Going into labour abroad – Charlotte’s story

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A day trip to Paris turned into an 8-week stay when Charlotte unexpectedly gave birth 11 weeks early

My husband and I were on a day trip to Paris – one I had begged him to go on so I could finally see the Eiffel Tower before our baby arrived. We arrived at 2pm on the Tuesday and were due to leave at 5:13pm on the Wednesday. We definitely didn’t plan on staying for eight weeks while our daughter was in NICU. But when our daughter arrived precisely six minutes after we were due to leave, eleven weeks premature, that was exactly what happened.

We have no idea why she arrived when she did. I was having the perfect pregnancy. Just the week before, I’d had a 4D scan and all my test results had come back fine - she was growing perfectly. So for someone who is usually so organised, we were completely unprepared for her arrival. I only had an overnight bag with a change of clothes and a toothbrush. That first night in hospital I didn’t even have a pair of shoes to walk to the NICU, let alone toiletries to have a wash.

We had only been in Paris for a few hours when I found a pink jelly-like discharge when I went to the toilet. I waited to ring the midwife as, in a panic, I lost the ability to say what I’d found. I went quiet, and it wasn’t until we were later going round the Sacre Coeur that I told my husband.

My mother-in-law calmly suggested that I go to hospital to get checked out. As soon as the midwife checked me over, her first words were: “I have bad news, the baby is coming”. I have no idea what she said afterwards; I went into a blind panic.

They gave me steroids and antibiotics, but the next morning, they needed to transfer me across Paris in an ambulance to a Level 3 Hospital, where I ended up giving birth – with no hospital bag, no birth plan and no maternity notes. We hadn’t even known that our baby was going to be a girl until this point.

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I got to hold her tiny hand before she was taken to NICU. Her tiny lungs weren’t developed and needed inflating. Her stomach looked enlarged compared to her flattened chest and her arms and legs were stretched out like a starfish. Then she was whisked away and I was left to rest.

NICU is a unique place. It has its own language that becomes your new vocabulary. I’m sure it is difficult to understand at the best of times but we found it even harder as everything was in a foreign language. I couldn’t remember anything from my GCSE French - even if I had, it wasn’t like I had been taught the words for ‘jaundice’ or ‘low iron levels’.

Most of the medical team didn’t feel confident enough about the level of their English to explain to us what was going on. Things would get lost in translation, and we often relied on using charades to ask questions.

We turned to the internet as our main source of information, particularly over the first few days, because neither of us had a clue what was happening or what to expect. Most of what I read on Google scared me, I read articles that suggested my daughter had a 90% chance of survival and that she would end up with a disability and/or a long-term health condition.

I was petrified to tell anyone that she’d arrived in case I jinxed it and she became part of that statistic. The more research I did, the guiltier I felt, worrying that I had done something wrong.

My anxiety levels stayed consistently high throughout her time in hospital. I was on edge all the time, permanently in fight or flight mode. When we were with her, I’d be waiting for an alarm to go off. I was grieving for my pregnancy, I grieved for all the cuddles I couldn’t give my baby and over the fact that I couldn’t soothe her during the night.

I felt love towards this baby in the incubator but I didn’t feel like she belonged to me. I would regularly question my husband, “is she definitely ours?”; it just didn’t seem real. But getting involved in her cares and doing skin-to-skin definitely helped me to feel connected to her and to feel more like a mum.

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The whole situation tested my relationship with my husband. We were living on top of each other 24/7, away from home, our friends and family. Most days my husband was the only person I spoke to. I missed small talk. We were both tired, stressed and caught up in our emotions, struggling with anxiety.

My response to sadness is to retreat inside; to escape into the thoughts in my head and think of all the things I cannot say out loud. It was exhausting to keep myself going, let alone consider someone else’s feelings. But looking back, this journey has made our relationship stronger because we shared this experience together and at least we had each other.

There were two things we needed in order to come home. The first was for our daughter to be medically stable and reach 2kg (over 800g more than her birth-weight). The second was a passport, and that proved to be the source of even more stress. When our daughter was born, she was technically stateless and we had to prove her lineage for a British passport. To do that, we had to have someone find and bring us our birth certificates, our marriage certificate, and that of both sets of parents.

We had to find an official translator to translate them all and take a photograph, the requirements for which couldn’t be met while she was in an incubator. It took us four weeks to be able to take that photograph and even then we needed an accompanying doctor’s letter explaining why she had respiratory tubes in her nose.

The turnaround time on a baby’s first passport is normally six weeks which meant she would’ve been ready to come home yet not had the documentation to travel. But thankfully, through a friend, we were able to get a contact at the French consulate and she fast-tracked our application.

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Being discharged from hospital felt anti-climactic after the stress and anxiety of the previous eight weeks. It was a disorganised rush. After having our hands held throughout her care, now we were being let free with hardly any information. Unfortunately the doctor and nurse caring for our daughter that day didn’t speak English at all, and nor did the hospital administrator. So we left without lots of our questions being answered.

The whole process felt a bit like checking out of a hotel: go settle the bill, hand in your keys and then you can leave. The bill we were presented with was for €98,000. I was so thankful that I had almost absentmindedly packed my EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) with my passport that Tuesday back in August, and that I had registered our daughter for one as soon as she was born. So, just like that the bill was wiped - all eight weeks of her care covered by EHIC. And suddenly we could leave. After 58 days of walking down that corridor, we finally walked out for the final time.

Now, back home, I feel free; the guilt has gone and my anxiety has eased. It was the scariest time of my life but I feel blessed because I have been able to see my daughter’s strength and I’ve even found a strength in myself that I didn’t know existed. We’ve still got some battles to face but I thank my lucky stars that we made it home.