I’ll never forget the once nonchalant midwife’s voice quiver as she declared my twenty-five week gestation baby was “coming now and there’s nothing we can do to stop it”. Two minutes earlier she’d assumed I was exaggerating. I pushed her away defiantly and sat up yelling “NO! NO, NO, NO!” Thinking the conviction of my refusal to believe what she’d just told me would make it untrue. Panic and hysteria set in and I was offered drugs for ‘pain’, in hindsight, I think they wanted to calm me down, for they knew what was to come. The hell of prematurity begins before they’re born. Thirty-one hours before for me. Doctors gave me steroid injections to expedite the maturation of my baby’s lungs, baby would most certainly be born dead without them. Medical people came and went from my delivery room with looks on their faces ranging from pity to concern. Some actioned medicine, others observed the monitors, silently, sadly, and left without speaking. My memories from that agonising day fade in and out like waves, filling my brain like a storm’s crescendo before disappearing again, probably to the deepest corners of my mind where they lie dormant until next triggered. I suppose this is a defence mechanism, a product of trauma.
It hurt. I remember that much. I was in a Pethadine-induced haze for the duration of my labour, yet still remember my lower back feeling like it was ripping apart. My body was completely unprepared, this wasn’t supposed to happen yet. Medication given to slow things down and my body’s determination to speed things up wrangled against one another inside me as if they were waging war, it was excruciating. In the middle of all this was a baby; a tiny, unripe, fragile baby who was being violently forced from the safe place in which she was trying to grow, the possibility of fetal distress loomed throughout.
I remember neonatal consultants coming to speak to me. There was one in particular, whose name I can’t remember, he had kind brown eyes and can’t have been much older than I am now. He came to tell me ‘The Plan’, that baby, if alive, would be intubated and taken immediately to Neonatal Intensive Care. If alive? If? “Will my baby survive” I asked, words slurring on Planet Pethadine. The way he looked at me will hurt my heart forever. He looked as if he might cry, dropped his shoulders, and pursed his lips as the corners of his mouth dropped. He tilted his head to one side and paused, as if he’d felt the pain of my heart and the desperation of my plea. In a soft, resigned voice he told me he didn’t know. And that was it. No follow up, no reassurance, a man who had made it his life’s work to study and prepare for this moment, didn’t know. Up until then, I hadn’t contemplated that my baby may die. I should have, considering the circumstances but I was young, this was my first pregnancy. This was my first experience of anyone’s pregnancy, I had no idea. I didn’t cry or panic or worry, I went back to coping with the war waging in my body. The vocal quiver midwife finished her shift and new staff arrived. I imagine it was a complicated handover, full of anguish about what was to come for the next shift. I didn’t get any their names but I often wonder if they think about my twenty-five weeker and me.
As the hours passed, activity in my delivery room increased. I remember speaking to my Nan on the telephone and telling her I was alright. looking back, I wasn’t alright at all but the Pethadine made it so. I can’t remember if I cried. I do remember feeling utterly isolated and alone in that hospital bed, isolated apart from the unripe, fragile baby everyone was waiting for. The Father of my twenty-five weeker was abusive. I had been systematically isolated from local friends and family, there was nobody close to call. Instead of support, I had him to my left, ‘warning’ me that if I didn’t get a female consultant to deliver my baby, he’d “never be able to look at me the same again”, I’d be “disgusting” and I’d “pay”. In my young, naive, brainwashed and exhausted state, I complied, as I always did, the risk of repercussions of not complying with him were too great. I asked the Midwife if a female consultant could deliver my baby. Even as I was saying the words aloud, I felt ridiculous. My baby could DIE, I wouldn’t have objected to aliens landing their UFO in the car park and delivering if it meant my baby had a chance of survival. The Midwife looked perplexed, I don’t think she knew what to say. She probably wondered why I was worrying about something seemingly irrelevant during piercingly painful contractions and such a bleak potential outcome of my labour, or perhaps she thought it was the drugs talking. Either way, she was kind, “It’ll be whoever is on shift, sweetheart” was her correct and fair response. My heart sank. Not only did I have the obvious fear, I now had the anxiety of what would happen after birth, how bad my ‘punishment’ would be. I wasn’t upset when he said he had to go collect his car from a city an hours drive away.
My pain grew steadily worse as the hours passed, another shift change, a new set of people learning about me, my failing pregnancy and the probably broken baby my body was expelling. I’d been in the delivery room for 21 hours, I had barely slept. In moments where I could think straight, I tried to get my bearings. The hospital ward was bustling with heavily pregnant Mothers and newborn babies. The ripe, ready, squishy kind. I could hear a woman screaming next door, I hope her baby was born healthy and crying. I could hear chatter and laughter and doors opening and closing. The only thing separating me from the real world was a door. It felt more like a universe. I felt like I was in my own world. The world where everyone had a solemn expression, as if no-one dared show happiness or sadness beyond my door, for fear of giving me misplaced hope or misplaced dread. No-man’s land. No-full term baby land.
And then my waters broke.
The room had been quiet, one solitary midwife, him and me. And my unborn, unripe, fragile baby. My body had decided it was now, now it was time to force my baby into the harsh, unforgiving, cold, dark world. To my left I had him, pestering me to ask them to let him cut the cord. It was an emergency situation, nobody cared what I had to say at this point, I’d have to deal with that repercussion later. To my right there were midwives. An incubator was wheeled in by a consultant and a NICU nurse and everyone got ready for a crash. Up to that day, despite everything I had been and was going through, I had never felt as petrified or shocked as I did in the few minutes between my waters going and mytwenty-five weeker being born. They call it the ‘second stage’ and it usually lasts longer than mine did. My body weary and my heart still willing this not to be true, I did as was told and I pushed. I pushed with every last ounce of energy I had left and when everyone’s voices became panicked and urgent, I pushed with every fibre of my being.
It’s a girl. An unripe, fragile baby girl. She’s not moving. I peered down and looked at her. She was red, not blue, that had to be good? She didn’t move. She didn’t breathe. She was too small. She looked like she had been dropped, like a baby bird who had fallen from her nest. The first words she heard me say were “Is she alive?” Nobody answered so I asked again, more panicked this time as I struggled to hold my head up, “Is she alive?”. The room was silent, everybody was silent. All eyes were on baby bird. The vibe had changed, it was eerie but urgent, calm and professional yet strained and tense. There was no crying, no marvel, no congratulations. My world stopped turning. A midwife scooped her up as you would an injured animal, with the perfect balance of care and urgency, a refined skill, and rushed her carefully, in a gliding motion, to the waiting Doctor. His name was Alistair and he was a man. He forced a tube down my baby bird’s throat and into her lungs to ventilate her. As he did so, her bent left leg flinched, her first feeling in this world was not the cold or a cuddle, it was pain. She was too small for pain. She shouldn’t have been born yet and was already suffering but she was alive, and where there’s life there’s hope. Alistair and the nurse rushed out of my room. My ventilated, fragile baby girl in the incubator with them, and I was alone again, in my world.
For World Prematurity Day 2017