of becoming a father to his daughter Emerson, born at just 27 weeks. Alex vividly recounts the day his wife's water broke, the frantic rush to the hospital, and the overwhelming fear and uncertainty as Emerson was delivered via emergency C-section weighing only 2 pounds 5 ounces. He describes feeling like he was thrust into a nightmare, trying to support his wife, make logistical plans, and grapple with the possibility of losing his daughter.

During Emerson's 67-day NICU stay, Alex did the "NICU dad shuffle" - spending early mornings with his daughter, tag-teaming with his wife in the afternoons so she could be there while he went to work, and returning in the evenings. He highlights the unique struggles dads face, including feeling like an afterthought, battling stress, anxiety and PTSD symptoms, weight gain, and having their trauma go unrecognized.

After Emerson came home, Alex continued to face challenges. His stress increased without the monitors and NICU staff, he became a stay-at-home dad, and suffered health issues from the emotional toll. Seeing a need, he started The NICU Dad website and podcast as resources for dads.

Alex's advice for NICU dads: take care of yourself to be the best version of yourself at home, seek counseling, join peer support groups, and utilize resources from organizations like March of Dimes and Hand to Hold. For healthcare professionals, he advocates involving dads from the start, understanding their unique trauma response, and encouraging them to actively participate in their baby's care.


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Learn more about Alex Zavala and The NICU Dad podcast here:


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The transcript of today's episode can be found below 👇


Daphna Barbeau (00:03.201)

Hello everybody, we've got a very special Father's Day episode this week and I'm giving Ben the day off. This morning I'm so fortunate to have on Alex Zavala or the NICU Dad, Alex's father to 10-year-old Emerson. He hosts a blog at www.thenicudad.com that houses a variety of essential NICU Dad resources. He's the host of the NICU Dad podcast, which has a series of episodes made just for Dad.


And in addition, he joins me on the Family-Centered Care Task Force in addition to a number of other national NICU family advocacy groups to advocate for the needs of parents in the NICU. Alex, welcome.


Alex Zavala (00:43.054)

Alright, thanks for having me. Happy to be here.


Daphna Barbeau (00:46.229)

Well, why don't we start out with you telling us a little bit about your story and your journey as a Naked Dad.


Alex Zavala (00:53.15)

Okay, perfect. Well, so my story begins in 2013, June 10th. My, well, kind of go a little forward from that. My wife was pregnant in 2013 and my stepdaughter, our oldest, was nine years around the time and she was actually born at 30 weeks.


And so with this pregnancy, we were high risk. And so we were seeing special. Yeah, yeah. And so we were super careful, seeing all the specialists, really trying to make sure we went full term. And there wasn't really an explanation as to why our oldest was born at 30 weeks. So we were going all the visits.


Daphna Barbeau (01:23.763)

I see.


Mm-hmm. Which is true for so many families, right, that come to the NICU.


Alex Zavala (01:54.602)

We always joke around that we had more pictures of our unborn daughter than most people do after their babies are born, just you know all the ultrasounds and stuff. So everything was going great. Then right when we turned 27 weeks, it was a Thursday, we went in, had the FFN test I believe and that came back okay.


Daphna Barbeau (02:02.285)

I believe it.


Alex Zavala (02:21.462)

Doctor said, hey, you know, you got a two week window, go travel, you know, whatever you're gonna do because in the next two weeks, we're not gonna let you go anywhere, you know, things are gonna kick up a notch. So, that was a Thursday. That Sunday we went and went to the store to register for the baby shower and pick all of our stuff. And that evening, my wife was,


kind of complaining that her back hurt a little and stuff. And we just kind of thought we might have overdone it that day or so. So that Monday morning, she goes to work. I take my oldest daughter to grandma's house while I go to work. It's now summertime for her. And I'm about 45 minutes away from where we live.


And around 9 a.m. I get a phone call. And it's my wife, she's hysterical. And she is, all I can make out is that her water broke. And phone kind of goes dead. Get phone call back. She works with a family friend of ours and she tells me, hey Alex, Jen's water broke and an ambulance is coming to pick her up, take her to the hospital.


Daphna Barbeau (03:30.189)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (03:49.282)

So I'm like, oh my God, 27 weeks. I'm like, that's it. You know, we've lost the baby. You know, I, like, what am, you know, I just couldn't believe it. So that 45 minute trip, I made it to in about 10 minutes to the hospital. And I talked to so many dads and that, that situation is actually kind of common.


Daphna Barbeau (03:51.966)

Right.


Daphna Barbeau (03:55.981)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (04:19.47)

For a lot of dads that go into the NICU, it's an event in a split second that changes your life and you get thrust into this hell. I mean there's no other way to describe it. So that car ride, I mean pretty much changes your life. That phone call changes your life but that car ride is you making a bunch of deals. You know, you making a bunch of promises.


and just trying to right every wrong that you ever made because you really believe you're about to lose your baby, you're about to lose your wife possibly and pretty much your whole world is on its way to the hospital and you don't know what's gonna happen. So I pull in and it's just like in the movies, I talk about this all the time where a truck comes screeching in and I'm running in the hospital and don't know where.


Daphna Barbeau (05:00.633)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (05:18.61)

anything is and you know I'm like my wife got brought here on an ambulance you know she's having a baby and you know where do I go and they're like oh go down that hall and take a ride and I just remember opening the door to the room and you know I'm already coming off this trip this car ride and I'm in this nightmare that just doesn't stop so I open the door


Daphna Barbeau (05:38.987)

Right.


Daphna Barbeau (05:45.802)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (05:47.782)

and it's like you're in the...


movie but it's the worst movie you can imagine. So you know I open the door there's doctors all over nurses all around my wife she's crying I've never seen her look more scared and we look at each other and once our eyes meet we start crying and our family friend and her boss are there and you know I'm trying to


On the way too, I'm texting, you know, hey, Jen's in the hospital, you know, to my parents and her family and...


There's no break. I'm in there and I'm like, hey, it's gonna be okay. What's going on? I'm still whirling, trying to wrap my head around what's going on and trying to be strong and not having a clue what's going on. And so the doctors say, okay, well.


Daphna Barbeau (06:40.778)

Right.


Alex Zavala (06:56.274)

we're gonna give her some medicine, try to slow this down. You know, it's still really early. And I'm like, okay, you know, is the baby alive? And you know, my wife is crying, I'm trying to console her. I'm still trying to text, you know, to give updates and trying to hold it all together. And the next thing I know, they're like, yeah, we're gonna have to do emergency C-section, the baby's in distress and we gotta go.


Daphna Barbeau (07:09.261)

Mm.


Daphna Barbeau (07:20.973)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (07:27.706)

And within a blink of an eye, they haul my wife out. And they're like, okay, you need to go and come over here and get changed up to go into the operating room and.


Daphna Barbeau (07:32.025)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (07:42.666)

You know, I found myself alone a bunch in this. Like, so, yeah, they wheel her out. And I'm just like, what, what? You know, and I'm just like, what's going on, what? And so the next thing I know, I'm in this small room and they're handing me scrubs and I'm like, is this really happening, you know? And so, doctor comes in and.


Daphna Barbeau (07:45.949)

Mm-hmm. Yeah. Because then the room's empty, right? Everybody's walked out. Yeah.


Daphna Barbeau (07:56.317)

Right. Where do I go? Yeah.


Alex Zavala (08:12.502)

He's telling me stuff and honestly, I couldn't even tell you one thing that he told me. I don't remember any of it. All I remember is me crying to him and just being like, hey man, please, whatever you do, don't let me lose my family. So.


Daphna Barbeau (08:17.038)

Mm, I believe it.


Alex Zavala (08:30.494)

You know, he's like, you know, we're gonna do everything we can. And I'm just like, please don't let my wife die. Please don't let my baby die. So we go into the operating room and that, the only way I can describe it is back, I'm on this play. I walk into this room and it's like, you've been thrust on a stage and there's a play going on and everybody knows their parts and their roles except you.


Daphna Barbeau (08:50.936)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (09:00.482)

and you know the bright lights and the movement and everything and everybody's going and doing their thing and you're just like what you know and so i'm standing there my wife is you know i'm trying to console her and


Uh, our daughter is born. Um, but man, she's like, is she okay? Is she okay? And it took forever. There was no cry. And so there were so many moments that morning, that day, as I'm telling this, that I thought our daughter was dead. Like so many. The phone call.


Daphna Barbeau (09:34.297)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (09:47.966)

I thought that was it, pregnancy was over. When they delivered her, no crying, no sound, nothing, for what seemed like an eternity. So I thought, she's gone. And so my wife's like, is she okay, is she okay? She's crying and you know, I'm like, yeah, just waiting and then we finally hear her cry. And just this.


Daphna Barbeau (09:50.58)

Hmm.


Daphna Barbeau (09:59.282)

Mm-hmm.


Daphna Barbeau (10:15.021)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (10:17.71)

overwhelming just, oh thank God, okay. Now what? So they have her and you know, I'm so grateful one of the nurses grabbed my, she's like, hey, you want me to take pictures? I'm like, yes, please. And in our situation, yeah, yeah. And I'm so glad she did because it's documented and we have the pictures and my daughter loves looking at her pictures and you know, it's so great to see how far she's come.


Daphna Barbeau (10:32.501)

Yeah, please. Right. Hadn't even thought about that, right?


Daphna Barbeau (10:39.222)

Mm.


Alex Zavala (10:47.81)

But for us, the doctors and the nurses were all working on my daughter. But my wife was losing a bunch of blood and she wasn't doing well. And so she was fading in and out. So I'm literally standing in this room, seeing this, oh my God, my daughter was, she weighed two pounds, five ounces. She was so tiny. And so I'm over here like.


Daphna Barbeau (11:13.322)

Yeah.


Alex Zavala (11:16.678)

Okay, is she okay? You know, the doctors are with her, all right. I'm hearing her cry. But then I'm like, hey, what about my wife? And you know, so I'm over here and I'm just like, here's this movie again, you know? Okay, my daughter's alive. Oh my God, am I gonna lose my wife? And so I'm going and I'm just praying again, you know? And here, that's literally what I'm thinking is.


Daphna Barbeau (11:32.409)

Hmm.


Daphna Barbeau (11:36.525)

Hmm?


Alex Zavala (11:45.934)

my wife's dying right before my eyes, you know, it's, here we are. I'm in this hell, hellish nightmare. So she gets better and they're like, Hey dad, we're going to take a baby to the NICU. Do you want to come? And we're going to close up, you know, your wife and everything. And I'm like, yeah, yeah. So I go down and I spent some time with my daughter and


Daphna Barbeau (11:50.957)

Terrifying, yeah.


Alex Zavala (12:19.398)

It was just really incredible.


Alex Zavala (12:26.758)

I knew from my 30 seconds of being with her that she was going to be fine. She grabbed my hand and...


which we're filming.


Daphna Barbeau (12:45.305)

It's okay.


Alex Zavala (12:46.77)

When she grabbed my finger, I just knew she's going to be fine. Like everything's going to be fine. She was just so strong. And so, you know, we have that moment where I'm talking to her and just telling her, you know, I need you to fight. And so I take pictures and spend time with her and everything. And it's so crazy.


baby is like making me feel better in this nightmare that I'm in. So go and they're like hey your wife's in recovery if you want to come see her and I'm taking pictures and stuff and so I go and I see my wife and man she's by herself. It's crazy.


Daphna Barbeau (13:21.389)

That's amazing.


Alex Zavala (13:45.87)

how much alone time that there is. So I'm going from the NICU to my wife and I'm like, hey, I've got pictures and she's still in recovery. She's like, what? You know? And so I keep going back and forth. I'm like, hey, you know, you okay? All right, let me go back in there. And you know, I'm gonna see the baby again. And so that kind of started it. I call it the NICU dad shuffle. I mean, really it started in that operating room where.


Daphna Barbeau (13:54.327)

Yeah.


Daphna Barbeau (14:11.737)

That's right.


Alex Zavala (14:15.258)

It's where do I go, who should I be with, and all the while I'm not in the picture. You know what I mean? Like I'm an afterthought to myself. You know, I'm just in this movie. So they tell us that basically my daughter's too small and she needs to go to a level four NICU, and which is about.


Daphna Barbeau (14:42.162)

Mmm.


Alex Zavala (14:44.674)

45 minutes away. And so they asked me, they say, hey, do you want to follow the ambulance? Transport team is here and that's actually, you know, these are all things that we found out later on is, you know, they were waiting on the transport team to get here before they even delivered her. So transport team was there and they're like, hey, do you want to follow the ambulance to the hospital? And I'm like,


Daphna Barbeau (15:04.121)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (15:14.138)

No, I, you know, yes, I did, but I have my wife here who didn't have anything. You know, she was at work and now I'm going to have to leave her in this hospital. She's not going to be able to leave for a few days. She's recovering from a C-section. So, I couldn't, I couldn't, and we still have our oldest at grandma's house who doesn't really know what's going on.


Daphna Barbeau (15:17.205)

Yes and no.


Daphna Barbeau (15:39.715)

Mm.


Alex Zavala (15:43.486)

So that's the turmoil and that's the reality that most NICU dads face. So within two hours, my daughter was taken to Dell Children's Medical Center and about 45 minutes from where we were. And I stayed with my wife. You know,


Alex Zavala (16:12.166)

social worker came in and was talking to us and I guess telling us about the NICU and One of the things that we always say is it's so much information that it's like drinking trying to drink from a fire hose and so I Didn't hear anything. She said I didn't know anything, you know, and I didn't really know what a NICU was You know as far as what to expect where we were going. I had never been in that hospital before


Daphna Barbeau (16:33.859)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (16:40.63)

where our daughter was taken to. So, stayed with my wife, make sure she had everything. Her sister came in from out of town, and so she basically took over to help my wife. So I had to run home, get my wife's stuff, because she's now staying overnight. I had to get myself situated, take care of our dogs, feed them, and take our dogs to grandma's house and spend time with our oldest.


Daphna Barbeau (17:04.729)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (17:10.518)

kind of explain the situation. So I had to go and make sure everybody was taken care of.


Then I finally made it to the NICU that evening. And that part too, I'm by myself, still in this nightmare, worst day ever, that started at 9 a.m. I pull in, I don't know where to park, I don't know where to go. NICUs aren't advertised.


you know, as far as, hey, Nick you this way. No, no, the NICU is always hidden in the back, you know, in the last place anybody goes to. So I had to go and try to navigate while I'm still going through this nightmare, still reeling from the day's events. And I haven't eaten, you know, I'm still it's now like six in the evening and


Daphna Barbeau (17:47.427)

Yeah, why are hospitals so confusing? I don't know.


Daphna Barbeau (17:52.993)

That's right, it's impossible.


Alex Zavala (18:14.106)

And so I'm coming in the NICU in the evening time, which is daytime NICU and nighttime NICU are way different, the hospital's way different. So I happen to find my way into the hospital and find my way to the NICU and go in there and super quiet. I see our baby in there and.


Daphna Barbeau (18:21.305)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (18:43.533)

That kind of...


really hit me hard just seeing her with all the wires and everything like that. It was almost reliving the event from earlier in the morning because now it's a whole different situation. Now, you know, it just looks, you know, so dire and just she's so tiny and all the machines and everything. So I spent the night with her there and


Here's my new life. I am in the NICU. I've got a nine-year-old kid at grandma's house. I've got a wife in the hospital. And here I am. And this is gonna be life for I don't know how long. So my wife, she's a warrior. She really almost...


Daphna Barbeau (19:24.033)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (19:42.394)

got them to release her after a couple of days. Thankfully she they didn't. She was in there, I think she spent two nights in the hospital and then was out. She wanted to be by her baby. And so we were actually in the process of moving. It's really weird but a lot of


Daphna Barbeau (19:45.731)

Hmm.


Daphna Barbeau (20:02.425)

Sure. Right.


Daphna Barbeau (20:09.369)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (20:11.586)

But we, at the time, were moving into a house, but we were in a third story apartment when all this happened. My wife had an emergency C-section. So thankfully at our NICU, they have these sleep rooms. There's the Ronald McDonald House family room. And we were, the Ronald McDonald House was full at the time and we didn't want to take any space from.


Daphna Barbeau (20:18.233)

Mmm.


Daphna Barbeau (20:23.978)

Yeah. Wow.


Alex Zavala (20:38.858)

from in our area, the Ronald McDonald's house, people come from miles and miles away to stay there and to come to Dell Children's. And so we just, thankfully, there are these sleep rooms there outside of our NICU and by the grace of God, they were available to us every night. And we would pack up our stuff and wait.


Daphna Barbeau (20:44.798)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (21:08.242)

And then we would ask the charge nurse, hey, is that room available? And we just got lucky. So my wife couldn't walk. And so when she was released from the hospital, she came straight to the NICU. And thankfully she's kind of tiny. So all they had were kid wheelchairs. So I would wheel her around in a kid wheelchair. But we stayed that week. And so she was able to heal.


Daphna Barbeau (21:14.561)

Mm-hmm.


Daphna Barbeau (21:30.352)

Oh wow.


Alex Zavala (21:36.286)

She was able to spend time with our daughter. She finally was getting where she could walk. So we spent that first week, we literally lived in the NICU right down the hall from our baby. And thankfully, we had that opportunity. I don't know what I was going to do. It's a third story apartment. I think we would have ended up having to stay at Grandma's house. But that kind of started our NICU journey.


We were in the NICU for 67 days and our daughter was a champ, a warrior. She made a reputation for herself. She was at the time, I think she was the smallest baby in the NICU right then, but the loudest. She was always far down the hall, but you could always hear her. Yeah, yeah. And you know, we were very, very fortunate.


Daphna Barbeau (22:29.433)

since fears.


Alex Zavala (22:35.898)

We didn't really have any difficulties other than normal NICU stuff, preemie stuff, PDA, that type of thing. But we made it through the NICU. We were so happy with our support that we got. It's so crazy to say that was the worst thing that ever happened to us, but also the best. It changed our lives.


Alex Zavala (23:03.766)

We came home and we basically, we were social distancing before it was cool. Like, you know, we were practicing COVID protocols way before, but we kind of incubated at home for about a year. You know, she had therapies and stuff that we had, but we just weren't gonna risk going back to the NICU, the hospital or anything. So we were.


Daphna Barbeau (23:11.853)

Yeah.


Daphna Barbeau (23:16.365)

Mmm.


Alex Zavala (23:31.934)

you know, very, very careful. We basically adopted our NICU life and took it home. So you walked in our house, you know, their hand sanitizer and our daughter would go to school. We're like, she would come home. We're like, change your clothes, take off your shoes. It's like, no, not, you know, we've got to be very, very careful. And so we did that and we were just so appreciative. You know, we had March of Dimes support. We had...


Daphna Barbeau (23:37.229)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (24:03.922)

the support of the NICU staff. It was just, you know, Ronald McDonald's house. We were just so appreciative that we wanted to give back. So it started with our daughters would bake stuff for the NICU staff on the holidays. And it kind of grew. And we joined the PFAC for the NICU. And that kind of started our journey on.


on the whole NICU support stuff. But that's pretty much our NICU story as far as, you know, kind of how it went. But for me, that shuffle didn't stop. It was constantly, you know, one of us would always try to be in the NICU for rounds and stuff. So we would, I would leave really early. My wife ended up going back to work and I would go.


to the NICU first thing in the morning, I'd drop our daughter off at school and go to the NICU. And then my wife would work till about two o'clock and then she'd come to the NICU. Well, when she would go to the NICU, I would go to work. And then when I was done, I'd come back to the NICU, take a shower. Luckily, you know, we had the, like I said, the Ronald McDonald House family room, which had a shower and stuff. So I was able to shower there and we'd stay in the NICU.


till about eight or nine in the evening and then go home. And that was every day for 67 days. So that was a shuffle constantly.


Daphna Barbeau (25:41.757)

Yeah. Like you said, it's a new lifestyle, right, when you have life in the NICU. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your story, especially in such detail. I actually think it's incredibly valuable, your description of how it's like a movie and kind of that isolation that you


Daphna Barbeau (26:11.329)

so much of the struggle. I understand. That's what I hear. The struggle of being a dad in the NICU is these calculations, making these plans, the logistics, the decisions that are hour to hour every single day that I think we just can't appreciate how much mental work is being done for the dad, the birthing parent of families in the NICU.


I was hoping, again, I like how you told us kind of these details in your story, but maybe you could talk a little bit to some of the struggles throughout your two plus months about the struggles that are really unique to the dad or the non-birthing parent.


Alex Zavala (27:00.894)

Yeah, if I wish I could have known what I know now, you know, one of the things that I tell dads now is it's the NICU is actually like the warmup, the pregame, you know, it's almost the practice because like I said, you know, I gave you that.


that schedule that we were keeping. Well, sleep wasn't in there. And then when it was time to come home, I wasn't ready. You know, that's the day that we waited for, but things actually got worse for me. You know, things actually, you know, ramped up. There was no


Daphna Barbeau (27:35.182)

Right.


Daphna Barbeau (27:53.88)

Right.


Alex Zavala (27:58.358)

that room where we could have spent the night with our baby before we go home, I didn't sleep a wink. You know, we just, I'm like, oh my God, you know, no more monitors or anything. And I just kept on, is she breathing? Is she breathing? Like every hour, just thinking that, you know, she was going to have an episode or something. And that didn't really stop when we went home. And so it's, you know, you have the stresses of the NICU. Well that, for me, it went up.


Daphna Barbeau (28:12.377)

Sure.


Alex Zavala (28:28.726)

My stress increased because I didn't have the NICU. I didn't have the monitors. I didn't have the NICU staff. And so I wasn't ready. You know, we were zombies when we took our baby home. And so now one of the things that I tell dads is, you know, if you're in that supporting role, take care of yourself, get rest, eat healthy, which is all everything that we didn't do.


And I should have, if I would have known that, it would have been so much more beneficial to the support I was giving my wife and family. You know, there's so many doctors visits that we had to go to. You know, I would get up in the middle of the night with my wife when she would pump. And you know, it'd be three or four in the morning and I'm like, oh, let me rinse this off. And she's like, what are you doing? And I'm like, oh, I'm helping you. And


Daphna Barbeau (29:08.334)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (29:26.102)

She's like, we have a doctor's appointment in the morning and you're driving us, like go to sleep. And it's just things like that where, you know, you're just in this mode and you need to take a step back and look, you know, I need to be the best version of myself that I can be for my family, especially when we go home. And that's the hardest thing to do. And that's probably one of the biggest things that I...


Daphna Barbeau (29:30.257)

Mm. Uh-huh.


Alex Zavala (29:54.562)

point of advice that I give dads now and supporting partners is take care of yourself and get healthy and physically everything. We were eating takeout all the time. Between the time that my wife was pregnant and that year of staying home, I ended up staying home. I owned my own business and an air conditioning company here in Austin, Texas.


Daphna Barbeau (30:08.172)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (30:25.286)

I basically put that on pause because we had so many doctors visits. We had therapy like twice a week and somebody had to be there for that. And so I pretty much became a stay at home dad for that year. And well, add that with the NICU and the trauma and everything that I carried between the pregnancy and that year, I gained about 100 pounds.


Daphna Barbeau (30:27.48)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (30:52.122)

And one of the things I talk about the NICU DadBod that it's really common, you know, for some reason we all get beards. I don't know what happens in the NICU, but so many NICU dads get beards, but we also get that NICU DadBod. And I don't know, you know, if it's the stress and the cortisol levels and everything, but for, you know, you put on weight and you just.


There's not a gym that we have access to in the NICU, which I think we should. Hello. That's in my solution portion of this. But yeah, and so no sleep. Literally more stress than you've ever had in your life. Responsibilities, because now I'm responsible for my wife. I have to.


Daphna Barbeau (31:22.18)

That's a great idea. I think that's a great idea.


Alex Zavala (31:42.602)

you know, make sure she's okay mentally and physically, the baby siblings work, everything. And you're the last, you know, you're the afterthought that you have because there's so many things you have to focus on. And so if I would have just known that, those are all the things that I struggled with. You put on 100 pounds and you have that trauma. I, all of a sudden, the next thing I know, I have high blood pressure, type two diabetes. Like it just.


Daphna Barbeau (32:11.193)

Wow. Domino effect, yeah.


Alex Zavala (32:13.054)

Everything it wasn't just the toll. Yeah mentally. I now am carry carried the physical toll with that and So those are the things and that didn't make things any easier when we went home


Daphna Barbeau (32:29.253)

Yeah. I really appreciate you sharing that. I think it helps people see what's happening to dads in the NICU. And you touched on this. We talk a lot about family-centered care. We're talking about postpartum depression and maternal mental health. It's finally getting the attention it deserves, just barely, just now.


But we know that fathers in the NICU suffer from increased anxiety, stress, and these post-traumatic type symptoms as compared to dads who say don't have kids in the NICU. Can you speak a little bit to that as well?


Alex Zavala (32:53.305)

Yeah.


Alex Zavala (33:05.214)

Yeah, one of the things now in some of the conversations that I've had and going to different conferences and things, I've become aware where there's a gap. You know, now any study I feel, in my opinion, that are done on NICU dads or non-birthing partners when it comes to trauma and stress in the NICU.


I don't know where those numbers would come from because nobody's asking. You know, there's not a chart for the dad. So you know, how do you care for someone who doesn't have a chart? There's a chart for mom, there's a chart for the baby. You know, there's screening, that type of thing. So when we talk even with postpartum, I, you know, I think now those levels might actually be even.


Daphna Barbeau (33:40.451)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (34:06.858)

with dad and mom, and the same thing with the stress. And so, and you know, just on my personal experience, I feel like my stress actually went up when we came home. My wife's went down, you know, and one of the scenarios that I see is, you know, you go in the NICU, mom, that role is, you know, just get my baby home. You know, I need to know my baby's gonna be okay. Let's just get her home.


and I'll be able to be a mom to her, you know, and then take care of the baby. So once we came home, mission accomplished, you know? That wasn't the case for me. It was, okay, we get home, all right, I'm still fighting, you know? I'm still in this mode and I'm still, and I don't know if it ever turned off.


I'm not allowed to take my daughter to the dentist because anytime they give her gas or anything, I'm almost passed out because I thought she stopped breathing. You know, my daughter's 10 and I still watch her chest and still carry the trauma of, oh my God, is she breathing? Is she breathing?


Daphna Barbeau (35:20.769)

Mm-hmm. Yeah.


Daphna Barbeau (35:33.589)

Yeah, it never goes away.


Alex Zavala (35:33.786)

and you know, yeah, yeah.


Daphna Barbeau (35:36.921)

Wow. Well, I think you're helping us shape this idea that we need to do more for dads. So tell me why you felt dads needed a special place and what were your goals for starting the whole NICU Dad organization?


Alex Zavala (35:54.978)

So, you know, like I said, we had joined the PFAC and that was a game changer for me.


Daphna Barbeau (36:02.049)

And that's a, sorry, in your hospital, a parent family advisory council or committee.


Alex Zavala (36:05.806)

Yes, a parent-family advisory council. And like I said, we had been around the NICU and girls, our daughters were baking stuff for NICU staff and family. We'd go to the NICU reunions and still, I mean, we spent so much time there, they became our family. And so we joined the PFAC, the council. And I just saw so much where.


Daphna Barbeau (36:24.855)

Yeah.


Alex Zavala (36:35.314)

I couldn't believe these doctors and nurses are listening to parents, you know, and taking their advice and seeing changes happen in the hospital.


Daphna Barbeau (36:43.275)

No.


Daphna Barbeau (36:48.045)

So you're saying you're starting to see positive change happening. Yeah.


Alex Zavala (36:50.878)

Yes, yes, where, you know, policies are changing off of the advice of these parents blew my mind. I didn't think that was something that could happen. And, you know, because I always felt like who are we, you know, and so I saw that and that just kind of lit a fire and it was, oh, this is the perfect way to get, you know, get back and so became more involved. And then I was asked,


Alex Zavala (37:21.618)

if I wanted to host a dad's group once a month. And I'm like, yeah, yes, absolutely. And I pictured in my mind, these group of dads, I'd be sitting there, we'd be talking about our experience, I'd give them advice. And so I was getting ready for my first meeting and this was years ago. So I started Googling stuff to prepare for my first dad's group.


Daphna Barbeau (37:50.033)

Yeah. Hmm.


Alex Zavala (37:50.87)

There was nothing. There was nothing on the internet, nothing about NICU dads. The only thing that would pop up would be a blurb off of somebody's post or something where it was a Father's Day thing. That was the only time that something would pop up. And there was probably a handful of those. And I just couldn't believe it. I'm like, I'm seeing all these other dads in the NICU and every day, one in 10 babies.


Daphna Barbeau (38:05.81)

Uh-huh.


Alex Zavala (38:20.894)

in the NICU, like do the math, and how is there nothing? And so I just couldn't believe it. I talked with our, Erin Strangland with March of Dimes and she, you know, I'm like, hey, I think I'm gonna do something here. Like, I think I'm gonna start a blog or a website or something, and she was there when it all started. And that just kind of started and started to grow.


Daphna Barbeau (38:25.008)

Mm.


Daphna Barbeau (38:41.945)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (38:50.01)

I started doing more NICU dad groups, started figuring out what worked for me, what didn't, and even that, everybody was trying to do groups the same way they did them for families and moms and stuff like that. It was a learning process and dads are different. It was a whole thing, but that kind of grew. And so just through the years of those experiences,


everything started growing, but I also started seeing, my wife and I would bring donations up to the hospital for the Ronald McDonald's house. And every time we did, we'd end up meeting a family and we'd talk to them. And how we felt on the ride home after those days, it was incredible. We were just like, oh man, it was just therapeutic. And that lit a fire too. And so things just started to grow.


Daphna Barbeau (39:44.513)

Hmm


Alex Zavala (39:52.818)

I was lucky enough to be put on our NICU. I basically became a family partner in our NICU in different roles. And so we were part of the Vermont Oxford Network Collaborative. And so I was the family person for that. And this is all, you know, everything came through the PFAC and that was one of the reasons why I championed them so much. Because...


you can get another meaning through a PFAC. Like they're out there. These parents want to do stuff. And so, you know, the opportunity through Vaughn, you know, was incredible. I got to share my story. And I follow my life now where if something gets put in front of me, I say yes. And that's changed my life. But I've also been fortunate enough to have special people get put in front of me.


Daphna Barbeau (40:26.136)

Yeah.


Alex Zavala (40:50.858)

And so whatever I'm doing now is because of those people. You know, they just, I've learned so much and I've been given so many opportunities. And, you know, people have just, I guess, some of the stuff I'm saying has resonated for some folks. So that's really how things have kind of gotten where they are.


Daphna Barbeau (41:16.025)

Great. Now, our listeners are mostly healthcare professionals. We have all kinds of listeners, as you know. And so, you know, if you could just talk to healthcare professionals and say, you know, what is your top advice to working, you know, first in the NICU, dad's at the bedside, you know, what's your advice there? And then, of course, obviously, you have a lot of interest in helping dad's post-NICU discharge.


Advice for helping us prepare dads for discharge.


Alex Zavala (41:47.326)

Yeah, one of the things that I've seen, so I've talked to thousands of dads, what I've seen is there's systematically whether anybody realizes this or not, but a lot of dads are trained early on to just sit there and be quiet. We see it in the early OBGYN appointments, non-NICU.


Daphna Barbeau (42:14.817)

Hmm. Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (42:17.434)

And I experienced it myself. A perfect example, one dad I talked to, he said, yeah, we were in there. My wife was pregnant and the doctor started asking her about her family history. And he's like, so while she's answering, in my head I'm running through, oh, who has this? Who has that? Yes, let me get my answer ready. He's like, the doctor never asked me. And I'm like, what?


Daphna Barbeau (42:37.057)

Yeah, they're going to ask me next, right? Yeah.


Daphna Barbeau (42:43.277)

That's right.


Alex Zavala (42:45.738)

Yeah, and he's like, they never asked me. And that's what happens. You know, for me, I always felt like I was the driver. I was the Uber for those appointments. You know, I would get asked the last 10 seconds, any questions? You know, that was it. Everything was directed to my wife and spoken, you know, and that's pretty common, actually. So then when we get into the NICU, well, I've been...


to all these doctor's visits, and I'm just supposed to sit there and be quiet and listen. So now we get in the NICU, why is dad just sitting there, you know, quietly listening? Why is he not getting involved? Well, I think there needs to be an understanding that this is probably what he's been conditioned to do. And so I think with, you know, staff and things like that, for us, luckily,


Daphna Barbeau (43:36.011)

Mm-hmm.


Alex Zavala (43:45.074)

Our staff was great and they were like, nope, you get in here. And I, you know, I'm not a little guy and my daughter was so tiny. I was just so scared to hurt her and break her and everything. And they were like, no, get in here. And you know, didn't give me the option of you know, not getting involved. And I'm so grateful they did. Even now when I change a diaper, I still change it the same way they did in the NICU. It's so, so crazy, but I was trained. They trained me and.


You know, and that's also why we were a little more confident when we did take our baby home. And I think we were a little more prepared. I think a lot of times dads get dismissed. You know, and especially now, you know, with our situation, I became a stay-at-home dad. That's common now. You know, I always tell folks, you know, a long time ago dads weren't even in the delivery room. They were in the lobby smoking cigars.


Daphna Barbeau (44:34.809)

Mm-hmm.


Daphna Barbeau (44:42.274)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (44:44.97)

You know, things have changed. Now dads are involved, you know, and everyone needs to be aware of that and encourage it. And I think a lot of times, you know, dads just get dismissed. Oh, you know, that's a guy. Or the other biggest thing is understand that the trauma is different for that role between a mom in the NICU.


Daphna Barbeau (45:09.39)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (45:12.834)

and the non-birthing parent, the dad, I think there is a huge difference in the trauma and where they're at. I've had moms that I've talked to and they're like, my husband's not, he doesn't care. Like, he's not showing any emotion or anything. And I'm like, look, you guys, this one family, they've been in the NICU for over a month. And I'm like, look, he's not there yet.


Daphna Barbeau (45:27.885)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (45:41.846)

He's still with his fight or flight. Like he's a robot right now, just trying to make it through. He's in survival mode. And unfortunately they were still in the NICU. So the next month that I had a group, she was there and she's like, hey, you know what, you were right. She was like, he broke down in the NICU over something so small. I couldn't believe it, but he started. And I'm like, yeah, the trauma's different.


Daphna Barbeau (45:41.948)

Mm.


Alex Zavala (46:09.258)

And I think for relationships too, you know, it would help if we had an understanding of that too, where that role, the trauma is just different and it seems to be delayed. And, you know, I don't know if it ever shuts off. But I think having that understanding between staff and spouses would help.


Daphna Barbeau (46:25.241)

Hmm.


Daphna Barbeau (46:33.553)

Yeah, it seems like, you know, with some antiquated societal norms, we have this self-fulfilling prophecy, right? If we don't expect dads to be involved and we don't ask them to be involved, we don't push them to be involved, well, then they don't be involved, you know? And, and, and maybe I appreciate your sharing that, you know, we, we play a role in that and making dads feel, we play a huge role in making dads feel comfortable and finding their role in the NICU.


I know we're getting close on time, so I don't want to miss out on you giving us your top recommendations then for dads that we can tell are struggling in the NICU, some places we can send them for support.


Alex Zavala (47:18.886)

Oh yeah, absolutely. So my biggest form of advice is, like I said, the NICU's warmup. Try to be the best version of yourself for when you do go home. That's when you're gonna need it the most. So try to exercise as much as you can. Try to eat healthy as much as you can. Try to get as much rest as you can, if at all possible. Like just, you'll thank me later if that's the approach that you do. The other thing is get some help.


Talk to somebody, even if you're in that mode of survival and you're not ready, still talk to somebody, look for somebody. Hanna Hold is a great organization. I'm a peer-to-peer mentor with them for other dads. If there's a hard case or anything like that, reach out to me. It's fine. I'm available. There's the nickydad.com. I have a resource guide on there.


I have the NICU Dad podcast, joined some private Facebook groups. There are several that are incredible and I can't believe how much they're growing. It's kind of sad, but great at the same time. And the stuff that dads share on there are the reason that I have these conversations. Because those dads and those private groups are speaking like nobody else in the other part of the world understand or see.


Daphna Barbeau (48:33.113)

Hmm.


Daphna Barbeau (48:45.414)

Hmm.


Alex Zavala (48:46.262)

the vulnerability, the things that these guys are going and they're sharing, all I'm doing is sharing those stories and those experiences. So definitely talk to somebody, get some therapy, get some counseling and really look at all the resources. There's March of Dimes, Hand to Hold and get in some of those private groups. I think those are really beneficial and always...


Just Google the Nicky Dowd and I'll pop up.


Daphna Barbeau (49:19.561)

I love that. And I thank you for highlighting how I think particularly valuable that peer-to-peer support is. And I think that's lacking in so many of our family support. So I appreciate that. Alex, thank you so much for sharing what is a lifetime of information at this point for you. I think everybody will learn a lot. I hope that they will pick up on some of these things you said and they can take it to the bedside tomorrow.


to start helping those dads in the NICU. Thank you.


Alex Zavala (49:51.71)

No, thank you. Thanks for having me. You guys are doing a great job.


Daphna Barbeau (49:55.085)

Thanks so much.

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