“It was as though someone had punched his tiny chest in. A gaping hollow, the size of a man’s hand, sucked back to his spine every time he tried to draw breath. Then, there was the sound. A death rattle. He was just 34 hours old”.
Taj Jack Thompson was born at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital on the 6th of December 2004. His arrival was heralded by a massive bleed, due to a pregnancy complication which had left me bedridden for the previous two months. The obstetrician had warned me about the dangers of Complete Placenta Praevia. But he thought a flight from Sydney to Melbourne at 25 weeks gestation would be safe enough.
I almost fainted when I began bleeding four days into the trip. Of course, I blamed myself. It was all that walking, shopping along Chapel Street! How could I do this to my unborn child! The situation worsened when I arrived at the Royal Women’s Hospital. The Head of Obstetrics calmly told me that, if I didn’t stop bleeding within days, I would be staying in Melbourne to have the baby. Early. Very early. My husband began making contingency plans to move our lives interstate indefinitely.
Thankfully, due in part to the wonderful care at the Royal Women’s, the bleeding abated. I hopped on a plane back to Sydney, only to begin bleeding again. Thus, the advice to stay flat on my back.
On the 6th of December, after several hospital stays and some gentle early contractions, I experienced “the big one”. Rushing to hospital, I knew today was the day. Actually, I was thrilled bubby managed to stay put for 36 weeks.
Due to the placenta praevia, the obstetrician decided to do an elective caesarian. He mentioned in passing that this condition was the main reason women died in childbirth, prior to the advent of C-sections!
As any mother can testify, childbirth is an extraordinary experience. I looked at my son’s face and realised that I would walk over cut glass for him. It’s a love beyond mere words. He was four weeks premature and weighed only 2.2 kilograms (just under 5 pounds). But he was alive!
My husband, Jason, and I relaxed, thinking the worst was over. Surrounded by beautiful flowers and cards from friends and family, I was woken at midnight by a nurse with the news that Taj was having trouble breathing. I hobbled down to the Special Care Nursery, where my tiny son, encased in a humidicrib, struggled for life. The midwife said he was in respiratory distress suffering two lung complications, including hyaline membrane disease. This was unexpected, as he was able to breathe independently from birth. The pediatrician also detected an infection, from an unknown source. They planned to rush him to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Royal North Shore hospital. We peered into the crib, willing him to take each breath. It was as though we were trying to breathe for him.
I, too, was transferred to the Royal North Shore. It broke my heart to walk into the NICU and see Taj on a CPAP machine, tubes up his tiny nostrils, to force air into his damaged lungs. Canulas and drips and wires poking out of every limb. Incredibly, he never cried. The nurses said he was too weak. But we now know, it’s because of his character. Stoic. Determined. A fighter.
The next 5 days remain a blur of expressing, praying, and nappy changing. The first nappy I ever changed, in my 37 years on this earth, was through the port holes of Taj’s humidicrib, amid a tangled mass of wires, convinced I would accidentally pull out his life support!
But we were the lucky ones. Taj looked like a teenager among the really premmie babies. We spoke to one couple who had just moved from Sydney to Coffs Harbour, when baby decided to come at 23 weeks. They’d moved to a hotel around the corner, camping at the NICU for 12 hours each day, not knowing whether their baby boy would pull through.
The staff were amazing. We received wonderful support and encouragement from midwives, nurses and pediatricians who must inevitable experience compassion fatigue. They are saints on earth.
Finally, Taj was transferred back to the Mater Special Care Nursery. I’d been discharged from hospital, and so began the thrice daily drive from home to feed, cuddle and stare and my little boy. By this stage, he was out of the crib and in a bassinet. But he was still so weak, he would feed for two minutes at a time on my breast then fall asleep. He was simply too exhausted.
On the 22nd of December, we got the best news of our lives. Taj could come home on Christmas Eve! It was the greatest Christmas present anyone could wish for.
Now, it all seems like a nightmare. Somehow unreal. Once Taj learned to feed, he wouldn’t stop. I breastfed him for 8 months. Now, he eats almost anything! As my 10 month old crawls around the floor, claps his hands and giggles wildly, I can’t reconcile this vision with the shriveled, red baby, gasping for what seemed like his last breath.
I would like to thank all the staff at the Royal Women’s Hospital, the Mater Hospital and the Royal North Shore Hospital for their love, support and compassion.
And to anyone going through the heartache of caring for a premature baby, my thoughts are with you. You are not alone.