From IVF to NICU – Gemma’s story

After asking for two embryos to be transferred, against her doctor’s recommendation, Gemma felt responsible when becoming pregnant with twins led to complications.

I started IVF when I was 33 and when the first transfer failed, it was devastating. It was like losing a baby that had never been, which made me feel like I didn’t have the right to be so upset. I felt awful; I just could not believe I could not do what most women found so easy. So when it came to the second cycle, I begged the doctors to transfer two embryos to double our chances. They were very reluctant to do so because normally women my age have only one fertilised egg transferred in their first two cycles. The doctors warned that multiple births often bring complications, but I insisted anyway. And, surprise surprise, I fell pregnant with twins.

At first, I was so excited. But then at each scan, the sonographer would sigh ‘ohhhhh twins!’ as if to say ‘poor you’ rather than ‘lucky you – a double blessing!’, and they would go over again the risks of having multiples.

Then, when I was 13 weeks pregnant, I began to bleed heavily. No one could tell me what had caused it, but the doctors called it a ‘threatened miscarriage’. Those words made me petrified that the pregnancy would end badly, and that there was nothing at all I could do to stop it. For the first few days afterwards, I was a wreck. I didn’t dare go to the toilet alone and made my husband come with me and even check the toilet paper for blood. I didn’t care about my dignity – I was too wracked with guilt, worried that I would lose the twins because I had been selfish and had asked for two eggs to be transferred. But, by some miracle, the babies were fine.

In a way, having the bleed even turned out to be a blessing because, as a result, I was tested for infection, and the results came back positive for Group B strep (streptococcus). The doctor told me I was very lucky that it had been detected because it meant they could manage the risk during labour by putting me on a drip so that antibiotics went through the placenta to the babies. I had no idea how bad streptococcus can be if undetected until I saw two full-term babies with it in the NICU. That made me very grateful that the bleed had served as a warning sign.

My waters broke at 32 weeks, so I was rushed into hospital by ambulance, put straight onto a drip and given steroids to help the babies’ lungs. 24 hours later I gave birth to Mia, who weighed 3Ib 5oz, and Scarlett, who was 3Ib 4oz. Because they were 8 weeks early and needed help breathing and tube-feeding, they were both taken straight to the NICU.

I demanded to see them straightaway, but I was told I needed to rest. ‘If you won’t push me, I will crawl to them’, I insisted. So, four hours after I had given birth, I was taken to see them. As soon as I did, feelings of joy, fear and guilt flooded over me. Again, I told myself that if I had not asked for two eggs, this would not have happened.

The twins had very different journeys on the NICU. Mia, the first twin, absolutely flew through neonatal care. But Scarlett struggled a lot more. She had suspected necrotising enterocolitis (NEC), where the bowel tissue is inflamed (though luckily it turned out she didn’t), and on New Year’s Eve of all nights, the long line in her leg which was delivering nutrients got infected and stuck. It took them from 9pm until 5am to get it out. We spent the evening panicking that she might have to have surgery, so that was not a New Year’s Eve I will forget.

The doctors told me that, with twins, it is common for one to have an easier time on the NICU, but I found it really hard to see one doing so much better than the other. I almost felt like I couldn’t be happy for Mia as she went from strength to strength. But the hardest part was the feeling of not being in control. I felt like all I could do was watch on and pray they would be okay and that there would be no lasting effects from their prematurity. I was terrified they were never going to come home. But reading other parents’ stories on Bliss’ website made me believe that they would pull through.

Five weeks later, they did come home but the fear stayed with me. I barely slept – not because of having to do night-feeds but because I was terrified they might die. I had no monitors to tell me that their heart rate and breathing were all normal. I had no nurses to ask. I didn’t trust myself to be able to tell if they were sick, and I was constantly anxious that they would get a cold, RSV or any other illness.

Eventually, I went to the GP, thinking I had postnatal depression. But when I told him about all that we had been through, he diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. The feeling of guilt came back: I had wanted these babies so much yet I felt like I was falling apart. But I have come to realise that these feelings are really common. Two years later, the memories of the NICU are still with me but now I can see just how strong babies who have been through neonatal care are, and how strong their parents are too.

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