Penny is mum-of-one to Rupert, who was born prematurely at 29 weeks and spent 2 months in the NICU. This is her birth story…
I’m the mum of a premature baby – it’s become a somewhat large part of my personality. As I shared some feelings with my mother, she said the phrase, “The bottom line is that you brought your baby home and you’re both ok.” Of course, she’s right but also, she’s so wrong. When supporting an NICU parent it's important to remember, it's a traumatic experience. I’m still living with the what-ifs, intrusive thoughts and fears from our 2 months stay in the NICU when my beautiful 2lb 3oz baby fought so valiantly for his life.
I’m so proud of Rupert, he’s my hero. He is tough and brave, he’s been through hell and back and still smiles his beautiful smile at me every morning when I get him up. He’s oblivious to the fact that most babies don’t have to battle like he did. He feels no rage, as I do, and no loss of the “perfect” first few days and weeks we were supposed to have. I, however, feel quite differently. I feel so jealous when I see social media images of lovely big pregnant bellies, or mums having that first cuddle. I missed a lot of the natural firsts a mother should have and my chest aches when I think about it.
Rupert is among the 1% of babies classed as ‘very’ preterm, meaning born between 28-32 weeks gestation. He arrived when I was 29 weeks pregnant and it was a shock. We felt let down by my midwife, and her team, who didn’t return my call for six days. When I did speak to a midwife, they told me that only ‘bright spots in the vision were a problem’ in pregnancy, and the dark patches I was experiencing were nothing to worry about. Thankfully I had an amazing third option, my diabetic specialist midwife, who immediately called me in to the hospital to check me out. I had no idea this would be the day I had my baby.
Pregnancy was not fun for me, I experienced PUPPS (horrible bleeding rashes) struggled to manage my blood sugars and was generally uncomfortable for most of it. None of this is particularly unusual, but it did lead to a stupid fleeting thought that day, maybe it would soon be over, and my baby would be home and dry. This is a thought that still plays in my mind, I can’t believe how I tempted fate and maybe even brought all this pain and chaos in to his and my life. I often find myself mulling this thought over.
As I waited on a bed attached to machines to monitor my baby and I, I still thought we were just going to be monitored and released a few hours later. My husband was working at setting up our new life 200 miles away. I told him I was in hospital, but I truly thought I would be out that day.
Hours passed and suddenly, the baby was not doing well, and it was time to deliver him. I was alone. I asked the hospital to call my dad, who is reliably level-headed. I couldn’t risk my husband racing to get to us and having a horrible accident. I asked them to get my parents to bring him to the hospital knowing they had absolutely no chance of getting there before I went into theatre. I went into theatre alone.
I remember sobbing on the side of the bed, people rushing around me and one kindly nurse trying to reassure me. At this point someone behind me is trying to insert a spinal injection, but couldn’t find the spot. They asked me where I could feel it but told me I must not move. I couldn’t help but move my hand behind my back to show where I could feel the needle, before a urgent sounding midwife shouts at me not to move. In fairness, it is dangerous to move when someone is inserting a needle into your spine, but if I’m honest my brain was not in the game, I was panicked.
We didn’t have any more time to find the right spot for the spinal injection, the baby was struggling, my blood pressure was in the 200’s, they had to deliver now. A new calm and kind medical man (I remember his kind tone but not his name) starts to tell me that I’m going to need to be sedated, the panic is palpable, and at this point I couldn’t breathe. All I could think is that I’m going to lose my baby.
They tell me not to worry, they need to help me now. I don’t know what this means but it’s showtime and I’m lying down with a mask on my face.
I don’t remember coming to per se, I remember becoming aware I was alive and putting the pieces together of what had happened that day. It was about 9pm, a wonderful and beautifully tattooed nurse was changing my sanitary pad and I realised that I had given birth. My baby was not there. Was he alive? I asked the nurse as desperately as I could, “where is my baby?” I was on a lot of morphine so this may not have been as well articulated as I remember.
I was conscious but still very foggy when my husband arrived, he came to see me before being allowed to visit Rupert. Both Rupert and I needed our own medical care so it wasn’t until the next day that I was allowed to see him. It was a long wait, but it was filled with exhaustion and medication, so I spent the time in and out of sleep. When I finally got to see him, he was beautiful, covered in wires and sensors, tiny, red, wrinkled and utterly gorgeous. He was perfection.
Rupert stayed in the NICU whilst I stayed on the maternity ward, It was agonising seeing all the other mums with their babies, and being given sad glances as they clearly wondered where my baby was. Rupert was astounding, he was initially fed through his umbilical cord which meant we could not hold him until it fell away and a nasal feeding tube was fitted. This took 5 days and was the longest wait of my life. The physical urge to hold him was intense and when the moment finally came I couldn’t help but sob. Emotions poured out of me.
He was in hospital for 56 days, which is a short stay for such an early baby but we were lucky and he is a fighter.