Before you begin – If you experience any kind of birth related anxiety or trauma, please tread carefully when reading this. Maybe, don't read it, the choice is yours but fair warning. I've written this as part of my own need to process but at the same time am conscious that I had no one to turn to during the events I describe below.
I've written this in the hope that if someone else experiences similar events, you are never alone. My details are here
One night in December 2019, me and my wife Vikki, were watching Fighting with My Family on Netflix. Our toddler was upstairs in bed and our eight week old baby and I sat calmly in a chair. It was one of those quiet but proud moments, feeding him the last bottle of the day before we finished the movie and headed to bed.
As he finished the last drops of milk, I looked down at his tiny face. He looked up at me and as the corners of his mouth slowly turned upwards into a beautiful baby smile, I fell from the chair to my knees, still clutching his tiny body in my arms.
I cried. Uncontrollably. I cried until I couldn’t see past the tears. Our son still nestled in my arms with the empty bottle in his mouth as a tide of emotion hit me, wave after wave. I blubbed something about not being able to cope but without being able to actually form words. Vikki looked terrified, asking me on repeat, “what’s wrong?”
I had no idea what was happening to me.
It’d been a very different pregnancy second time around. With our first born son, Vikki had a ‘textbook’ pregnancy. We were lucky, we travelled, we got married we pretty much didn’t even notice we were having a baby. This time, not so much.
It took us a long time to get pregnant with our second baby. We were nervous and worried for each other and I remember vividly us questioning everything from diet to exercise, work stress to putting coffee mugs on my lap for a little bit too long.
We eventually booked an appointment to visit the doctor, well, Vikki did. I too focused on the dread of someone handing me a sample pot. Thankfully, the same week we visited the doctor, a pregnancy test came back positive and we were immediately relieved, no sample pot needed. We were going to have another baby and I couldn’t have been happier.
The early months passed relatively calmly, as you might hope that they would do but things became difficult, quickly.
We were told early on that Vikki had unusual anti-bodies in her blood (Anti-c) which can cause complications in later months of birth and put Vikki at risk. It’s a condition that doesn’t appear to be well documented and completely knocked us for six. We were immediately referred to a Consultant for a follow up.
Miss Dexter instantly put us at ease. In fact, she was incredible, clearly explaining what the risk to Vikki and the baby was. We were reminded not to worry unduely and that because they knew about it, that was at least the first really good step. What we know, we can control. I’ll never forget the way Miss Dexter spoke with balance and a calm objectivity but ultimately, with great compassion.
Whilst we steadily came to terms with the uncertainty of how this pregnancy was going to go, we got another unwelcome surprise.
At the 20 week scan, we were told by an incredibly meticulous sonographer that the placenta that feeds the baby had rooted itself in literally the most awkward place it could be; right across Vikki’s cervix.
Known as low-lying placenta or placenta praevia, it affects about 1 in 200 births. Apparently in most cases the cervix isn’t completely covered. We were not ‘most cases’.
Usually this wouldn’t phase us too much, another day, another doctor thing, another appointment but when Vikki realised that placenta previa could result in the need for emergency blood transfusion, that’s when things got scary.
A blood transfusion itself wasn’t an issue but in combination with the unusual anti-bodies in Vikki’s blood, there was a very big question as to whether a hospital would actually have a blood match for Vikki in an emergency. From this point on we were on edge, scared for any complications and clinging on for some good news. We’d had four appointments in a row that were all more complications or news that increased risk to both Vikki and the baby.
Then life got unbareably real.
At 23 weeks and 5 days, Vikki started bleeding. We called the hospital who told us to come in immediately. Vikki’s parents were straight round to our house to look after our sleeping toddler whilst I drove us, maybe a little bit faster than I should’ve done, to the hospital.
In the consultation, Vikki was already gowned up and in a bed, hooked up to machine monitoring the movement and heartbeat of the baby. The resident doctor explained that because of the gestation, the policy is to focus on keeping Vikki alive first and the baby, second.
I was numb. All I could think about and see in front of me was the person I love most in the world crumbling piece after piece as a result of every word the doctor uttered. The inconsolable dispair that consumed my soulmate, mother of our children and there was nothing I could do but hold her. All I could do was repeat softly in her ear, “it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay”. We will be okay. Our baby will be okay.” I’m not sure I believed myself.
Vikki spent a full 24 hours in hospital being monitored and eventually, the bleeding stopped. With no known cause but no need to stay in hospital, we were sent home. Hoping against hope that we wouldn’t be back any time soon.
The same thing happened two weeks later. Bleeding, hospital, monitoring, overnight stay, bleeding stops, no known cause, go home completely anxious and scared.
After the second bleed and trip to hospital in the night, the consultants told us to call an ambulance immediately if it happened again. I hope against hope this wouldn’t become a weekly occurance but sadly, at 31 weeks I got home from work and a few hours later was mopping blood off the bathroom floor whilst dialling 999.
The paramedics arrived and immediately got Vikki wrapped up and moved onto the ambulance, blue lighted us into the hospital. To be honest, I don’t really remember that journey even now. Whilst in hospital doctors told us to prepare ourselves for an emergency birth and gave Vikki steroids to mature the babies lungs. After 4 days in hospital, still no baby and all other bleeding had stopped so we were given a c-section date for exactly the 36 week mark and sent on our way.
At 35 weeks, whilst dishing up dinner discussing a vasectomy (I kid you not), Vikki haemorrhaged again. I knew the drill by now, dial 999, use the other phone to call the in-laws, find towels, grab the overnight bag, unlock the door, stay with Vikki and remain on the phone til paramedics arrive.
We arrived at the hospital within 30 minutes and this time the bleed was so bad and the baby so at risk that within 90 minutes of haemorrhaging in the bathroom at home, Vikki was in surgery and our second son was born.
We were so relieved, a sweeping, swelling, overwhelming sense of anxiety being lifted as we heard his cry in the nurse’s arms.
That cry turned to a wheeze. The wheeze turned to a grunt and before we had got chance to get too used to that feeling of joy, our boy was moved into a glass box, placed onto a ventilator and taken away from us, bound for the neonatal unit.
We didn’t even get chance to hold him.
Vikki still lay there, open on the table. Numb from the chest-down whilst the surgery team continued to stitch and sew, clean up and talk us through what would happen next.
We were moved through to the recovery ward. Pretty difficult to recover when you’re missing the one thing you went in there for but it was quiet and Vikki could rest. After a few hours, I was told I could head up to the ward to see our son. I really didn’t want to go without Vikki but she wasn’t allowed to move just yet. I was torn, nervous and scared of what I might find when I got up there.
As Vikki fell asleep, I headed off in search of the neonatal unit. Winding my way through the darkened corridors, past the vending machines and the childrens ward until a Nurse greeted me at secured door. She smiled and gently asked me to wash my hands and invited me through to the first room on the right. Guiding me past three babies in cots until she sat me down next to a cot encased in a clear, plexiglass box. Wires and tubes were in and out of the box at different points, the monitor bleeping away with the rhythm of a struggling heartbeat. Laying inside that box, was a our newborn son.
He was face down, grunting and jolting for each breath. Tiny hands scrunched up against his tape and wire covered face.
“You can touch him through the box if you want” the nurse said.
I’m not sure I did want. That weird feeling of wanting to hold him so tightly but at the same time wanting to distance myself, just in case. I felt like a terrible person. I was lost. I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do. Vikki would’ve known. Why didn’t I know.
I only got through that night because the nurses were incredible. I don’t use that word lightly. Natalie talked to me and immediately sensed I just needed to be told the facts. Give me all the info Natalie, every last bit, acronyms and all. I’ll study medicine for the next however long it takes if it means I understand what’s going on with our boy. And she did. Natalie talked to me for what must have been hours. She answered every one of my questions with no holding back and I am so, so grateful for that.
Once I’d taken in as much as I could cope with on no sleep and a vast amount of adrenaline and stress, the nurses gave me a photo and a small knitted square. “These are for mum” they said. “The photo is because she can’t be here, and the squares, well, one stays here with baby and the other goes to mum. Then, when you come up, you swap them. That way, baby still gets to know mum.” So I took the photo and one beautifully tiny knitted square back through the hospital maze, to mum.
When I got back to Vikki, she’d been quietly moved to the the labour ward so for a few hours Tuesday morning, I slept on the floor next to her bed. When I woke, things were blurry, achy and it was evident pretty quickly that all this wasn’t some weird dream.
The Tuesday through Thursday were pretty much some of the most surreal days of my life. We spent most of those few days telling a limited number of family and friends what had been going and visiting our baby. Later on the Tuesday afternoon, I realised I still needed to finish an assignment. With Vikki still recovering from the anesthetic in the bed next to me, I finished the edit, wrote a reference list and submitted the second assignment for my MSc. I was actually quite thankful for the distraction from tiredness and emotions if I’m honest.
To make matters more bizarre, my boss was actually leaving for another job around this same time and I’d applied for her job as a promotion. My boss then called me on the Tuesday afternoon to ask firstly if things were okay (they weren’t) and whether I’d be “okay to pop in for an interview tomoorrow morning” (probably not). In my defense, I was a little bit confused, very tired and emotionally drained. I really just wanted everything to go away so, like an idiot, I said “yes”. Because it seemed like the path of least friction. So on the Wednesday, 30 hours after our son was born and taken into intensive care and whilst Vikki was still recovering from a c-section and sleeping in a hospital bed on labour ward, I went for a job interview.
By the time Friday came around, Vikki was finally allowed home and we continued to visit the hospital every single day.
Each morning, we’d get up, ship the toddler to his grandparents and drive over to spend the day by our newborn’s bedside. Listening to every heartbeat, breath and hoping that they’d reduce the support he was receiving, one bit at a time.
Every night I’d leave the hospital, kissing that clear plexiglass box to say goodnight and hoping beyond hope that he’d still be there in the morning. We’d get home and at 9pm, call the ward to check how he was doing. Small routines to get us through.
Respiritory disease, suspected sepsis, under developed lungs, ventilators, CPAP, oxygen, lumbar punctures and countless medications. I lost count of the number of incredible nurses, doctors and consultants that stopped by his bedside, talked to us to help us understand what was happening to our little boy.
After just over two weeks of daily hospital visits to the intensive care and enough procedures to bankrupt us if it wasn’t for the NHS, our baby boy was finally able to come home. He’d been feeding from a bottle and feedback well. I’ll never forget the day we sat next to his cot for morning rounds and a consultant looked at us to say;
“There’s nothing keeping him here anymore.”
Vikki’s face lit up like nothing I’ve seen before, colour and joy flooded every inch of us, we could’ve burst. We got lucky, he got lucky, I’ll not forget that in a hurry.
From that moment on it was the process of getting him home and helping him thrive. Don’t get me wrong, we still worry constantly about his health and still have check ups and scans every few months to make sure his remaining problems are on the mend. I’ll never forget that sense of relief when we were told we could bring our baby boy home to meet his older brother.
So why write this now? I guess, this feeling has weighed on me for the longest time. I didn’t actually realise it either until I finally said the words out loud;
“I thought my son might die.”
So many times over those 15 days in the neonatal ward, I thought he might not make it. This tiny bundle of human that we’d waited for over nine painful months for, had finally arrived. We didn’t know if he’d make it through those months and once he was born, we didn’t actually know how long he might be around.
I’m publishing this today because he didn’t die. He lived. He lived and today is his first birthday. I am both relieved and also still not really over the feeling of fear and anxiety for my family.
We didn’t acknowledge the pain and fear at the time, we glossed over it, showing up at the hospital every day, asking questions, paying attention, learning to feed him through a tube, hoping everything would eventually be okay.
If I’m truly honest, I didn’t acknowledge the pain and fear at the time. I was more scared than I’ve ever been in my life and I didn’t realise there was anything to acknowledge. I was scared that if I let on how afraid I was, Vikki would lose hope too. I was scared of letting my family down and I was scared that if I acknowledged it, it would become real and I wouldn’t even get to see that baby become a boy.
I didn’t acknowledge any of this until I was holding our eight week old baby, at home, mindlessly watching a movie. I was finally calm enough for my body to give in and let go. The pain and fear that’d built up for so many months came out in one uncontrollable flood of tears. I broke down, on the living room floor and clutched that kid for dear life.
So tonight when we celebrate our youngest son’s first birthday on this earth, I’ll be reminded and thankful for every breath that my son has been able to draw. Every breath I didn’t think he’d ever be able to take. Thankful that our baby has the chance to become whatever he chooses to be.
To everyone at Northampton General Hospital, I will be forever in your debt. You didn’t just save our sons life, you saved ours and everything we’ve gone on to experience together.
To Sarah, a midwife beyond anyone we could’ve dreamed to have met - we are proud to call you a friend.
To Vikki, you literally put your body on the line for our little family. I am forever in your shadow.
And to Indiana, for taking it one breath at a time and living to tell the tale.
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