Our situation really took a turn in December 2019, when I went to the delivery suite at Kettering General Hospital due to reduced movements. During this visit, they found my blood pressure was raised and I had protein in my urine suggestive of pre-eclampsia. I was 29+6 weeks pregnant, and was left terrified when a Dr casually said, “we might have to keep you in, hopefully we can get another few weeks before we meet your baby!”. I had no idea how serious pre-eclampsia could be and was shocked at how quickly it had occurred, as I had had an appointment with my community midwife 3 days earlier, when everything had been fine.
From here, everything became a blur of hospital admissions, nights spent having hourly blood pressure checks and blood tests, constant questioning; “How are you feeling? Do you have a headache? Chest pain? Flashing lights or blurred vision?”
Thanks to blood pressure medication, Doctors and Midwives at Kettering General Hospital got me to 31+6 weeks pregnant, I had been told we were aiming to get to at least 34 weeks so I was expecting to be in hospital for the long run. A midwife at the hospital organised for us to have a tour of the NICU or known locally as SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit), so that should our baby come early we knew what to expect. This was helpful in hindsight and any parents who are potentially going to be welcoming their baby prematurely should ask for the same if possible.
Within 24 hours of this visit, I was on the labour ward being prepared for an emergency c-section after my pre-eclampsia took a downward turn and the symptoms worsened.
Fast forward to the operating theatre, a sheet in front of my face and my partner to my right, we were waiting to meet our baby surrounded by a team of Doctors, Nurses and Midwives, as well as a team from the NICU ready to treat our child. After about 45 minutes in the theatre, we heard our baby cry for the first time, the delivering Dr held her up and I saw her tiny, beautiful face. She was born at 18:45 with Queen playing in the background. Within seconds she was whisked away to the NICU. At this stage, we didn’t even know if we had had a boy or girl! My partner was able to see her, and finally told me “She’s a girl, and she’s perfect.” Unbeknown at this time to me, our girl stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated by the team. She was only 3lb 9oz and not much bigger than our hands but incredibly strong.
The days that followed were an overwhelming blur. I struggled with the guilt of knowing something wrong with me had led to my baby being delivered before she was ready and felt that it was my fault she was going through this.
Our NICU stay was a flurry of bleeping machines and tubes and wires. But the team looking after Clodagh took incredible care of us too. They involved us in her care, taught us how to tube feed her safely and check her tube was in her stomach not her lung. They talked to us about what was happening every time her machine made a noise and gave us regular and comprehensive updates on her progress and the next stage of her care. They really do an incredible job from both a technical and personal perspective. Thanks to these Drs and Nurses, Clodagh went from strength to strength, and came home with us after 26 days in SCBU.
To anyone who has never experienced the NICU...
Please don’t think that we resent your experience because we didn’t get it. I want to hear how amazing your birth was and how perfect it felt. Every time I see a pregnancy announcement I pray those parents don’t go through the same experience we did, and every time I see a new baby safely delivered and content on their mum’s chest, I’m thankful another mum got that as the feeling of knowing you never will is not one I would wish on anyone.
If I ask you to wash your hands or am hesitant about you touching my baby, it’s not because I think you are dirty but because I couldn’t keep her safe inside me so nothing will stop me keeping her safe outside me.
And know that just because we have happy and healthy babies now, it doesn’t mean we are “over it”. The experience stays with us and we still grieve the moments we missed. We still seriously consider whether we should extend our families because “what if the same thing happens again?”. Unfortunately, these feelings aren’t left in the hospital and we carry them with us.
To NICU parents currently going through this...
Trust in the process. Trust in the caregivers looking after your baby but also trust your own instinct and ask questions. Attend the ward rounds as much as possible because their situation changes hourly and it’s important to be up to date on their care plans. You don’t need to be anything other than there for your baby. Look out for each other and take any support that is offered to you.
Remember that for every NICU mum there is a NICU Dad, who is not only watching his baby go through this but also the Mother of his child, and who is powerless to do anything. Mine has kept me strong through the last 7 months and held me up when I felt overwhelmed with guilt and terrified of what was to come. These men often go back to work after their couple of weeks paternity ends and must try and return to normal life while their whole world is upside down. Appreciate and look after each other.
Don’t stress about the people who are disinterested because they can’t come for a cuddle or take a picture for their social media, their absence at this time says more than their words ever could. Hold on to the people who stand by you. For us, these people kept us strong, they still wanted to see us even though they couldn’t touch our baby, they sat at our house so our dog didn’t get lonely, they drove us back and forth to hospital even though they couldn’t come in, and they didn’t pretend to understand but still listened.
These people will get you through the hardest time in your life and it’s the reason they will still be with you through the happiest.