‘The staff treated us like any other family’ - Charlie’s story

Charlie had her daughter at 32 weeks and was supported by her mum and dad while on the neonatal unit.

Falling pregnant was not something I expected or planned. I was on the pill and having a baby was the last thing on my mind.

Although it was an unexpected pregnancy, she was certainly not unwanted. Her father wasn’t ready to take on the role as a parent, so I moved back home with my own parents to start this journey with their love and support.

When I was 21 weeks pregnant, my waters broke. At the hospital, the staff advised a termination because there was only a tiny chance the baby could survive. I was sent home for 48 hours, during which time Amazon parcels full of baby things began to arrive at the house. Just the week before I’d found out I was having a girl and had started getting things ready for her arrival – it was heart breaking to know I’d have to return everything.

When I returned to the hospital, the scan showed that, despite the odds, there was still enough water around the baby to continue the pregnancy. I was overcome with relief although from that point on the doctors would be keeping a close eye on me to see how things progressed.

The rest of the pregnancy was incredibly stressful. I was signed off work and had been put on strict bed rest. I was stuck inside, and cut off completely from almost everyone apart from those looking after me at the hospital and anyone that was in Asda when my mum would take me with her to get me out of the house. I felt like I was constantly in and out of hospital as just about every other day my waters leaked or I’d experience a bleed. It was an incredible relief to somehow crawl across the 24 week mark and know that my little girl’s chances were a little bit better.

At 26 weeks I had a huge bleed and my parents rushed me to hospital. I was prepped for an emergency c-section but fortunately the doctors found where the blood was coming from and were able to stop it. It seemed inevitable that this baby would need to be delivered early so once I recovered the doctors showed me round the neonatal unit so I would know what to expect.

I woke my parents up one night feeling like something wasn’t quite right. I was 32 weeks pregnant at this point and contractions had started. I was admitted to hospital and three days later the pain was so bad that the doctors knew there was nothing else they could do to keep the baby in.

My mum joined me in the delivery room along with around 20 healthcare professionals. I was so grateful to have mum with me because being surrounded by so many strangers was terrifying and uncomfortable. Labour lasted seven hours because I couldn’t have a c-section because I was too dilated.

Rhea was born at 6.46am and spent a few minutes resting on my chest before crashing. The doctors worked quickly on her and took her straight up to the NICU. Mum and I were left dumbfounded and in shock. We’d seen they’d placed an extremely ugly, pink knitted hat on Rhea and mum turned to me and said: “Well we’ll change that hat.”

We weren’t able to visit Rhea for 10 hours. A consultant came into my room and said: “Your daughter has a breathing tube in at the moment.” My mum was in the corner of the room and was nodding along. It wasn’t until the consultant left that it registered that they hadn’t been talking to her – they’d been talking to me! I was a mum!

That evening, my dad wheeled me to the neonatal unit to see Rhea. She was still wearing the ugly, pink hat but we realised it was specially designed to fit around all the wires and CPAP machine and was also hiding a black eye she sustained during the birth. Dad took a photo of her face to show me as I couldn’t see her from the wheelchair and we sent the photo to Mum. She replied: “Well I guess we won’t be changing the hat after all!”

Just then, the neonatal nurse Will appeared. He had just started his shift and was a massive support from the instant I met him. All the healthcare professionals were wonderful but there was something special about Will and the way he understood our situation. He had a form to fill in with our contact details and there was a space for the Father’s details. I told him Rhea’s dad wasn’t involved and Will said I could put one of my parent’s names down instead. This would give them the same access as me to be able to find out Rhea’s medical details. Will was brilliant – he treated us just like any other family.

I was hesitant to get involved with Rhea’s cares at the beginning. I was totally out of my depth and scared of dislodging any wires or breathing support. I’d never changed a nappy before; let alone for a baby so tiny. On the third day on the unit, Will encouraged me to give it a go and asked my dad to help me. Dad spent the whole time taking selfies and pulling faces which made me laugh and gave me the confidence to try.

On the fifth day I finally built up the courage to hold Rhea for the first time, right before she was transferred to our local SCBU. The nurse offered for my mum to hold her too but she refused and said she didn’t want to take the moment away from me. I can’t tell you how brilliant my parents were to me on the unit. We were a real team and I couldn’t have done it without their love and support.

At the new neonatal unit, the matron bent the rules for us even more and let Mum and Dad be fully involved with Rhea’s cares without seeking permission; just the way they would be when we were home. She also let us decorate Rhea’s cot area which helped me to feel more at ease and the place feel less clinical.

We spent almost four weeks in neonatal care before we could bring Rhea home. The night we roomed in together I could barely sleep and I lay awake watching her to make sure she was breathing.

When they said we could go home I called my dad. I told them it would take a few hours to discharge her but he was so excited he immediately jumped in the car and drove to the hospital to get us.

Rhea has thrived even since. She is now two-years-old and has the biggest set of lungs. We are all so proud of everything she’s achieved. Our time on the unit was tough but our bond as a family is now utterly unbreakable.

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