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Our baby was born at 34 weeks with complications

Here is Sarah Petty’s story:

Last week we celebrated our son Thomas’s first birthday. It was a year ago that my husband and I went through some of the most difficult but most rewarding weeks of our lives. This time last year, our baby was born at 34 weeks with some complications at birth and we were suddenly thrown into a world of perplexing medical terms, long days and nights at hospitals and having to find strength we never knew we had.

It was Friday night, two weeks before I was to begin my parental leave and six weeks before my due date. At 6pm I was experiencing some light cramps and bleeding. By 8pm, the cramps had become more intense and the bleeding hadn’t stopped. I called the hospital and was told to come in for observation. We jumped into the car without any bags, expecting to be coming home later.

We arrived at Epworth Freemasons Hospital in Melbourne and I was sent through to the birthing suite where the midwife attached the foetal monitoring and assured me that the baby’s heartbeat was normal. Since my obstetrician was on planned holidays (and not expecting my birth to be this early), I was told that another doctor would examine me. When she arrived, I was 4cm dilated and the baby would be arriving that night! I had no bags for my baby or myself but strangely enough I didn’t care, I was excited to meet him!

The labour progressed normally, the baby’s heart continued to beat steadily and the contractions slowly intensified. I felt surprisingly calm throughout. Sometime later, the obstetrician and midwife told me it was time to push and they both guided me through a textbook delivery. At 2.19am on Saturday 21st September, our baby boy was born, weighing 2.1kg. We named him Thomas.

The obstetrician placed him gently on my chest and I remember seeing the matted hair on top of his tiny head. But his skin was a purple colour and he didn’t make a sound. A few seconds later, the paediatrician swiftly picked him up to start his breathing. I remember sitting on the bed in stillness, my husband standing beside me holding my hand while we waited with nervous anticipation for the baby’s first cry. But it never came.

The next hour was a blur. Thomas was on the table in the corner of the room being tended to by the doctors. More and more medical staff were entering the room, each of them avoiding eye contact with us. The midwife continued to reassure me that the baby was in the best care. We were eventually updated on his progress by the paediatrician.

On delivery, Thomas was in respiratory distress and his heart rate was dropping rapidly. His APGAR score out of 10 was 2 at 1 min and 4 at 5 mins. He required several rounds of resuscitation, adrenaline, morphine, ventilation and then intubation. We were told that the lack of oxygen may have impacted his brain function but it was too early to tell. He needed to be transferred immediately to a hospital with a NICU.

We were told that Thomas was to be transferred to the NICU at The Royal Women’s Hospital by PIPER (Paediatric Infant Perinatal Emergency Retrieval). Before leaving, the PIPER team brought him past my room. He looked so tiny and fragile in the huge PIPER transfer crib. The breathing tube was inserted into his throat, he was attached to a drip and numerous wires were stuck to his body. I reached in through the incubator door and held his tiny little hand for the first time. I tried so hard to take a mental photograph of his little face as I didn’t know how long it would be before I would see him again. Then he left with the PIPER team and my husband left to travel with him. I was suddenly all alone.

I was exhausted, confused and in shock. I had to wait until the epidural wore off before I could leave the hospital. Twelve hours after the birth I was given the ok to leave and travel to The Royal Women’s to see Thomas.

I remember walking through the doors of the NICU for the first time and seeing my tiny baby inside the incubator, hidden between all the tubes and wires. He had a cannula attached to his tiny hand, a feeding tube in his nose and needles inserted into his head to observe his brain activity. He was connected to the unit monitoring his heart rate and oxygen levels. The nurses opened the crib doors and even though I couldn’t hold him, I put my arm around his tiny motionless body and held my face close to his. The moment was overwhelming, beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time.

He was starting to breathe on his own within the first 24 hours but was still having apnoea episodes. The nurses were calm and supportive but it was terrifying seeing my helpless little baby continually stop breathing and laying in his crib lifeless until a nurse helped him along.

On Day 2, we finally heard him cry. His faint, high-pitched squeak was like music to our ears. His little lungs were starting to work! I finally got my first cuddle with Thomas. It took three nurses and some clever manoeuvring around the wires and tubes but I was finally able to have skin-to-skin contact with my baby. I held him for nearly two hours, listening to his soft breathing.

We became accustomed to walking the hospital corridors, the sound of the monitors beeping and the smell of sanitiser. We learned to change a nappy through the doors of the incubator whilst delicately moving the wires and tubes out of the way. We listened to conversations during doctors’ rounds discussing the medical history of our baby which never became any easier to digest. And I learned to pump milk every 2-3 hours, setting my alarm through the day and night, trying my hardest to give my baby the best possible recovery.

It was heartbreaking to watch Thomas endure so much as a tiny baby. His skin had a constant yellow tinge from the prolonged jaundice and he had several rounds of phototherapy. His tiny heels were heavily bruised from countless blood tests. He screamed and shook with fear during ultrasounds and a catheter insertion. He struggled to keep his milk down and tired himself out after a few minutes of trying to suck feed. There were so many unknowns, tests with inconclusive results and potential long term effects from the lack of oxygen at birth. For some time it felt like an endless cycle of one step forward, two steps back.

Finally, after 31 days in NICU and Special Care our baby was well enough and strong enough to come home. He was 2.4kg at the time of discharge and able to feed on his own between breastfeeding and bottle feeding.

I never imagined being the parent of a premature baby in the NICU and sometimes I felt robbed of the new parent experiences. Hearing the baby’s first cry in the delivery room, holding him on my chest in those precious first moments after birth, the excitement of bringing him home with me from hospital, waking in the night to nurse him and hold him. I did get some of these experiences eventually, but not in the way that I’d thought.

I never imagined being the parent of a premature baby in the NICU and sometimes I felt robbed of the new parent experiences. Hearing the baby’s first cry in the delivery room, holding him on my chest in those precious first moments after birth, the excitement of bringing him home with me from hospital, waking in the night to nurse him and hold him. I did get some of these experiences eventually, but not in the way that I’d thought.

I’m so grateful to the nurses in the NICU and Special Care Nursery who were so kind, caring and competent. I can’t thank them enough for taking care of Thomas but for also being my emotional support every day. I’m grateful to other parents of NICU babies that we passed in the hospital corridors each day. We all had the same look of worry and exhaustion but we smiled at each other, shared our experiences and celebrated each other’s small wins. I’m grateful to organisations like Life’s Little Treasures, who provided care packs, information and support groups. These little things were so helpful during a very stressful time.

I’m grateful to my family. My husband for the strength and love he showed to Thomas and me. My husband’s parents who came straight to the NICU to be with him and Thomas. My sister in law who came to the hospital to wait with me so I wasn’t alone. My own parents who came straight from the airport to the hospital after arriving home from their overseas trip. My sister who was the first person I called for support after giving birth.

And most of all I’m grateful for Thomas, the tiny fragile baby who has grown into a happy, cheeky, loving little boy. Thomas, we think you are perfect in every way and we love you more than you will ever know.


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Have you found comfort in reading other parents’ stories? We get lots of grateful feedback on how reading these personal stories help new parents to cope with their own experience. Every family has a unique and important story to share. Share your journey and celebrate your story below.


Rebecca Strahan

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