As told by a very brave ex NICU mum

On the 28th March 2019, my husband and I went to our routine check up with my obstetrician which we had to have as I have pre existing health issues which could cause complications throughout pregnancy. For a few weeks now been experiencing a lot of discomfort and pain due to the pregnancy.

My husband and I were on our way to a wedding after the check up, however, after explaining all my symptoms I was given and internal exam to find that my cervix was softening. We were then told to go to the hospital asap for a steroid injection to help our sons lungs develop incase of a preterm delivery as we were only 30ish weeks.

Both my husband and I were in a state of shock and unknown as to what to expect and what was actually happening. We went home as advised too pack a bag and head to hospital for the injection. At this time the hospital maternity ward was full, so we were able to have the injection and return at the same time the next day for a second injection.

Relieved I was not having to stay in hospital but still in shock, we arrived home for the evening and in less than 10mins I was standing in a pool, my waters had broke. Both my husband and I froze in panic, and unsure what to do, we knew it was too early for our baby to come, our home was not ready, we were not prepared and it was too early to birth at the hospital closest to us.

Again on the phone we went to our obstetrician who directed us to North Shore hospital to be monitored until they could find us a room at another hospital equipped for premature babies under 32 weeks, an IV line was attempted to be put in but was unsuccessful a few times until eventually the nurse won.

As we waited the pain had kicked in and the panic as we sat patiently waiting to be told the next steps. We were then told our options were to be flown to Wellington or Tauranga at this stage as all the Auckland hospitals were full. We were very lucky to be squeezed into Middlemore hospital in a consult room for the night so that we could stay in Auckland, and for that we are so thankful.

For the next 5 days I stayed on the maternity ward in Middlemore hospital with machines attached to check our baby and myself. However, not once did a machine show any sign of a contraction to say I was in labour, but I was experiencing intense pain and what felt like muscle spasms rippling through me at random times throughout the days and nights, but had not uniformity to it.

I felt very alone and very confused to be told I was clinically fine as I was feeling the polar opposite. I was very upset and cried most nights after my family had left for the day, I just wanted answers of what was happening and the comforts of home.

On the fifth day in hospital my husband and I had our first antenatal class that evening, so he decided he would go and represent us as the nurses weren’t concerned about my symptoms and it was looking likely that they were getting ready to discharge me the next day. That evening the pain surges ramped up, the only thing I could think of to help me breathe through them was the Rugrats movie when the mother Dee Dee went into labour! haha.

So that’s what I did, I gripped my bed on either side an breathed deep and as calmly as I could while tears rolled down my cheeks.  At this point the pain was intense but my body felt like I just needed to go to the bathroom, I had eaten a lot of gluten products over those few days an I knew I shouldn’t have, so I put the toilet “sensation” down to that. This feeling just intensified. I remember being on the phone to my mum and going deathly silent as the pain rippled through me and left me breathless.

The lady next to me in the ward had just had her beautiful baby, so I sat back patiently waiting for the nurse to come by as I knew she needed help with her baby. A few hours later I was seen by the nurse and then the doctor, the whole time (2+hours) I had the machines hooked up, I was told to stay super still, at the point of another intense pain. As they watched me go through it, they felt for my babies head and found it facing down, and I was told that it must just be my pelvis grinding on itself as I had lost my waters five days earlier and they were rebuilding, however they decided to take me to the birthing suite to be checked out.

At this point the shear panic set in, I was so scared and upset as my entire family was over 45 minutes away from me, and not one of them had a clue this was happening. I was so focused at the time to get through the pain that I hadn’t picked up my phone. As I was rolled down to the birthing suite the nurses were great at reassuring me that I wasn’t having a baby, it was just to check me out.

Into the birthing suite we went! I was still so desperate to go to the bathroom I asked again can I please go, the nurses helped me to the bathroom the need to push was insane and apparently the sound I made was too!  The nurse quickly appeared seeming panicked and asked me if I felt the need to push then, to which I said ….yes.

I was quickly placed on the bed and a lovely Doctor whom I wish I knew the name of, came and gave me an internal exam, her faced dropped….my heart rate increased at the sight of it and I asked promptly “what’s wrong” the response… “you are fully dilated and I can feel a hand!” it all happened very quickly after that, my head was spinning, my body had been in labour for nearly 5 days. I had a room full of people all of a sudden, giving me gas, asking me questions on my health, to sign papers for my unborn baby and explaining things I still can not remember and I have never been so anxious and scared for my own health and my babys.

They tried to find my baby on the ultrasound and struggled, his vitals were dropping, they eventually found his head which was horizontal across my body, transverse I believe, he was going into distress. At this point the surgeon came in to assess me, “Category One Caesarean Section, I want her in that room asap” … just what every first time mum wants to hear when she is on her own and scared senseless.

Thankfully the gas and drugs hadn’t stopped me remembering my husbands phone number, as I recapped it to the nurse, she then left in a hurry to call him as the time was ticking and it was unlikely he would make it on time. I was prepped for surgery and remember vividly being wheeled down the corridor the fresh air on my face and the lights whizzing past on the ceiling. Into theatre I went, everyone was lovely an introduced themselves, and all I could think of was is my baby ok?  am I going to be ok? and will anyone be here with me through this? I tried my best to coach myself saying that “you’ve got this Aimee, you can get through this on your own.”

I had my epidural put in, and was being lay down on the bed to start getting my baby out, the most amazing feeling of “it’s all going to be ok” hit as I looked to my left and saw my husbands face walking towards me. Having a C section, was an experience and a half the feeling of tugging and pulling as our baby got stuck was odd to say the least. 30 minutes later at 12.37am 1630grams, our little boy was earth side, I lay so still an holding my breath as what felt like a lifetime went past waiting to hear his little cry to know he was ok. They took our baby to be weighed, wrapped up in what looked like a cling film or sorts and given as much time as he could attached to my placenta to help him and his recovery…. I was stitched up and sent to recovery and I assumed my son was sent to NICU. I don’t remember much of my recovery stage but I’m told that I was taken to see my son once I was in the clear, but I have no memory of this.

The next day was like a nightmare in my mind, I can’t begin to explain the feeling of being pregnant one minute and the next you’re not with no warning, I had no baby with me, no bassinet beside me, no trying to breastfed my newborn, no crying, no skin on skin to bond us together, it was just me, my husband, and the hospital bed. I’ll admit I was in denial I had a baby. I remember being too scared to go and see my son in NICU, I was afraid of what it meant, and I was afraid of what may be. My husband and nurse made me go down that afternoon to see him. I just felt flat and ashamed, I felt like I had failed him, I felt like I had failed me, I felt like I had failed my husband and my family. I felt an overwhelming sense of disbelief, this baby can’t have been mine, he looked so little, and so helpless, and I couldn’t do anything to help him, I felt like he couldn’t of known even who I was, I am not his mum.

You have drilled into you throughout pregnancy and from movies how epic and euphoric those first moments are, how the love you feel so instantly is so overwhelming an nothing can compare to that experience, I didn’t have that, I didn’t get to hold my baby, I didn’t feel connected to my baby. The nurses in NICU were so amazing and they helped me to understand everything that was going on and the machines and equipment that was attached and why etc.. I was happy to sit back and let them care for my baby as I was way too scared to even touch him for fear he would break.  Looking back now, I believe I shut down my feelings. Its a very overwhelming sight seeing your child hooked up to tubes, CPAP, lines in their tummy, the screens flashing numbers, and the beeping that changed with what felt like every movement he made.

At 2 days old the nurse let me hold my son for the first time thanks to some persuading from my mum. I was terrified! It was both a wonderful experience but a confronting experience, as I started internally yelling at myself wondering why I wasn’t feeling what I thought I should, what people told me I should, I wasn’t overcome with joy, I didn’t smile, instead I broke down and tried to hide it. I put up a wall to defend myself then hated myself when there is this little being that needed me, he needed his mum but I wasn’t doing a good job on that front. Each day got harder to deal with, sleeping on the maternity ward hearing all these new babies in the room next door, yet here I sat apparently not pregnant, but with no child next to me, something no one prepares you for. I had to pump every three hours to keep my milk supply flowing for that “one day” that he would be breastfeeding, it was exhausting and mentally draining doing this for a baby I couldn’t hold. It was somewhat rewarding at the same time as it was the only thing I could do for him.

The days went on of sleeping in maternity, then returning to NICU on a morning and staying all day, to just sit and stare and have this little voice in my head with conflicting thoughts. A few times he stopped his breathing as he was too tired, those times were the worst thing to experience no one wants to hear the noise that happens when your baby stops breathing. The nurses were outstanding they would be concerned but also show me that it was ok, he was ok, in their words he just needed a morning coffee (caffeine) to help him not get too tired and some breathing support. Eventually I had to go home from the hospital on an evening, this I was not prepared for. It was the longest 45mins to an hour of my life sitting in a car heading the wrong direction from the hospital, how could I leave him there? The mum guilt was insane, I felt like I was the worst mum and that I was being judged. Every time I came home, I was lost, I was sad, I was so scared that my phone would ring saying something had happened and I wasn’t there or remotely close. My mental state was sinking an I knew it but how could I explain to people that I felt so low when everyone else is over the moon and saying i should be so happy I have the most precious little boy. I hadn’t even felt he was truely mine, I just couldn’t understand my feelings. Don’t get me wrong at times I was so happy an in love, but at times the lines blurred.

Still recovering from my c section I taxied in everyday from my home in Whangaparaoa to Middlemore, I sat for hours a day in that car with different drivers being asked the same painful questions as to “why I’m going to the hospital”, “is that hard”, “will he be ok”, it was like taking a knife in the heart each time, especially in the evenings, but this was my job, to get to my son, and take him his milk, and hear his progress and learn to care for this fragile little boy. As the weeks went on it just became my norm, that was my day; go home as late as I could, and get to the hospital as early as I could. The pain I felt for my surgery, I shoved aside and dealt with “when I had time to.”

I was very lucky that I had so much support from my husband, my family, and what was becoming my second family at the hospital, the NICU nurses through this time. they were my rocks. They helped me each week by pushing me to do a little more for my son, change a nappy, and partake in his cares, I was starting to feel a bit better, a bit, more like a mum ‘should’, but still I had doubts about how I was going to get through it all. I was encouraged every minute of the day to cuddle my son and to have skin on skin, which helped us both. I was given 2 knitted scent hearts to put on my chest and then leave one with my son, and take one with me wherever I am to have something that can connect me to my boy all the time. It is crazy how important this heart became, I couldn’t be without it. As the weeks went on, my confidence grew I was in a routine that I needed to function.

The time came where he was strong enough to move to North Shore hospital and be closer to home. We were ecstatic, but also nervous, we just wanted him to be where he needed to be, and Middlemore was amazing. Eventually we moved him, he coped well with the transfer, and was getting so strong, within a few days we started breastfeeding, at first this was a great feeling then he got weaker and too tired and stopped breathing while feeding, this was a terrifying moment, and made that initial leap to continue a little harder as I felt like the cause but eventually he grew stronger and I started being there longer so that I could feed him. Our little boy was an absolute rockstar, he was packing on the weight and making everyone so proud.

After 6 weeks I had 2 overnight stays with him, I finally found out what it was like to be a mum for 24 hours, in the sense of being there for every cry, every feed, every nappy change, it finally gave me a sense of purpose, and I could finally see a bit more light at the end of the tunnel. The day before Mothers Day 2019, we were able to bring our little man home, this will forever be the best Mothers Day gift I will have. We were so proud and happy, but also fearful, we were now on our own. I know most new parents are thrown into that situation a lot sooner, but I had become reliant on asking nurses what’s right, what’s wrong, how much of this, how much of that etc, now it was on us. We got into our own little rhythm and it was going great, we finally felt like a family, my husband was able to now spend some time with our son too as we had decided for him to stay at work while our baby was in hospital so his paternity leave would allow him time to meet his son.

The feelings of disbelief that I had a baby and that this little being is ours to nurture started to lift. Now 19 months in, from time to time the trauma and the heavy emotions hit and it is an on going battle, but seeing my boy thriving and loving life, I couldn’t be prouder of him and us. I couldn’t love him more. I don’t think anyone can prepare you for a premature baby and the experience that comes with it, the emotions, the questions, and the mental state it can cause. It is defiantly an experience that makes you stronger, and one that is very hard to see through at the time.

***Thank you for sharing your brave, emotional journey Aimee ***

We get a lot of positive feedback from families in a neonatal unit who read these stories and feel strength, hope and positivity knowing that they are not alone going through these experiences and feeling certain emotions.

If you would like to discuss sharing the story of your neonatal journey, we’d love to hear from you. Please email info@neonataltrust.org.nz