At 28 weeks pregnant, I blissfully loved every moment of pregnancy. Having had 2 previous miscarriages, I was determined not to take any moment of the experience for granted.
There was nothing I treasured more than holding my hand to my belly and feeling my baby move. It was in these moments that I felt the most connected with my child. I would hold my hand in place, feeling his tiny movements, and talk to him. “Mummy’s right here, my darling” I would say. “Mummy’s got you”.
There was no way I could have known that my pregnancy was destined to come to an abrupt end.
At about 4am on the 30th December 2016, I woke up experiencing moderate pain in my upper abdomen. The pain, whilst not severe, was uncomfortable enough that I couldn’t get back to sleep. I tried changing positions, pacing around the house and having a shower but nothing I did could ease the pain.
After a few hours I woke up my husband and we decided to go to the GP. As we drove to the clinic and waited in the car park until it opened, I remember worrying that they were going to think that I was overreacting.
I described my abdominal pain to the unfamiliar GP and she checked my blood pressure, which was normal. She informed me that the pain was likely indigestion and I was told to go home and rest.
And yet something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding.
I had planned to have a natural birth and was booked into a midwifery run birthing centre at a major hospital in Brisbane. I had only met my midwife once but during our meeting she had filled me with a wonderful sense of warmth and trust. I decided to give her a call, mainly to ease my growing anxiety.
I described my symptoms to the midwife over the phone. She reassured me that I was not overreacting or being silly. On the contrary, she was insistent that I come straight to the hospital to be properly assessed. She delivered this advice in a firm but reassuring manner. I have since come to realize that she had a sense of what was unfolding.
Once we arrived at the hospital, the kind medical and nursing staff carried out physical exams, fetal monitoring, blood tests, urine tests and ultrasound scans. My husband and I sat on an examination bed, our hands tightly intertwined, as were informed by a sympathetic doctor that I had developed severe HELLP Syndrome. I cried quietly as I was told that the only way to stop the progression of the life-threatening syndrome was to deliver the baby now.
HELLP Syndrome stands for hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells), elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count. Doctors are still unsure what causes this rare syndrome but it is usually considered to be an extreme variant of preeclampsia.
Following the diagnosis the medical staff acted calmly and quickly. I was immediately given a steroid injection to help prepare my baby’s underdeveloped lungs for an early entry into the world. Multiple IV lines and a catheter were inserted, and a bulky fetal monitor was strapped to my abdomen.
We were informed that they would try delay delivery for as long as possible but that we should prepare ourselves that it would most likely be a matter of hours. They wanted to give the steroids as much time as possible to work, whilst also taking into account my ongoing deterioration.
I remember my husband asking if I could still have a vaginal birth, as he knew how important this was to me. In sympathetic tones I was told that there was no time for a natural delivery and that the baby was too small to be put through any kind of stress.
The next few hours were a blur of kind faces; a constant flow of obstetricians, neonatologists, anesthetists and midwives. In shock, I let the flurry of actively unfold around me. My husband stayed by my side, only leaving to make hurried phone calls to update our families.
I kept trying to place my hands on my tummy but my movement was restrained due to the multiple IV lines in my arms, and the fetal monitoring device on my abdomen. I was desperate for a moment of connection with my baby, to tell him that I was sorry for failing to carry and protect him. I needed to reassure him that everything was going to be ok.
At around 5am I was informed that my latest blood test indicated that my platelets were dropping rapidly and that that I would likely now require a general anesthetic for the caesarian.
For the first time since the ordeal had started I truly fell apart. I sobbed and begged them for an alternative. I couldn’t fathom the thought of my child entering the world alone, in a room full of strangers.
As I was being prepped for surgery they took one last urgent blood test. Wheeling me into the operating theatre, the anesthetist told me that my platelets were just on the borderline and so, if were did the caesarean right now, they would allow me to have a spinal block instead of a general anesthetic.
Relief washed over me and I felt resigned and emotionally numb as the spinal block was administered. I kept waiting for the moment when they would remove the fetal monitor and I could feel my bump one last time.
But everything was happening so quickly and the room was crowded with doctors. Suddenly the drape was up, my abdomen was doused with antiseptic and the procedure had begun.
I was able to catch a quick glimpse of my implausibly tiny baby as he was prematurely pulled from my body. “It’s a boy,” the doctor said in a forced cheery voice as she handed him over to the waiting neonatology team. My son made one small cry, a feeble protest at being pulled, too soon, into the world.
The neonatology team crowded around my baby and, after a few moments, retreated from the operating theatre to the NICU. As planned, my husband followed anxiously in their wake with promises to return soon with news of our baby’s condition.
And just like that, I was alone. Despite the crowded room of doctors, nurses and midwives that continued to tenderly care for me. I was no longer pregnant. The life that has grown inside me for the past 6 months had been taken away.
With tears silently streaming down my face, all I could think was that I had never gotten the chance to place my hand over my pregnant stomach one last time. For some reason, it was this, more than anything, which continued to haunt me.
My husband rejoined me in the recovery room sometime later. He had with him a photo of our tiny baby boy. I remember looking at the photograph and, although I am ashamed to admit it, I felt nothing but tired and numb.
Eventually I was wheeled back to the high dependency unit. I asked to be wheeled via the NICU to see my baby but I wasn’t allowed. HELLP syndrome tends to peak after delivery so they were concerned that my condition would deteriorate.
That night my husband, who was physically and emotionally exhausted, slept heavily on a mattress on the floor by my side. Just before midnight, I heard the staff outside my room count down to the New Year. Amidst the cheers and celebrations that welcomed 2017, I closed my eyes and allowed my grief to consume me.
I was able to see my son for the first time properly the day after he was born. Still lying in a hospital bed, I was wheeled into the NICU and parked next to his incubator. Tubes, wires and tape marred his tiny body. The ventilator forced a rhythmic rise and fall of his small chest.
For the next ten days I made the trip from my hospital room down to the NICU. I was able to reach my hand into the incubator to touch him briefly, but I was warned that it might overstimulate him.
I sat helplessly by his side and watched on as others cared for my baby. It was the kind NICU staff that tenderly met all of his needs. They kept him breathing, fed him through a tube and gently repositioned his small body. They kept him alive while I, his mother, did nothing but observe from the sidelines, feeling nothing but emptiness.
Ten days after he was born, it was felt that he was stable enough for me to hold him for the first time. I sat next to his incubator with my hospital gown gaped open ready to for him to be placed on my bare chest. It took two NICU nurses to gently move him, careful not to disturb his breathing tubes and IV lines.
As he was placed onto my chest, I wrapped my arms around his small warm body and cradled him against me. And suddenly, the walls of numbness came crumbling down. The loss of connection that I had been grieving since his birth, came flooding back. I was overwhelmed with love for him.
The sounds of the NICU and the traumatic memories from the past ten days faded away as I held Arthur close to my heart. I breathed him in and whispered to him, “Mummy’s right here, my darling. Everything is going to be ok, Mummy’s got you”.
Although our NICU journey continued on for another 2.5 months, from the moment I held Arthur in my arms, nothing ever seemed as hopeless as it did before. We still had blood transfusions, extubation, apnea, minor surgery, infection and failure to thrive ahead of us. But from that moment on, I faced the journey with the fierceness that only a mother’s love can conjure.
I have had to come to terms with the fact that I missed out on a lot of firsts when my son was in the NICU. I missed out on having a natural birth. I missed out on holding him the day he was born. I missed out on feeding him, changing him and soothing him.
But there is one thing I didn’t miss out on. It was in the NICU that I felt, for the first time, the overwhelming power of a mother’s love and the desperate determination to keep my baby, forever, safe in my arms.
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