On the night the girls were born, I knew I was dying. I screamed. I cried. I begged the Doctors to save my babies. And then I lay back and hoped with all my will that the Doctors could save us.
I was fortunate to be in the hospital under observation when I haemorrhaged and lost nearly all of the blood in my body. Doctors told me if I’d been at home, there wouldn’t have been time to save us.
I’d had a smaller bleed in the early hours at home 24 hours before.
That night Worcester was the only place with NICU beds, should my girls be born. I lay in an ambulance bewildered as I waved my 3 year old son and husband goodbye. My son equally bewildered at what was happening to Mummy, but excited by the blue lights.
At Worcester I was kept under observation. There had been no further bleeding during the day. As the evening drew in, I begged the Midwife to remove the cannula from my hand as I couldn’t bear it. The Midwife informed me that I should keep it in as per Doctors advice, but I insisted it was taken out as I wouldn’t sleep otherwise. That Midwife will never say yes to the same request again.
Shortly after my cannula was removed, I was surrounded by medical staff as they desperately tried to attach cannulas to me. There were needles in my hands, arms. My worst nightmare.
During the terror, there was a moment that I can reflect on with humour, a dark humour, but humour all the same.
I had spent the evening sharing a room with a young mother who had a blood phobia: couldn’t write it, right? We’d had quite an intense, and I thought helpful, conversation about how she could deal with her phobia. She then went to sleep and was snoring loudly as I struggled to sleep.
As I lay there I watched my stomach rise upwards twice. I was shocked by it. I assumed it was braxton hicks contractions and thought I would mention it to the Midwife.
Feeling agitated and rather annoyed by my roomies snoring, I took myself off to the toilet.
As I came back to my bed an explosion of blood hit the floor. I screamed for help. Trying not to slip over, I managed to press the alarm.
My Midwife rushed into the room. I remember the look on her face as she looked down at the floor. And then she ran out of the room. Very quickly the room filled with bright lights and medical staff. There was a rush of noise and people running around.
I looked over to see the mother next to me curled up in the foetal position rocking with her hands covering her ears. Any contribution I had made to healing her blood phobia had most definitely been undone. The poor girl was terrified and surrounded by screams, shouting and a sea of blood.
I still shake my head with a wry smile that I haemorrhaged in a room with a blood phobic. That poor poor girl.
I was raced through the ward corridors towards theatre. I remember people’s faces filled with pity as I went by, leaving a trail of blood behind me. I just remember so much blood everywhere. I was terrified that I was losing my babies as blood and debris came away from me. My whole body shook uncontrollably as I went into shock.
I remember during the chaos of the race to theatre, the bed was paused momentarily. As it did so I noticed a Midwife standing in a doorway. We locked eyes. I remember appreciating that connection with another human amongst the panic and chaos. I felt my eyes were almost pleading with her to help me; to send me good will. I was to meet her again a few days later. She said I’d looked so calm considering. She told me what a fright I’d given everyone that night and that someone was looking over me.
The doctors couldn’t do anything to stop the bleed and told me that they would have to deliver the babies to save my life. I was 29 weeks pregnant.
Anyone who has been prepared for emergency surgery will know that the process is torturous. The anaesthetist has to make sure you don’t choke on your own vomit. They do this by pressing down on your throat with significant pressure.
Due to my babies being born too early they also wanted to fill me with as much oxygen as possible to give the girls lungs the best chance. There had not been time to give me the second steroid injection to support the girls lungs.
They pumped oxygen into my system by holding down a mask over my face. When I struggled in panic they told me they had to do it for at least 10 minutes. I knew they were doing everything to save us, but the claustrophobic feeling was immense in the context of all that was happening. I could still feel the blood loss. I was terrified.
Finally, the anaesthetist shouted for everyone to be quiet. The theatre was full as each baby needed a doctor and a Midwife, as did I. At the anaesthetists instruction the room stood still.
My midwife took my hand. She looked into my eyes and told me that it was time. She said to think of something calm.
I looked at her and wondered if she’d be the last person I’d ever see. Then in my minds eye I visualised a wise old oak tree. It was the same oak tree I’d used as my safe place in my visualisations when doing hypnotherapy to help me get pregnant. It had always represented a calm, peaceful place for me. For months after I couldn’t think of the old oak tree without experiencing overwhelming flashbacks of terror.
Later I was to chastise myself for not thinking of Felix and David. I thought I was dying. Why did I not think of my family? It could have been my last thought.
And then I realised. It was precisely because I was fearful of dying, that meant it was far too painful to think of the most precious people in the world to me. If I had thought of Felix and David, I would have been inconsolable, and I needed to focus on surviving.
I remember the joy of coming round from the anaesthetic. I was alive. I don’t remember being told that the girls had made it, but I just knew they had. I remember thanking the anaesthetist profusely and telling him he was so kind. He probably thought I was bonkers. I was just so happy to be alive.
Seeing David was incredible. I held him close. He’d had a call telling him to get to the hospital. He’d arranged childcare for Felix in the early hours for the second night in a row.
When he arrived at the hospital he was shell shocked to learn what had happened. The hospital did not tell him of the urgency of the situation on the telephone for his own safety in making his way there.
He was sat down on his arrival to be told that his wife and babies had all made it and were doing well.
As he heard various staff talk of the fright we’d given them and how someone must have been watching over us, he realised just how close he’d come to losing us. I learnt later that Amelie and Maya-Albertine had been resuscitated in theatre.
I was glad for him that he hadn’t been there. It would have been terrifying for him. He didn’t have to experience the not knowing if we were going to survive or not. In the time it had taken from receiving that call to dropping off Felix with family and making his way to the hospital, the doctors had already saved us.
I think it was probably best for me too. I would have gone to pieces if he’d been there. As it was, I went into survival mode.
I remember the kindness of the staff looking after me as I drifted in and out of consciousness with David by my side. The gentleness at which the midwives spoke to me will always stay with me. They told me that they would arrange for a de-brief of the birth as I would need help to come to terms with what had happened.
I first met my girls in a photograph.
As I became more aware I would ask David to go and spend time with our girls. I couldn’t bear to think of them on their own. I wanted them to hear a voice they’d recognise.
It was strange knowing that David had met our girls. We hadn’t met them together. I hadn’t met them. We were not with them.
I was told that when I was well enough I would be taken to see my girls. Until then, I was sent a photograph of each baby. I so appreciated the thought, but the photographs horrified me – they still do. To see my tiny babies covered in blood, wires and breathing apparatus was devastating. It looked so clinical, painful, and lonely.
I felt an overwhelming maternal ache that I wasn’t there to hold them and comfort them. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be for them. This feeling would remain with me for their entire initial stay of 11 weeks in hospital. I will always be saddened by it.
I have those first photos by the side of my bed. I can’t share them. They are for the girls. The pictures below are of the girls when I met them two days later.
Amelie Clara Mae
Etta Gwendoline Rose
Now when I think of their time in hospital, I feel overwhelmingly grateful that they came home and that they now know what it is to be at home. All of the time they were in hospital, that is all I wanted for them. To know the comfort of home. To not be surrounded by beeping machines and alarms. To be in the care of their family.
They are such happy contented babies. I didn’t want them to ever be in hospital again. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be the case in the months that followed, but my girls have proven that they are born survivors.
The day after the caesarian, a doctor told me that I must be made of strong stuff as I was making a remarkable recovery. I want to meet my babies I told him. Is there any greater motivation? They needed me and I wanted to hold them, comfort them, and be there for them.
My First Visit To NICU
I met the girls when they were two days old. My memory of meeting them for the first time is limited. I was still very poorly and overwhelmed by the trauma of what had happened. As I was wheeled into the intensive care ward, I burst into tears. I tried so hard to be brave but it felt such an alien situation.
I felt so sad for my babies that their first experience of life was on their own in an incubator, instead of in my arms. That I’d been too ill to be there for them. That I couldn’t give them the intensive medical care they needed to be safe and instead was totally reliant on others to do so. That I couldn’t give them a cuddle without asking for a nurse to take them out of their incubator to ensure their safety.
The only thing I could do usefully was to provide my breast milk.
The one saving grace was that when I met the nurses I knew the girls had been in safe hands. That they spoke to them gently. That they stroked their skin if they got upset. My sadness is that nurses are busy. With the best will in the world nurses cannot attend a baby every time they cry. It’s sad but true. This was my biggest sadness when I had to leave them in hospital. I knew they’d cry and I wasn’t there to hold them.
I remember Amelie’s cry from her incubator, she sounded like a little kitten. It felt like she needed me the most at that moment. I held her first. Felix was there to meet her with me too. I love how her face is responding to him.
It would be four days after she was born that I held Etta for the first time. As I placed her skin to skin she wrapped her little hand around my little finger and held on.
I wished I could give her that comfort all of the time. I didn’t want to put her back into the incubator.
As I placed her back into the incubator she smiled. I was delighted to catch it on camera.
It may have been conveniently timed wind, but I don’t think so: I think she loved that cuddle as much as I did. This is Etta’s character still now, always smiling.
Never The Same
You hear people talk of how their near death experience changes them. It does. I wont ever be the same person again. And that’s ok.
Because what never being the same again means for me is to truly appreciate my life and all I have in it. To really see. To really hear. To care less what people think of me. To spend time with those I want to be with and not feel duty bound to those that I don’t. To not sweat the small stuff. To love like I’ve never loved before. To have discovered my strength. It’s very freeing.
Life is short. It can be taken away in a heartbeat. I don’t want to waste it. I want to live it.
But there were obstacles to get over following the trauma.
The girls lived the first 11 weeks of their lives in hospital. This broke my heart.
Further to the birth trauma, I then lived with the fears associated with having my babies in intensive care.
During this time I was informed that two of my girls, Maya-Albertine and Amelie, had PDA’s: a heart condition commonly associated with prematurity. Fortunately, Amelie’s PDA healed before she’d left hospital.
You also observe how things can change very quickly in NICU. I saw other babies becoming very ill and having painful procedures. I knew my babies were at risk too. I knew that my babies had regular and daily tests that hurt them. As parents to premature babies we were often advised to leave the room when procedures were being undertaken. In particular, the eye tests. This seems impossible to me now. I just wanted them home so all these tests could stop.
We had various scares over the period of time my girls were in hospital. On more than one occasion my babies stopped breathing sending the alarms ringing and staff running to save them. I felt constantly anxious about their health and development.
Meanwhile, I was noticing things about myself. I couldn’t wash my face without panic because it involved shutting my eyes. I would lie down to try and sleep and be scared to, often shooting up out of bed in panic and running to the window for fresh air. I couldn’t be in contained spaces or anywhere where I felt I couldn’t escape easily.
I was frightened all of the time that something bad was going to happen to me or my family, particularly to the girls with them being in intensive care.
This is the legacy of trauma. It leaves you on alert knowing that something terrible could happen because it already did.
The girls stayed in Worcester NICU for five weeks. During that time I was frightened to get in a car because of my generalised heightened fear. But I had to get in a car every day to see my girls. The trip to Worcester was on average a 3 hour round trip on a busy motorway. I felt scared every day.
I was also totally reliant on being transported by others as I wasn’t allowed to drive for six weeks following the surgery. This meant that I had to go whenever I could be transported, rather than for how long I wanted to be there.
I could never be with the girls enough, or Felix enough. My anxiety at feeling everything was out of my control continued to build.
And then I got really ill and wasn’t allowed to visit the girls because of the risk of infection. It broke my heart. I begged the nurses to cuddle my babies for me in my absence. I knew it was safer for the girls and the other babies on the ward if I stayed away, but I felt so guilty. Once again they were on their own. The only thing I could do for them was to send my milk. Between David and my Dad my milk supply was transported to Worcester for the 6 days I was advised not to attend NICU.
On the first day I was well enough to go back to NICU, one of the nurses commented how much more stable the girls sats were in my presence. We will have to record your voice and play it to them, she said. It was a beautiful thing to say, but it also tore at my heart. To me I heard: they struggle when you’re not here.
Every time I’d shut my eyes I’d have flashbacks. The noise. The chaos of staff running around me. The feeling of the blood pumping out of me. My screams. My fear of dying. My lack of control. My body shaking uncontrollably. But mostly I couldn’t close my eyes because I was reminded of that moment I didn’t think I was going to open them again.
But it wasn’t just that night – the birth trauma. I had been catapulted into a world of hospitals: My girls home for the first 11 weeks of their lives. All of the feelings connected with that create anxiety. Having poorly babies is traumatic. Being in NICU every day is upsetting. You see sad things. You see sad people. Leaving my babies in NICU every day will remain as one of the most challenging experiences of my life. It’s not natural. How do you do it – not be with them 24/7? I did it. And it tore at me every time I walked off the ward.
About five weeks after the girls were born, I was waiting for David to get home from work on a Saturday so he could take me to Worcester. He didn’t get home until about 2pm. I was pulling my hair out. I told David I had to be with them and packed a bag to go and stay with them whilst simultaneously crying about how I could cope with missing Felix.
Fortunately, the family accommodation was free that weekend. The family room at Worcester is a converted cupboard in the hallway next to the ward. It has no windows and was overwhelmingly hot. I went in there to express my milk while the nurses did their handover and couldn’t even bear to shut the door. I cried. I knew I couldn’t stay in there. I cried that I felt like that. I knew I wasn’t well and it scared me.
The staff were amazing. They arranged for me to stay in a room with windows on the maternity ward. All of the anxiety of the preceding few weeks came to the fore that weekend. I had to call midwives to me several times during that night. I struggled to sleep. I cried uncontrollably. I didn’t feel well. A Consultant came out to see me. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The staff at Worcester contacted my local Baby Special Care Unit and advised them it was really important for our family’s well being that my girls were brought closer to home. We were fortunate that they had beds and my girls were moved on the Monday.
They were now a 10 minute drive away from home.
And they were well enough to share the same cot.
The Consultant advised me of ways to heal from the trauma. He suggested EMDR and CBT.
Life was so busy. Between hospitals and caring for my family, I didn’t have time to seek help for myself.
The girls came home and family life was hugely busy as anyone can imagine. There wasn’t time for me.
And then the most horrifying thing happened. Amelie stopped breathing in my arms when she’d been home for only 9 days. Amelie was rushed to intensive care in Stoke and put into a medically induced coma. Maya-Albertine was blue lighted to a high dependency unit in Birmingham. They had Paraflu. I write about what happened in my blog.
Two months later Maya-Albertine became very ill. On being admitted to hospital it was discovered that she had an enlarged heart, liver and a degree of chronic lung disease. She spent a month in hospital and had emergency heart surgery.
I was Hospital Mummy again. The pain was immense. I couldn’t bear to see my babies suffering.
One day I turned to David and told him that part of me felt broken. Too many traumas had happened. I felt fractured. I knew I needed to fix it. I couldn’t neglect my mental health anymore.
I am relieved that I had this insight. One of the things that helped me was to seek advice from other mums on the UK triplet group. I asked about their experiences of birth trauma and NICU/PICU and what they had done to heal from it. I heard really upsetting stories in which women were still overcome with grief and anxiety years later. It is the advice and support of other women who’d experienced NICU that guided me and gave me the further insight to know that I had to seek help.
It’s ok to not be ok
If you have experienced a trauma, inevitably your mental health will be impacted. Unless you are a robot. Just as our physical health needs assistance to heal, so does our mental health.
If you leave a physical trauma untreated there will be a physical consequence. We know this. A broken leg without a plaster to heal it may result in a wonky painful leg that you can no longer use as you did before, ever. An untreated wound may lead to unnecessary scars or infection or even death. You get the picture. Why is our mental health any different?
I learnt that when we experience trauma, in this case life threatening episodes, we struggle to process the memory as it’s too painful for us to think about. In turn the memory gets stuck, unprocessed, in a kind of memory purgatory. Because it is unprocessed, it’s impossible to file away as our brain would normally do with information. As such it festers in a painful purgatory, which in turn can impact negatively on your general wellbeing.
Prior to treatment I could not bear to think of the traumas that had occurred. They were unprocessed. They lay festering somewhere hidden in my mind ready to pounce unexpectedly. The impact was a constant state of anxiety and fear that at times would spill over when triggered by a sound, song or anything associated with hospital.
I remember walking home and an ambulance rushed past, sirens on: the sight and sound of it triggered flashbacks of the horror we’d experienced when we’d had to use emergency services. The fear and anxiety came to the surface and I struggled not to burst into tears on the street. I wanted to fall to the floor and for someone to rescue me and tell me it was all going to be ok. I didn’t. I took a deep breath and carried on walking.
I carried with me this permanent anxiety and fear that could bubble over at any time.
EMDR assisted me in processing the traumas. I relived them with my therapist in a safe environment. Once the memories are processed they are fileable and can be put away. They are no longer festering waiting to intrude your thoughts. A traumatic memory will never be a pleasant memory, but EMDR helps it to become a manageable memory. They feel luke warm instead of too hot to touch.
I went from being unable to think or talk about the birth without becoming inconsolable, to being able to freely think or talk about it.
The memory of Amelie when she stopped breathing in my arms was impossible for me to think of prior to EMDR.
Coincidentally, Amelie loved to play and bounce back in my arms: she still does. This is the movement I made to shock her into breathing again and so this beautiful play with my baby would always remind me of the terrifying trauma. I found myself not doing it because it upset me so much. I felt sad that I couldn’t play a game my baby loved.
Following EMDR I can talk and think about this trauma. And whilst I am always reminded of that moment, I can now play the game with Amelie. Through EMDR, I was able to process the memory and file it away safely. It meant it was no longer too painful to think of. It felt safe to remember. I wasn’t frightened of what the memory would do to me.
And so if I can do one thing by sharing our story it is to say to someone who may need to hear it: You are important. Your mental health matters. It is possible to feel better. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s important to ask for help. If we don’t take care of our mental health it may hurt us more in the future. You don’t have to just get on with it and pretend you are ok. You can still ‘do’ life whilst healing the part that’s fractured.
I got help to heal from the trauma. It was the right thing to do.
Dancing In The Rain
My girls are now in a good place health wise. Following Amelie’s biopsy results this January, I felt a weight lifting. We know in the future that Bertie will need further heart surgery, but I’m living in the moment. We will deal with it when it happens.
Our House Arrest is nearly over. Spring is coming and we will be able to take the girls to public places. Their paediatric consultant advised us to keep them away from public places during RSA season whilst they are under 2.
Following the trauma caused by Paraflu and the risks posed to Amelie’s breathing before her lump was removed, I wasn’t prepared to expose them to the risk.
It means my experience with the girls has been different to Felix, when I took him out lots to different Baby groups. I’m so looking forward to getting out and about with them. We have so much to look forward to.
But do you know what, we’ve still had a beautiful time. With all that has happened, I have still had the pleasure everyday of being mummy to four beautiful little people and wife to my best friend, David. Just because an experience is different doesn’t mean it’s a lesser one.
Being mummy to my girls has meant I’ve known the joy of my family being complete. My girls gave me the most beautiful gift of knowing that our struggle with infertility is over.
It truly feels like the weight of the trauma is behind us and we can simply look forward to the beautiful chaos of raising Triplets and Bro. The weight being lifted has also coincided with starting my Blog. It’s cathartic to write and share. I hope I can offer some help to others as I was helped when it mattered.
I’ve learnt such a lot over the last few months. That’s the irony of trauma. Once you’ve survived it and healed from it, it can teach you how strong you are because you survived it; it can teach you how beautiful your life is because you nearly lost it, so now you truly appreciate all that you have in it. I embrace the route I had to take to get here because it taught me to appreciate every day.
Life is beautiful.