Alexa was born at 25 + 2, weighing 588g on February 19th 2014 delivered by emergency C-section due to severe early onset preeclampsia.
I read those phrases so many times; in Alexa’s notes and on whiteboards and I repeated it so often when we were in hospital. It was what defined her and defined me. In writing it now I realise that it no longer matters. No-one asks me that anymore and I rarely think about it. And what a relief that is.
Before she was born
I was diagnosed with early onset preeclampsia when I was almost 24 weeks pregnant. Like many other premature baby stories, it was a routine GP appointment that ended at hospital. My normally unflappable GP looked concerned when she took a urine sample and my blood pressure. Then she called the hospital to say I was on my way and told me to go home and pack my bag. She told me to hurry because I was at risk of a stroke. The next morning the consultants were saying I wouldn’t leave the hospital before the baby was born. I remember thinking ‘but it is February what am I going to do in this bed until June?’ What they meant was that the baby was going to be delivered early.
Eight days later I started violently vomiting every 15 minutes, I had heartburn and I kept going to the loo. My blood pressure soared to 220/I can’t remember the bottom number when someone declared an emergency C-section. Nurses were panicking about cannulas and not being able to find veins. Someone waved a consent form urgently for me to sign. I remember my husband’s gorgeous and somehow calm face in a set of scrubs. I was surprised to hear a radio in the operating room. I fell in love with Amy the anesthetist. And then it was over. My husband saw our daughter. I was wheeled away. I was at risk of a fit and because of this I had to stay in hospital for ten days post-delivery.
A labour ward is hellish when your baby isn’t by your bed. There are happy joyous parents everywhere with healthy full term babies. I was terrified, disorientated and really upset. I remember a kind of solidarity with the other neonatal unit mums, we would acknowledge each other shuffling baby-less from the labour ward to the neonatal unit and back and someone even managed to joke that the bouncing full term babies on the labour ward looked like seven year olds to us.
I wanted to leave the torture of the labour ward. I just wanted to go home. And once I got the all clear I rushed to pack up my room and got ready to go. But we left the maternity ward without a baby in a car seat. Just me, my husband and my suitcase. And it was too sad. I came home not pregnant anymore but there was no baby. We came home dropped my bags and went straight back to the hospital.
The early days
Alexa was tiny and skinny with dark brown skin. She didn’t look like the cuddly chubby babies we are programmed to expect. She looked weak and frail and was surrounded by a lot of unfamiliar equipment. I was shocked and frightened when I first saw her. At the start I was really confused and didn’t recognise her as my baby, I was afraid to touch her and I even panicked when some weeks later it was suggested I hold her. And I felt such a heavy burden of guilt that I had done this to her; my body had failed her. I had let her down already, before we had even started.
The (incredible) neonatal team at UCLH helped me move passed this and many other crazy and difficult thoughts and helped me find a routine. I would spend my intensive care days by her incubator, watching her, talking to her, singing to her, holding the tiny syringes of milk (she had 1 ml every hour), changing her miniature nappies and loving every tiny inch of her.
Alexa’s lungs were not good. We were in intensive care for 10 weeks not including a bounce back from a high dependency ward. She was on every breathing machine on the unit. The team tried to take her off the ventilator five times. With the help of steroids she went from the ventilator to lo-flow and then when the steroids finished she went right back to ventilator.
And in March 2014 she got really sick twice. Both times she was paralysed and sedated on an oscillator. I will never forget how calmly and diligently the consultant led the team on both days, how steadily and respectfully everyone worked to understand what was happening. No-one one raised their voice or lost their temper or apportioned blame. People fetched us stools so we could sit and told us when to eat. I think of both of these days quite often. Primarily with relief, love, joy and gratitude to the team who saved our daughter but I also am still taken aback by how gracefully they managed such impossible pressure, stress and responsibility.
Alexa had Retinopathy of Prematurity and needed laser surgery at Great Ormond Street to prevent blindness.
She got stuck on continuous CPAP for months. There was talk of a tracheostomy. CPAP is really noisy and it blocked her vision, I thought how on earth is she going to develop with this on her face and I was convinced it was going to damage her nose. It didn’t impact her, her development sessions are always a joy and her nose is perfect.
I would love to say that we handled it gracefully, that we were so strong and composed. But my husband and I were both a mess. I cried and cried and cried. It’s a strange twilight/ no-mans land when you have a premature baby: a) you’re supposed to be pregnant but then b) you are on maternity leave but then c) your baby doesn’t live with you. You wait and wait and wait for life to begin. I think I was jealous of women everywhere; pregnant women, women pushing prams, women with children, women going to work.. I went from being a confident and friendly person to a jittery and scared one who second guessed herself and constantly washed her hands.
People in the hospital used to say that mothers of premature babies go through a grieving process. I dismissed this at the time because Alexa was alive I told myself. And then I read Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ about the death of her husband. She quoted Gerard Manly Hopkins:
‘I wake and feel the fell of dark not day’.
That was exactly how I woke up in those early days. It is a type of grief.
We were in hospital for seven and a half months and over this long course of time the shock, disorientation (and grief) of having a premature baby was replaced by the worry and sadness of being the mum of a sick baby. As she got bigger leaving her every evening got harder and harder. Maternal instinct is visceral and separation from your child is intense. Every night I woke up several times panicked soaked in sweat asking my husband where the baby was. Every night he would calmly say the same thing ‘It’s ok love she’s in Nursery 4, ‘XX’ is the nurse we called before bed and she’s fine’. This night-time ritual made me feel crazy.
And it didn’t stop until about a month after she came home.
The Expressing Room
The ‘expressing room’ was three plain blue chairs lined up in front of three blue expressing machines. It had bright florescent lights, no TV or radio and no privacy. And it saved my sanity. I poured my heart out to women in there and they to me. It was a counselling and therapy room where we willed each other on and told each other we could manage it.
The expressing itself was awful and amazing. A whole world of strangers talk about your ‘milk production’; nurses, consultants, feeding experts, they all talk about it to you, to your husband and to each other. You get over the embarrassment of it pretty quickly. There is not enough milk. Can you make more milk? She has no milk. She has so much milk. And if the milk is pouring out of you it’s a lovely way to focus and feel useful. But if it’s not then the whole thing becomes a very unique type of torture. Every 2-3 hours you hunch over the hideous expressing machine with an empty bottle not filling up. And the babies so desperately need mum’s milk to survive and fight on. There were a lot of tears. I ate everything anyone mentioned might help. I think I drank over 4 litres of water one day (this hurts your bladder A LOT). One Caribbean mum gave me a potion made in homes in Ghana that she got in Brixton and we cooked it up in our Hampstead kitchen. Eventually after 6 weeks of this, I got a prescription – and low and behold ‘mum’s milk’ came pouring out. We filled up our freezer for her.
Through it all the solidarity and strength of the mums in the expressing room kept me going. The support and the laughs. If I listed the jokes they wouldn’t be funny but there were tears of laughter on some days. And other days there were big wet tears of sadness and fear and frustration.
Family life on a neonatal unit
We were in hospital so long we had a lot of the usual baby ‘firsts’ with the neonatal team; a bath, sitting in a bouncer, tummy time, tasting puree, a walk with Alexa in a pram. It could have been awkward or strange but the Neonatal team made these moments fun and full of hope that we were able to do them.
I would spend hours with her sleeping on my chest. We read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’. We sang country songs (the poor nurses..). The hospital play specialist would come and see Alexa and me on Friday afternoons. To quote her, she would help me ‘bring the world to Alexa’. I loved our chats. Amidst the worry and heaviness of having a child in a high dependency unit, she reminded me of the joy of being a parent whose job it is to explain and explore the world with my daughter.
Nurses, consultants and registrars all became an extension of our little family of three. There was so much love in that ward, my heart still stops a bit when I think of it.
Leaving the Neonatal unit
While we were in hospital I developed an unhinged relationship with a pamphlet called ‘the pathway to home’. We never seemed to have it nor were people even mentioning it and the hallways of the hospital seemed lined with smiling parents reading it. We had been in hospital for six months when it arrived at Alexa’s cot. And then suddenly we were planning for home, what we needed to do, what the hospital needed to do, who was involved, how to get ready. We had a discharge planning meeting with about 14 people giving input. Oxygen was installed in our flat (what?!) and friends sent me baby lists.
We finally left UCLH on a Friday night with our baby (and her oxygen tank) in a car seat. We had made the same journey twice a day for seven and half months to visit her and now she was making the journey with us. The cab driver went via Camden. I remember looking from gorgeous little Alexa and her oxygen tank to the Camden Friday night partyers and being jolted by the juxtaposition of it. I wanted to stick my head out of the cab and shout ‘Have Champagne!!! We’ve been in hospital for SEVEN AND A HALF MONTHS AND WE ARE FINALLY GOING HOME!!!
Early days at home
Champagne on the streets of Camden or no, we were not prepared for what it was like to bring Alexa home. We had become completely institutionalised and used to having a team of nurses and consultants around to help us and answer our questions and concerns. Alexa came home on a feeding tube, on oxygen, and I don’t know how many permutations of her medicine schedule we tried in order to line everything up correctly so that we gave the right gaps for the right medication and had some time for both of us to lie down. The seriousness and responsibility of it was terrifying. Her reflux meant that within 20 minutes of being home she vomited all over our cream carpet in the lounge. (I still smile fondly at that stain).
The winter was hard. We had to be really careful to avoid coughs and colds. And you can’t go to ‘Mini Mozart’ with an oxygen tank. It was lonely. And like any other working woman who has a baby I found it strange being at home a lot. But she was IN OUR FLAT! The joy of having her cot at the bottom of our bed and waking up with her in our room never got tired. And life got easier. The feeding tube came out quite quickly. The medicine reduced and then stopped. Home oxygen can be annoying and things take longer but it is manageable and before I knew it I was slipping the O2 tank onto my back and off to the park answering (with a pained smile..) for the millionth time the nosiness of a stranger who wants to know what happened to the baby.
And then they weaned the oxygen. The first time we took her off for 30 minutes; my husband starting skipping round the flat from room to room with her laughing and shouting ‘look at this, look at this’. It was so easy to move her without the wires and the portable tanks. And we saw those gorgeous little cheeks and face tube free! It was a slow slow wean and when she caught an inevitable bad cold (twice) we went to A&E and back to full time oxygen. But in May 2015 after a sleep study, she came off oxygen completely.
Alexa is now a happy, chubby, curious, joyous toddler. And so we are a happy joyous family of three. Our life is happy and it is healthy. We do normal things. We go to the playground, she plays with her friends and she sings and dances at bilingual beats on Wednesday afternoons. I have even returned to work.
And every now and then when I see Alexa doing something ordinary and every day my heart bursts with relief and happiness at the normalness of it and the recognition that the pain and worry of our start is behind us. I look at her and I realise that we made it, the three of us, we have everything and we are happier than I ever thought we could be.
With the support of her local MP Tulip Siddiq, Lauren is working to change the current UK legislation to make maternity leave longer for mothers of premature babies.
SIGN NOW! If you would like to support the campaign to give mothers more time with their premature babies, please SIGN the Smallest Things petition calling upon the Government to “Extend Maternity Leave for Mothers of Premature Babies”