I’m not really sure how to start this, whether it should be emotive, happy, joyful, scared, poetic or whatever. Instead I’ll just start with the facts and get to the money chugging aspects later on if that’s okay with you.
In August 2012 my wife Anthea and I found out we were expecting our first child. Amazing news, we were obviously over the moon with excitement. Then at the 12-week scan this joy had doubled when we found out we weren’t having one arrival, but two: two little twins. Twice the fun, twice the trouble, twice the expense. The nursery furniture order doubled by the time we’d got over the shock of it all. At the 20-week scan we’d found out we were having twin girls, obviously I rushed out and bought two tins of pink paint for their nursery, as you do. We knew things would be difficult, after all Anthea was carrying two people inside her for 40 weeks. One was going to be hard. But two?
Things did get difficult for us all when at 30 weeks Anthea was admitted to Sunderland Royal Hospital with signs of pre-eclampsia (I had to google it at work when she rang in tears - note to self: Googling medical conditions is not a good idea). It’s not a good thing, it was horrible and dangerous for all three of them. After 3 nights in hospital the doctors were happy for Anthea to return home and prepare for the birth at 40 weeks after a routine scan on the morning of 22nd February. Now I like the word ‘routine’, it’s not that scary or difficult is it? It’s a nice relaxing run-of-the-mill going through the motions easy kind of word. Wrong.
After the ‘routine scan’ the doctors told us that ‘twin 2’ (the smaller of the two) wasn’t getting enough blood through her placenta and this could and would have dangerous consequences for her, her sister and her mother if nothing was done about it quickly. By ‘dangerous’ they meant ‘critical’, by ‘done about it’ they meant ‘emergency caesarian section’ and ‘quickly’, well obviously they meant ‘now’. It was early, very early in the pregnancy. We weren’t prepared - we were pencilled in for our first birthing class the following day, the ‘bag’ wasn’t packed, the birthing CD wasn’t even made! But all of that didn’t matter as I raced from Newcastle to the hospital to be there.
Most people describe the birth of their children as the happiest day of their lives. Not us. It was the scariest and most difficult time I think I’ve ever experienced, and I wasn’t actually doing anything, I was sitting there on a stool holding the wife’s hand as she had the operation, surrounded by 20 odd doctors, consultants, nurses, Neo-Natal nurses, anaesthetists and lots more whose roles I can’t even think of. At 3.31pm and 3.32pm Anthea gave birth to our daughters: Emily Grace and Charlotte Rose, weighing a tiny 3lbs 1oz and 3lbs 3oz. They were incredibly small, so small they didn’t even seem real. They were immediately placed in incubators and given respiratory support and then rushed off to high dependency intensive care unit, after I had a few seconds to look at them to reassure Anthea they were okay and looking good. Not that I knew, they were so small, and had tubes and wires and doctors and consultants all around them doing things I don’t even know what. It was a further 4 hours before I was allowed to see them and a further 6 for Anthea as her spinal block and other anaesthetics wore off allowing her to move. Those hours were the longest of my life - sitting in a room in hospital scrubs and white medical boots, one a size 6 and one a size 10, waiting, phoning parents and family to tell them the news, and answering just about every question with “I don’t know”, “I don’t know”, “I don’t know”.
Walking into the Neo-Natal Unit’s High Dependency Unit for the first time is a scary and tearful experience: a room with eight or so incubators in, all with wires and plugs and tubes providing breathing assistance and medical support, all beeping, different beeping, repetitive beeping. If you’ve experienced it you’ll know those beeps never actually leave you, at times you’ll hear it in your sleep. Over the next few hours we were told the facts by the consultant and the Neo-Natal nurses of why the girls were where they were and what the risks and dangers were. On the outside I put on a brave face but on the inside I feared the worst. In all honesty I didn’t think they’d make it through the night. And within five minutes of being in the room we were given a disposable camera to take some photos of the girls for us to keep - this just scared me even more. They gave us an estimation of the girls being in for 9 weeks. Could be more, could be less. It was a waiting game. It was out of our hands.
The first 4 days were the hardest, for our girls and for us. Understanding the terminology of the Neo-Natal Unit - the gasses and air and medication they get, the names of the procedures they go through, the blood tests, the skin tests, the UV blue light treatments they got, the machines they were plugged into, the acronyms for everything: it was all a learning curve, everything. Getting used to the smells of the hospital too, the hand wash gel, the smell of the floor polish, like the beeps from the incubators that’s something I’ll never forgot either.
The nurses and doctors on the Neo-Natal Unit were unbelievable, they helped and guided us both through every step of the way, and as the girls grew stronger every day in their incubators. They taught us how to change their nappies. I for one didn’t think the first time I’d change a nappy would be through the portholes of an incubator, but it was. I didn’t think the first time I’d hold either of my daughters would be through the portholes of an incubator, but it was. We just kind of got used to it, just like parents have done before us and just as parents continue to do in the future. For two weeks we spent hours upon hours in that room, looking at the girls, taking an incubator each then swapping over and looking at them all over again, just watching and praying and thinking, until we changed their nappies or helped out in any which way we could. The girls were in High Dependency for just over two weeks until they got ‘promoted’ into Low Dependency Intensive Care, a step closer to going home. A long step.
A further week went by in Low Dependency until both Emily and Charlotte were out of incubators and into cots, actual cots, with no wires plugged in, lying there breathing on their own, with no machines, with no CPAP, no wires attached or feeding tubes going in. They were now feeding every three hours by bottle (previously it was a continual tube feed), a huge step - now it was just a waiting game until they reached the minimum weight of 4lbs before we could take them both home together. We were going every day, twice a day at weekends, Anthea was there all day, I was going every night after work for couple of hours and we’d go home together without them. Leaving them every time was hard, walking out down the maternity unit’s corridors and exits without them seemed strange and unnatural - we did it every day and it always felt the same It didn’t get any easier, especially when there was an unused nursery in our house, cots waiting, moses baskets at the ready. Every day in the Neo-Natal Unit we were encouraged by the nurses to help out with our girls as much as possible, changing nappies and later feeding and bathing them both.
We got the news we were waiting for (as luck would have it) on Good Friday: that two days later on Easter Sunday, March 31st 2013 as they had both reached the magical 4lbs mark (or 1800grams if you’re being technical) we could finally take our girls home after 6 weeks in Intensive Care. Before we could Anthea had to spend two nights ‘staying over’ in the Neo-Natal Unit with our girls in a dedicated bedroom before the consultants signed their release papers. This wasn’t a problem, we’d both had so much practice at doing the normal parenting jobs, mainly due to the fantastic support and help from the nurses on the Neo-Natal Unit, although the room itself wasn’t the greatest (the bright ones reading this will know where this is going!).
And so it was that we did take our girls home on Easter Sunday. But we couldn’t have done it with out the fantastic help, guidance, support and friendliness of the excellent nurses, midwives, sisters and consultants on the Neo-Natal Unit. What was a truly emotional roller coaster of an experience was made easier by these fantastic people who really don’t get enough credit. Credit that they really deserve, a million times over.
To show our gratitude we want to help the Neo-Natal Unit at Sunderland Royal Hospital improve its parental overnight rooms where mothers stay with their prematurely born babies for the nights before they can go home, making them more comfortable and homely. And help to improve its development care equipment, including positional aids, incubator covers and more.
Our good family friend Laura McArdle is running the 2013 Hadrian’s Wall Ultra Marathon on June 22nd & June 23rd on behalf of Sunderland Royal Hospital’s Neo-Natal Unit.
From Carlisle to Newcastle. It’s 69 miles. It’ll rain. It’ll be hard. She’ll have to camp outside overnight. She’s mental.
So if you could spare a couple of quid for what is a fantastic cause we’d all be truly grateful. You can do it here.
Ross, Anthea, Emily Grace & Charlotte Rose Palmer.