The first time I saw my son after birth - Olivia's story

When Olivia Gordon’s son Joel was born critically ill, she caught a brief glimpse of him before he was taken to neonatal intensive care. In this exclusive extract from her new book, The First Breath (Pan Macmillan, £16.99), Olivia tells of the first time she met her son properly.

We walked, hearts thudding, down a corridor towards intensive care, Nursery 3, Cot 11, where we were told we’d find our baby.

Thinking about that walk I was to repeat so often over the months that followed still sent chills through me and made me gulp for breath for a year after we were discharged. There was a machine halfway along the corridor which made a sound I will forever associate with the peculiar terror of the walk. The sound was a repeated electronic ‘da- da’. It was the sound of a computer monitoring something, somewhere – I never found out what. The closer I came to the sound, the closer I came to my baby, who was behind a closed door in a sealed shell of an incubator.

Opening the door of Nursery 3, I saw a room very unlike any nursery in my imagination. Bright white light, beeping alarms and tropical indoor heat. There were four incubators, one in each corner, two nurses, and a host of monitors by each incubator; one or two other parents in the room sitting beside them. My eyes searched for Cot 11. Everything, it seemed, rested now on this number. I wasn’t generally superstitious but couldn’t help feeling grateful it wasn’t Cot 13. Number 11 was the incubator right in front of me, closest to the door, away from the glazed windows. A young, smiling nurse with dark hair in a pony-tail greeted us. I made myself turn back to the sink by the door, where I washed and sanitized my hands again before I took a closer look.

Inside the clear plastic box I saw not so much a baby as a person. His blue eyes saw me and his gaze had the seriousness and intelligence of an old soul. It was as if this person was trapped in a sick baby’s body. He was naked but for a nappy, his hair and his face mostly concealed beneath a colourful woolly hat and ventilator tubing. I wanted to examine every hair on his body but I agonized over whether I should lay my fingers on his incubator, let alone open the portholes to touch this holy person inside.

There was no crying audible from the incubators in intensive care, just eerie silence. The babies are too premature to cry and anyway, the ventilators allow no sound to escape and the incubators act as a further muffler. The only signs of discomfort are babies screwing up their eyes, wriggling slightly or fluttering their twig-like legs.

We had decided at Christmas to call our son Joel. Now, a name seemed the least important thing. Standing in the doorway of the intensive care nursery, a young registrar told us that this first forty-eight hours was crucial.

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The First Breath: How Modern Medicine Saves the Most Fragile Lives by Olivia Gordon is published by Pan Macmillan (£16.99).
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