I came home from work one Tuesday afternoon in early December to find Lucy, my wife, complaining of back pain. She was 27-weeks' pregnant at the time and we both assumed it was simply something pregnancy-related and thought little of it. Luckily though, Lucy was concerned enough to mention it to her mother, who said, 'best be careful, best call the hospital, just in case'. She then called the hospital who said 'best be careful, best come in to see us'. So we drove in both thinking that it was clearly a waste of time. The hospital had told us that if Lucy was going into labour the pain would be at regular intervals, so on the drive we noted when the pains came on the back of an envelope, the only paper to hand. By the time we reached hospital it was clear that the last few had been as regular as clockwork. Every seven minutes.
|Newly born and tiny Finn: Click the photo for a bigger pic
As we sat waiting to be seen at the hospital, noting the pains arriving bang on cue, we were quite rattled. After about twenty minutes a doctor came in and we showed her the envelope where we'd noted the intervals between pains. It was like flicking a switch as suddenly everything started to happen: Within the space of about ten minutes we had a couple of doctors and several nurses with us, Lucy was laid up in bed and after a rapid explanation of the whys and wherefores, she 'd had clearance for surfactants, two injections and was on a drip to slow down labour.
Over the next hour we were assured that this would buy us at least 48 hours, and there was a reasonable chance this would put labour off for at least two weeks, maybe even far longer. The doctors were doing their best to assure us that it was normal, and no problem if the baby came, but at the same time they were wholly focussed on delaying labour, telling us that every day they could extend the pregnancy the outlook was “much, much better”. The two standpoints didn’t square up, which was worrying. When we asked for clarification the doctors weren't too forthcoming. All we could get from them was that a few days made a big difference – for two reasons:
(1) The surfactants take about 48 hours to act – and they massively increase the baby’s chances
(2) The baby's lungs are in a critical development phase – and every day seemed to count
We quickly learned that the doctors wouldn't deal in giving out chances in anything other than vague terms like “very good” / “good” / or “nothing we don’t see lots of”, which was frustrating when what we wanted to know was whether “good” meant a 98% or 60% chance.
|Lucy with Finn, still in hospital
After that initial hour things slowed down, the doctors went away and the nurses took over. Later that night we had another visit from two doctors, but this time from the neo-natal ward who would pick up from the birth team after the birth if our baby did arrive early. Their aim was simply to introduce us to the unit in case the baby did come, and to give us an idea of what would happen next. This was GREAT, in fact, the tour of the neonatal unit was the first thing that really relaxed us.
For those doctors it genuinely is business as usual, as every baby they see is premature (as distinct to the birth team doctors for whom prematurity is something to be avoided). We weren't really shown the intensive care section much, as it's a restricted area for hygiene reasons, but we did see several nurses and a lot of young babies, both in incubators with feeding tubes and in open cots. A few parents were milling around and everything seemed relaxed and calm, not least the doctors, who were joking about probably not seeing us later and hoping not too. It was all very reassuring.
Later that evening the contractions slowed to every 20 minutes, then every 30 minutes and the panic began to subside as we started to adjust to our new reality. We were still very unsure about what would happen though, and I even remember asking one doctor whether we'd still be going to Wales for Christmas. She was categorical that we wouldn’t be in Wales even if the baby didn’t arrive. It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time this answer seemed really odd and didn’t fit with the business-as-usual attitude the doctors were projecting.
The next day was weirdly calm. No longer experiencing contractions, Lucy was sitting there on a drip and appearing totally fine. We waited for long periods with no visits from doctors and it felt as though it could all be a dream. What were we doing here if everything was as normal as it seemed? Did we have to prepare for an early arrival? Well, it didn't look like it and of course we didn't want to, but the 'what if' question still loomed large and so we alternated between thinking that everything was normal to being terrified that it wasn't.
By the next day we thought we'd better do some preparations, just in case, but where to start? We hadn't even started NCT classes, we'd only just signed up for them. We hadn't met a midwife to talk over birth plans. And most important of all, we hadn't yet really thought about the reality of baby, we'd only got to grips with the reality of the pregnancy. So I tried a couple of books, spoke to Lucy’s friends who had had babies and turned to ThinkBaby to find out what hospital bag and baby basics we needed. I went out that afternoon and bought a load of stuff, all the time thinking "This is stupid – we probably won’t need this". We didn’t have anything for the baby at home yet – baby chair, pram, crib etc. So I looked at lists and worried about that for a while before realising that it was all irrelevant, as if the baby did arrive, we wouldn't be leaving the hospital for months.
By the end of Thursday Lucy had been off the drip since the previous night, was utterly bored and just wanted to be back home. We were sure it had all gone away and I was talking about going back in to work, but when I rang the next morning she told me that the contractions had come back in the middle of the night. They were spaced a long way apart but she thought we were having a baby.
The doctors said “probably, but it wouldn’t be today”. I drove straight to the hospital, in a blind panic, again. The doctors then announced that they didn’t have an incubator for us at the hospital and that we would be transferring, but they didn’t know to where and would need to ring around to “try and find space somewhere”. Talk about unsettling. I spent the next 4 hours going out to see them every 20 or 30 minutes to find out if there was any news. While we didn't want to annoy the nurses we also wanted answers, and fast. Finally we learned that we were going to St Helier, which wasn't on the list they'd given us of good / big units, while our own hospital, Kingston, was supposed to be one of the best in the country. We were furious. As it turned out, although small, St. Helier really couldn't have been better for us and Finn received fantastic care there, but we couldn't know that at the time and it all added to our anxiety.
On the mad ambulance dash across town to St. Helier Lucy went from one centimetre dilated to four, and our son Finn was born just thirty minutes after we arrived. On the advice of a friend I'd been out and bought a bunch of stuff to distract Lucy during labour, but she rejected them all until I got the name book out, that worked a treat as we'd hardly thought about a name. Once things were really underway it all happened very fast and the most difficult, final stage only lasted 20 minutes. Having seen no videos and not having been prepared for being at the birth I found it all pretty traumatic.
|Jeremy feeding Finn: Click the photo for a bigger pic
We got twenty seconds holding Finn after the birth once they’d given the immediate help to get him breathing. That twenty seconds was utterly amazing. I remember it clear as day. He was tiny, absolutely tiny, but he was screaming his head off (it must have been very quiet in retrospect I’m sure), and I remember thinking that was amazing. Such lucky, lucky news. That crying was all I wanted to hear. Then he was straight into the incubator and off to intensive care.
After about five minutes someone brought us a card with a photo of Finn and a report that he was doing fine. I was told that I could go and see him after half an hour, but Lucy had to wait four hours, which must have been very difficult. The period after birth was rather surreal as we were basically dropped like a hot potato as the whirl of care went off with Finn. We were brought tea and toast and then left to sort ourselves out and get cleaned up. After the intensity of the last three days that felt quite strange.
If I have a word of advice in retrospect for other potential premmie parents, it's to see if you can visit the neo-natal unit more than once. They told us we were more than welcome to come again after our first visit, though as things turned out there was no time on the Friday. Definitely talk to friends who’ve been through the whole birth experience, particularly if you haven't yet started your antenatal classes: You’re trying to cram the whole preparation video watching, birth process education into a couple of days, without the help of NCT courses / books etc. all the while feeling quite reluctant, as you hope it won’t actually happen.
Most of all, try and hold onto the idea that while it may be far from easy, it will probably all turn out ok. Finn's first eventful months in the world are a whole separate story, but nearly two years on we have a fantastic son who misbehaves, plays football and climbs around all over the place, just like any other toddler his age. There’s still not really a day when we don’t think of him in context of his premature birth, but in the end our story has been a happy one.
|Finn doing well