Finding the words to start this blog post aren’t coming easily. I’ve stared at a blank screen for at least 5 minutes (quite unlike me). Before I start I should probably put out a bit of a disclaimer to manage your expectations. This isn’t your typical heart-warming, oxytocin-filled birth story. It is a story of trauma, fear and heart-break in its rawest form. It might not be the nicest thing to read if you’re pregnant and if you want to click away I won’t be offended. I’ve been in two minds about whether to even write this up, but I have decided to do so because it might just help other women who have also experienced PPROMS (preterm premature rupture of the membranes). I’m also writing it in the hope that it might just help me to process what happened during my premature labour and the weeks that followed. Here goes.
It all started when I was 25 weeks and 2 days pregnant. I woke up that day without a clue that my life was about to be turned upside down. I was in York and walking to my parents house when I felt a dampness. I continued to walk and felt some liquid run down my leg. I thought it was strange, but I didn’t immediately panic. My Dad is a GP, so I decided to mention it to him. It wasn’t until I saw the concern on his face that I realised that something quite significant was happening. ‘We better take you to A&E right now’, he said. I still felt like it was a bit uncalled for, but went along with the mindset that I was just going to ‘get checked out’.
We decided to bypass A&E and just turned up to York Hospital’s labour ward. I was seen straight away by a midwife, but she didn’t show much concern either. As I waited, I realised the dampness had turned into a flow whenever I was standing up. ‘Better keep sitting’, I thought. After a few hours wait and an examination, the midwife confirmed that my worst nightmare was about to begin. ‘Ok Jess, I can confirm your waters have broken. But don’t panic’. At that point, everything came crashing down on me. This wasn’t supposed to be happening yet. It felt surreal, like a bad dream I was about to wake up from. Except it wasn’t a dream.
I was admitted as an in patient and stayed in hospital overnight at York. From that point, the flow of water coming out got heavy. I spent the whole night going to the toilet every hour trying to change the thick pads I was soaking through. The more amniotic fluid I lost the scarier it became. I felt like my baby’s lifeline was draining out of me. How could he survive without any water? I could physically feel my bump getting smaller and smaller as the night went on and when I woke up I felt as if I had no bump at all. That was one of the worst bits. Was there even a baby in there any more? The midwifes kept checking for Theo’s heart beat which remained strong. This was reassuring, but I couldn’t feel him kick anymore. It felt like I had lost my pregnancy overnight.
At this point I had no contractions at all, but it was confirmed I had PPROMS. In short, I had a small hole in my amniotic sack which had caused the leak. There is no explanation to what caused it, even to this day. Until then my pregnancy had gone very smoothly and I was classified as ‘low risk’. I spoke to an optimistic Consultant at York who explained that some women can loose their waters but continue to carry their baby for a good few more weeks, and some can even reach 37 weeks. Babies don’t need amniotic fluid to survive, they just need a working placenta. He explained there was even a chance that the hole could ‘re-stick’ itself back together. He also explained that unfortunately myself and my baby were now at a high risk of infection, and if this was suspected the baby would need to be delivered immediately. I was told that from this point, every extra day I could keep Theo in would be of huge benefit to him.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I now count my lucky stars that I didn’t immediately go into labour. There were 5 days between my waters breaking and Theo being born. During these 5 days I was given every treatment possible to try and prepare Theo’s body for the outside world. These included steroids to help mature his lungs for breathing and two rounds of Magnesium Sulphate given by IV drip. This was for his brain development. I had an awful reaction to the drip. It made me hot, clammy and I was sick multiple times, but if I didn’t have it Theo would have been born in a much worse position. I am so grateful for these 5 days as they hugely contributed towards Theo’s survival. Other women who get PPROMS aren’t so lucky and deliver straight away. Others are far luckier and manage to hold on for weeks.
The morning after I was admitted I was transferred to Bradford Women’s Hospital by ambulance. My mum came with me in the ambulance and Scott followed by car. I had to be moved because York hospital’s Special Care Baby Unit was not equipped to care for babies as early as Theo (if he decided to come). I was booked to have Theo in Leeds, but the Neonatal unit was completely full, so the next best option was Bradford. My strange and alien experience became even more alien in a brand new city of no familiarity.
The days that followed felt like a strange limbo. I was on a ward full of women, who had just had their babies. I was surrounded by mums wheeling their healthy babies around the corridors in their cots. I saw women with huge overdue bellies who were going to be induced. And then there was me. Still pregnant, but feeling like I had no bump left. I felt like I could no longer keep my baby safely inside me, but the outside world seemed a far worse, scarier place for him. Luckily I had my own room so Scott was able to stay with me all day and all night. At night we could hear the hearty cries of newborns in the rooms next door. Hearing those cries felt like torture as I knew it was the sign of a strong and healthy baby, exactly what our baby wasn’t going to be. I really don’t think the post-labour ward is the right place to be for the Mum who is potentially about to go into premature labour. Seeing all the other babies and bumps brought an additional sting to the situation which made it even harder.
During this time I was offered the chance to go and look around the Neonatal unit, so it was less of a shock for me if Theo arrived. I declined the offer, probably as I knew how much more real and scary it would make the situation. I was also given a very serious talk with the top Neonatal consultant, discussing ‘viability’ and many possible complications of a baby born at 25 weeks. I felt my heart break into tiny pieces during this conversation, realising that my baby may not even make it to the Neonatal unit, let alone home. My fear of the unknown was indescribable and suddenly it all began to feel a bit more real.
3 days in I began to have very infrequent, mild contractions. I was still hopeful that I could be one of those women who get sent home and keep the baby in for weeks more, but when the contractions started, deep down in my heart I knew he was coming. Low and behold, the contractions began to slowly ramp up the pain scale and I was coping by just breathing deeply and taking codeine to manage the pain, but I felt so unprepared. I was supposed to do anti-natal classes. I had bought a book on hypno-birthing. Suddenly I was thrust into a labour I didn’t think would be happening for another 15 weeks, and I had no idea what I was doing.
After an examination, the midwife confirmed that I had begun to dilate so I was quickly rushed down to the labour ward. I was given a last minute ultra-sound to check the position of the baby, and his head was engaged. This meant that I could try for a natural birth. I was told that a natural birth was the safest option for a premature baby, but only if it happens quickly. I was warned that if there was any complications I would be rushed immediately for a C-Section. Going through birth is incredibly traumatic for a premature baby which can cause bleeds to the brain, so they need to get them out as soon as possible.
My moderate contractions continued all through the night. The advice was to ‘try and sleep’ but the midwife kept bringing me more codeine for the pain. The painkiller made me incredibly drowsy and so I managed to doze in and out of sleep as the pain ramped up to the next level. By about 6am the contractions had reached yet another level, the strongest yet, so I pressed the emergency buzzer for the midwife. ‘He’s coming!’ I shouted. At this point I was in so much pain that I just wanted to get him out. I knew there was no going back. I had dilated overnight and when the midwife came in and checked she confirmed I had fully dilated. She handed me the gas and air. It was time to push.
My memory of the labour is blurred and hazy, but somewhere between being given the gas and air and doing the first few pushes, I realised the room had filled full of people. There were about 10 people in the room in total, including a whole team of consultants, doctors and nurses from the Neonatal unit, poised and ready to stabilise Theo. They had been on standby for the birth ever since I arrived in Bradford. I remember seeing a portable incubator by my bedside, with the heat lamp switched on and a tiny knitted hat to keep Theo warm.
After over 48 hours of contractions and around 45 minutes of pushing, Theo was delivered naturally at 07.18am on 30th October 2018. He weighed 1lb 12oz. I used codine and gas and air for pain relief. No epidural or anything more. Scott stayed by my side the whole time, holding my hand and feeding me water through a straw between pushes (the gas and air makes your mouth incredibly dry). I can only imagine how scared he also must have been at the time, but at that moment he was everything I needed him to be.
As soon as Theo was born, he was whisked away by the Neonatal team. When he was born he didn’t make a sound. There was no reassuring cry that every mother hopes to hear. I didn’t get to touch him, or even see him come out of me. I didn’t even know if he was alive. I later found out that nobody confirmed this to me because he wasn’t breathing at the time. I didn’t see him when he came out, but Scott told me he was blue so part of me is glad that I never saw. This is the part of the birth that has deeply affected me, and left me with trauma. I vaguely remember the midwife telling me to look over at Theo before he was wheeled away by the Neonatal team, but I remember feeling too scared to look. I glanced over and saw the tiny hat for a split second, and looked away again. At that moment I was completely broken.
Scott was encouraged by the midwives to follow the Neonatal staff and stay with Theo as he was stabilised in the Neonatal unit. At this point they suspected that I had an infection due to a temperature, so they started me on IV antibiotics and gave me an injection to get my placenta out. I don’t remember having to push it out, it just came out. I didn’t see the placenta either. I think the midwife just wanted to get everything over as soon as possible for me. Because of all this, I feel quite disconnected from the birth. I look back on it like it was a strange, hazy nightmare, rather than a memory from real life. All my life I’ve dreamed of the incredible moment my baby would be placed on my chest after birth, when in fact I didn’t get to hold him ’til 9 days later. Upon reflection, this is the reason I have been so affected.
About 4 hours after giving birth, the midwife came in and told me that Theo was stable and that we could go and see him in the Neonatal unit. I felt a surge of relief and fear run through me at the same time. I was so terrified to see my boy, to see how tiny he was.
Although my memory of the actual birth was hazy, seeing Theo for the first time is a moment that will stay with me vividly for the rest of my life. I was pushed through to the Neonatal unit in a wheelchair and we stopped beside his incubator. This was my first time in a NICU (Neonatal intensive care unit). I felt very intimidated and daunted by the environment, full of busy medical staff, beeping machines and incubators. I took a deep breath and stood up to see Theo for the first time. I looked at him from behind condensation-covered plastic and tears of sadness rolled down my face. He was covered in wires and tubes, none of which I understood at the time. My brain couldn’t compute that this was MY baby. The tiny baby I had been carrying round safely inside me for nearly 6 months. Looking at him, he could have been anyones baby. He was so fragile and I could see all of his ribs as his tiny chest rose and fell with breaths from the ventilator. But although he was miniature, he was perfectly formed. 10 tiny fingers and 10 tiny toes. Scott put his arms around me and I just cried into his chest for a few minutes.
After 10 minutes or so the nurse encouraged me to put my hands through the small incubator portholes to touch him. I felt terrified to touch him in fear that I might hurt him. But I removed my rings, washed my hands meticulously and slowly reached inside to put my finger in the palm of his tiny hand. At that moment, I had no idea what the future held for us, but at that moment, the world stood still.
This moment marked the start of our Neonatal journey with Theo. It took 109 days, 17 weeks, 5 hospitals, 4 ambulance rides and 3 operations to bring Theo home. He was officially discharged 16th February 2019. My premature birth and the Neonatal journey has affected me in the form of post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, but I am pleased to say I am working with an amazing therapist who has already made a hugely positive impact.
No two birth stories are the same. Every one is unique and whilst mine goes against every convention and maternal instinct you can think of, I made it through and our family is so much stronger as a result. Theo is now 13 weeks corrected and thriving. Against all the odds, we finally got our happy ending.
Thank you to every single midwife, consultant, surgeon, doctor, nurse and health care assistant who has been involved with Theo’s care. My gratitude is endless and he wouldn’t be here without you.
If you’re struggling to process aspects of your own birth, don’t suffer in silence. Help is available and don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for it. Speak to your health visitor or GP about accessing your local mental health service x