Most Christmases congeal into an amorphous blob of memories, a montage of the usual touch-points: food, family, early hangovers. But for me there is one that stands apart, one that I will never, ever forget.
In late 2013 my wife Kate was seven months’ pregnant, and we were making plans for our last Christmas as a child-free couple. Maybe we could go abroad? Or at least do something a little out of the ordinary considering we would henceforth be focusing our festivities around a small person.
But then, in November, Kate called me from Bromley Hospital, where she was working as a junior doctor. “They’ve done some tests and want to keep me in overnight,” she said.
Kate had experienced some swelling in her feet and hands, which a colleague had noticed and suggested she test her blood pressure. Sure enough, it was high. “They think I’ve got preeclampsia,” she added.
Now, my medical etymology is as good as the next arts journalist, but having only recently seen an episode of Downton Abbey – a difficult admission to make – where Lord Grantham’s daughter Sybil died from the preeclampsia shortly after giving birth, I knew what this one meant: a potentially fatal malfunction of the placenta. I sped to Bromley, trying in vain to keep anxiety at bay.
My wife effectively became allergic to her own baby… and the only cure is to get the baby out.
It soon became apparent that Kate’s condition was severe, and the management of her blood pressure was crucial. I remember at one point asking a midwife whether it would come down to a choice between saving her or our baby, and she replied “don’t worry – we always prioritise the mother,” which wasn’t quite as comforting as she might have imagined it to be.
Preeclampsia presents doctors with a delicate dilemma. As one described it to me, it effectively means a mother becomes allergic to her own baby, and the only cure is to get the baby out. But considering Kate was just 30 weeks pregnant, the baby was still very small, so they wanted to keep them in the womb as long as possible.
A few days later we transferred to St Thomas’s for the birth due to its specialist NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). Here we were told Kate was stable and they would try to keep her in for a few weeks. We momentarily relaxed. I headed home, loaded her iPad with as many boxsets it could handle, and went to bed for the first decent sleep I’d had in a week.
The very next morning, another alarming call. “My blood pressure spiked again in the night. They think I will have to have the baby.” After some further tests that day it became clear the situation had reached a critical point, and she was transferred to the HDU (High Dependency Unit).
By modern standards birthing a baby at 30 weeks is far from unusual. A 24 week-old foetus can now be expected to survive. But to me, a first time dad, it seemed hopelessly implausible.
Kate tried for a natural delivery, but after a long and stressful induced labour lasting nearly two days we had little option but to accept an emergency c-section, late on a Saturday night. I am not a particularly religious person but shortly before the birth I got on my knees in a room overlooking the city and begged whatever forces might be out there to get my wife and child through in one piece.
Our beautiful daughter was born an hour later. She weighed just three pounds, small enough to fit snugly in my palm. My first words on seeing her, I’ve never been allowed to forget, were “she looks like a little worm”. And she did; a tiny bag of wrinkled skin, covered in the fine hair that babies normally shed in the final stages of pregnancy.
After a brief viewing she was immediately whisked away from us to the NICU; one of the most difficult aspects of an early baby is that you’re denied those precious first few moments.
We were told to brace ourselves for setbacks. Complications often arise if babies experience breathing difficulties early on, and there are always risks of infections from the tubes they insert for nutrients and medicines. But we were fortunate; our daughter had a relatively smooth journey. We gave her ‘kangaroo care’, skin-to-skin time known to help them feel settled.
The nursing team were utterly, utterly brilliant. On Christmas Eve we snuck into the hospital at midnight, to see in our first Christmas together as a family of three. We arrived to find the nurses dressed as elves, distributing tiny stockings around the cots and incubators. As we held our baby in her tiny Santa hat, we were overcome with joy and gratitude.
I am not a particularly religious person but I got on my knees and begged whatever forces might be out there to get my wife and child through in one piece.
Christmas day itself, like most days on the ward, was strangely serene; premature babies need a quiet environment, so everyone speaks in hushed tones and often the only sound is the occasional beep of a monitor. Hours are spent simply staring at your baby, wondering and worrying. But we did get treated to some (gentle) carols, and gifts provided by the charity Bliss. One mother gave us her copy of The Night Before Christmas – she already had one from her first experience with a premature baby, she said. Small gestures matter hugely at times like this.
A week later, after some ‘rooming in’ time involving staying overnight with our daughter in the hospital, we were ready to be discharged. Our last night in St Thomas’s happened to be New Year’s Eve, so we got a front row view of the fireworks on the Thames. Not a bad way to end our stay. Then on the first day of 2014 we finally got our longed-for ‘car seat moment’, carrying our little bundle home. She was still only four pounds at this stage, but felt huge to us.
Many parents experience premature births – over 10% – and outcomes are improving all the time. It’s rare that any journey through it is completely smooth, and it’s hardly a birth plan I would recommend. But there is something truly awe-inspiring about the ability of these tiny babies to find a way through.
Our daughter has just turned six. She is a happy, healthy girl bursting with life. And this Christmas is particularly special as it’s the first she will spend with her brother, who was born in the summer (he made it to 41 weeks, thanks to the incredible blood pressure team at King’s Hospital).
We keep a memory box of her time in hospital, containing a feeding tube, name tag, first babygrow, and of course her tiny Christmas stocking. The care she received was truly humbling, and as with any child born in the NHS, we didn’t face a bill of tens, possibly hundreds of thousands at the end of it. Crowdfunding platforms are awash with people in America raising money for the care of babies like ours, which must add unimaginable stress to these families.
So this year, like every other, I’ll be thinking of all those heroic NHS elves out there, and the amazing babies in their care. To them I wish an especially happy Christmas.
Theo’s daughter was treated at
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