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‘Is she breathing? Is she breathing??!’ What it’s like to have a premature baby

Daniel Campbell’s daughter was born 11 weeks premature. Here he shares the experience and tells how you can support other parents whose children arrive early.

It was May. Our baby was due in August and we were looking forward to starting antenatal classes the following week. Our very first baby, an exciting time.

We were having a party at our house to celebrate my birthday when my partner Joy started having some weird cramps. At the time we thought it was Braxton Hicks — ‘practice contractions’ that can start in mid to late pregnancy. It had been a difficult pregnancy for Joy, constant vomiting and complications requiring multiple scans and a biopsy, just in case it was a miscarriage or, you know, cancer. So some irregular contractions seemed like just another thing for us to have to deal with.

The next afternoon I was still recovering from the night before, so it was news to me that we were going into the Hutt hospital to meet the midwife for a check-up. After Joy had been poked and prodded by several, increasingly focused people, we were told that she was 7 centimetres dilated. In the hustle and bustle we had to ask what that meant. “Oh has no one told you, you’re definitely having the baby today”.

At eleven weeks early the birthing room is like a pit lane. At one point we counted ten medical staff in the room. Two specialists set up a station across from the bed with heat lamps and a slew of gadgets ready to resuscitate our baby. As a first time parent the whole process was foreign; I didn’t know anything about normal birth, let alone premature birth.

Despite all the activity, having a baby mostly involves waiting around, with long minutes between contractions. There’s not much to do as a dad, but I think some of my wisecracks went down okay. Between contractions I was ducking out to have quiet hallway conversations with the specialist (because there’s some things you don’t want to talk about in front of a mother giving birth). What are my daughter’s chances of survival? Are there circumstances where it would be best not to resuscitate her?

When the baby finally arrives it’s over so quickly. She’s whisked under the heat lamps and thankfully takes a first breath. Wrapped in plastic she’s flashed in front of mum, but she’s blue. “Is she breathing, is she breathing? Is she breathing??!” “She will.” Then she’s rushed down the hall to baby intensive care. We’re suddenly alone in an empty room. It’s all a bit surreal. I’d expected to get over my hangover on the couch rather than in the maternity ward.

Daniel’s daughter in the neonatal unit

Our daughter was taken in an ambulance into Wellington hospital without us. Joy followed a few hours later when another one became available. Being separated from our newborn just felt so wrong. I collected supplies from home and drove in. Joy was set up in a different ward, down the building from our baby. She was shattered. Physically and emotionally exhausted. I remember that first time walking down the long empty hallway between wards, with Joy only able to shuffle along, tears streaming down her face.

Those first few days were a bit of a nightmare. The shock from the sudden separation is intense; Joy was exhausted but couldn’t sleep in the busy ward. Expressing milk is a mission to get going, but it felt like something concrete we could do for our baby. While the ward bustled on, I sat behind a curtain on the bed collecting the first drops of colostrum beading out of Joy with a tiny syringe.

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is another world. Everyone was calm and quiet, talking to us in gentle tones, but it seemed like every few minutes monitoring machines were blaring alarms. Our unbelievably small baby was under a thicket of sensors and intravenous lines, inside a plastic box.

Daniel holds his daughter

We were lucky to avoid serious complications, but it seemed like there were any number of unknown disasters that could have happened at any moment; infection, brain bleed, heart murmur, jaundice. We’ve got no idea what might happen tomorrow, or what the consequences might be. I’m sure everything was clearly explained, but nothing really went in.

There are people who stand out in my memory. The kind and calm midwife in the birthing room with a dry sense of humour, who played along with my wisecracking approach to handling stress. The bubbly specialist who was about to take my newborn away from us, who gave me a glimpse of optimism “I’ve called ahead to tell them we’ve got a good one coming in”.

Our first NICU doctor had such a calm sense about him, even as he explained the latest invasive treatment our baby had undergone during the night.

“So we ran a long IV line in from a vein in her thigh up into her heart.”

“Oh, this is standard practice?” I asked.

“Yes. And by the way, would you like us to give her vitamin supplements, we need parental agreement for that.”

When I saw him weeks later there didn’t seem to be adequate words for the gratitude I felt.

Daniel’s partner Joy and their daughter

Having a newborn is exciting, exhausting, overwhelming, delightful, warm and humbling. Holding my daughter for the first time, almost a week in, was magical, the best feeling in the world. I felt at peace, so in love.

Being the proud new parent of a premature baby in hospital was an odd experience. I went back to work, because there’s not much point in watching a baby sleep in an incubator all day. Most of the day I’d feel tired, even though I’d had a decent night’s sleep, and tense for no good reason. It was like I needed both a coffee and a whiskey.

After bluffing my way through the day, I’d eventually make it to the hospital, and wash my hands with soap and water, and then again with disinfectant. Then I’d get to the incubator and there she was, my daughter, just chilling, like I left her. I would want to hold her, but I’d have to wait for the nurse to do all this other stuff for other people’s babies and all the machines were beeping and it would seem to take forever.

When I finally get to cuddle her, I would lay back in the chair with this tiny baby on my chest and practically fall asleep. I’d realise that I’d been clenching my jaw and shoulders all day. Maybe it was subconscious worry or something, but being there with her just felt so right. I’d drive home buoyant, but drained, to make a tired dinner, and then struggle to wind down enough in time for bed. This was our “normal” for weeks on end.

At the time, the support from The Neonatal Trust was so seamless it was almost invisible. It’s not until later that I learnt that the amazing lazyboys I’d been kangaroo cuddling my daughter on were provided by the Trust. When you’re helping your partner to set up a pump to express breast milk, the privacy screens are just part of the furniture.

The Trust shop at the ward was brilliant for smoothing the little and big things that add up when you’re overwhelmed. Loans of expressing pumps, tips and tricks, gold coins to operate the free lockers on the ward when you weren’t carrying any cash. The staff were perfect, calm and warm, but not overbearing.

Daniel and his daughter.

Two years on our daughter is happy, healthy and on track to catch up with her peers in due course. She’s a bit behind on walking and her vision is affected, but she is chatting away and is really coordinated with her hands.

Looking back, the support from both the professionals and The Neonatal Trust staff was amazing. We’re incredibly grateful to the calm, knowledgeable people who worked around the clock to save and grow our amazing daughter, and to those who supported us to cope with the unexpected challenge.

If you’re not sure how best to help, you can’t really go wrong with anything thoughtful. We found practical support awesome: meals, cleaning, errands. We didn’t have a lot of energy to connect with people or respond to well-wishers, but we did really appreciate the good wishes of our friends and family.

This story first appeared at the One Percent Collective in support of donations to the Neonatal Trust. You can donate to the Neonatal Trust here.

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