I was born premature at 24 weeks. I weighed 500 grams – less than a loaf of bread. My father’s wedding ring could fit up to my shoulder. Before she gave birth, my mother was told to prepare for the worst; most premature babies pass away or have extreme medical conditions which impact them for their rest of their lives. If it weren’t for the diligence of the nurses and the faith of my parents, I don’t know if I would be alive today.
I stayed in the King Edward Memorial Hospital for 104 days, and for those three and a half months, the premature baby nursery became a home for my parents. They spent every possible moment in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, sitting by my humidicrib until visiting hours were over.
Most parents in the ward didn’t even know if they would be able to bring their baby back home.
The doctors would give information in stages; you had to deal with one problem at a time, my father said, and not think too far ahead or focus too much on the future. You had to live in the moment and cherish each day that you got to spend with your baby.
The babies that did get to come home had severe medical issues. Emily was one of the babies who was in the intensive care unit at the same time as me. She was born at 26 weeks, and got an infection early on, which shut down the blood flow to her fingers and toes. She lost half of her fingers and most of her toes. Years later, at a playgroup, my mother would watch us playing together and see her struggling to walk or feed herself. Other babies like Emily would even lose their ears or the tips of their noses. My mum also remembered Meghan, a baby who had suffered a severe brain bleed, and as a result, now has cerebral palsy. Babies who also had serious brain bleeds would later go on to have massive learning difficulties.
There were the other medical complications. When I was first born, my skin was so thin that clothes and blankets would cause my skin to rip and tear. A plastic sheet had to be placed above me in the crib to keep me warm. I had to have intubation tubes which went up my nose and down into my lungs to help me to breathe, as my lungs hadn’t fully developed.
My parents remember the terrifying experience of watching my heart beat suddenly drop during a bradycardia. They recalled watching the heart rate monitor suddenly fall and the sound of a siren screaming through the ward. All the nurses immediately rushed to my side, reaching through the humidicrib to grab me. They had to shake my body to bring my heart rate back up. My parents would carefully watch the heart rate monitor from that moment on, and immediately let the nurses know if my heart rate declined.
Having such a traumatic event happen to you and your baby meant that many parents struggled to come to terms with what had happened. How do you cope with seeing your baby in hospital, covered in tubes, unable to hold them?
My dad was first able to hold me on Father’s Day, more than a month after I was born. He told me that he was terrified to hold me in his arms; that I was so small he was afraid he might hurt me. I was still hooked up to the large intubation tubes but was well enough that I could be held by him.
The photo is still one of his favourite pictures, and one of his most memorable Father’s Days. My dad, having to provide for our family, could only see me after work and on weekends, and so he cherished the time he got to spend with me. “I used to read to you,” he told me, “I remember reading the Iliad to you, while I sat by your crib, holding your hand.”
My mum was able to come visit me every day, and so she spent as long as she could by my side. The first thing she did each morning was to call the hospital to see how I was doing.
We’d wake up and grab the phone, to call in, and they would say that you were fine, and I’d breathe a sigh of relief.
She used books and crochet as a way to keep busy, and concentrated on making beautiful baby clothes for me, with the softest fabric she could find. She would make a dress for big occasions, like the day that my dad first held me, or my one hundredth day in hospital. It was a tradition in the ward to bring a cake for the nurses on that day, as a way to thank them.
Other parents coped in different ways. My mum recalled a young mother with a child in the same ward, who would come up from Busselton once a week, to spend a few hours with her baby. Some parents found that distancing themselves from their baby would lessen the pain of having to see them in the hospital, while others were separated by distance. For my mum, however, seeing me every day helped her cope better.
Being at the hospital with you was the best thing for me.
As I got older and stronger, the doctors encouraged my parents to take part in taking care of me; changing my diapers, cleaning me, and holding me. My mum and dad said that that was the best medicine; being able to take care of their baby like normal parents.
When I asked my parents about the day that I was let out of hospital, they both said that they didn’t remember the day, but the feeling of finally bringing me home, and fully being a family. I came back home on oxygen, and it was around Christmas of that year that I was finally able to take off the tubes.
My parents called me a miracle baby; despite being born at 24 weeks, I had survived relatively unscathed. My hoarse voice from the intubation tubes is all I have to show for that traumatic time. I was a pin up kid for 24 weekers; healthy, alive, no learning difficulties or physical disabilities.
As annoying as it can be to explain to strangers that I definitely don’t have a cold or a sore throat, it reminds me of the struggles that my parents and the doctors and nurses went through to keep me alive, and makes me aware of how grateful I am to be healthy and alive.