I might not be able to see my baby for three months – Stephen’s story

To minimise the spread of COVID-19, neonatal units have changed their visiting policies and in Stephen’s case, that means only his wife can see their baby.

My wife Lindsey and I knew from 12 weeks into the pregnancy that our baby was going to be early, but he was predicted to arrive when she was between 28 and 32 weeks pregnant. In fact, Theodore was born weighing 520g on Friday 13th March, at 25 weeks and 5 days gestation.

Lindsey had been having what she thought was stomach cramps. But I was timing them and they were only lasting for a few moments at a time, so I realised she was in labour. When we got to the hospital, she started bleeding, and that was when the panic set in for both of us. I was trying to keep her as calm as I could without losing it myself. She was on the delivery ward and, just as the staff were doing a handover, Lindsey screamed and the baby pretty much came out there and then. I’ve never seen so many people rush into a room all at once in my life. I was so scared that the baby wasn’t alive, so I was trying to make sure Lindsey was looking at me instead. It seemed like hours but it must have been about twenty minutes before someone came over and said ‘congratulations, your baby’s fine’, and they told us it was a little boy.

Theodore was born just as hospitals were beginning to adjust the way they were working to minimise the spread of COVID-19, and that meant visiting policies on the neonatal unit kept having to change. For the first few days, family members were able to visit. But on the fourth day that Theodore was there, it was just parents who were allowed, though we could both go on together. The following day, we were told it was one parent in, one parent out, but after that, it became one parent for the whole day. And finally, the visiting policy changed again to having just one nominated parent allowed on the ward for the entire COVID-19 outbreak. Of course, that parent had to be Lindsey. She is Theodore’s mother and he grew inside her, so I was never going to take that away from her. A nurse let me go up to the ward for some cuddles with him on the 27th March, just before the policy changed, but I haven’t seen him since. If the outbreak continues until his due date on the 21st June, when we are expecting him to come home, I won’t have been able to see him for three months.

Lindsey goes to the hospital to be with him every day at 9am and comes back at about 8pm, while I spend my days at home waiting for pictures or any updates. I feel like I’ve had a bit of my heart taken out. As a man, you grow up being told you’re the one who holds the family together and I feel like I’m not there for them. If Theodore has a bad day, Lindsey will be crying on the phone to me, but I can’t do anything. All I can do is reassure her, but it doesn’t feel enough. I feel inadequate.

Because of the stress and anxiety of Theo coming early and not being able to visit him, I have taken sick leave for three months. I was given one week’s compassionate leave but I know I wouldn’t be able to go back to work yet – I’m too distracted by what’s happening with Theo to be able to focus, so I’d be putting myself and others at risk. This will very much damage my sick record, but it’s for my family, and that’s worth everything.

We wish there was more financial support for parents like us. We were planning and saving up, but the baby came before we were ready, and now Lindsey is using up her maternity leave and pay in hospital. Any little amount towards covering the costs of visiting our baby would help, even if it was just for travel costs, because we’ve got so many pressures on us, that it would just ease some of the stress.

There also needs to be more emotional support, and more information about COVID-19. I can’t blame anyone at the hospital because it’s day-by-day for them too. I can’t put the nurses and consultants on any higher a pedestal because they’re unbelievable and I know the nurses are trying to support Lindsey as much as they can. But we feel blind – everything is new to us – and besides being told to turn to Bliss for support and information, which has been great, we’ve had no follow-up. There is normally a counsellor on the unit, but because of the situation with the virus, she can’t get in. So, Lindsey is there all day by herself – having someone who could talk to her just for half an hour would make such a difference.

Having a baby in NICU has to be the hardest part of my life so far, and with COVID-19, it has only been harder. But I’m so proud of Theodore – he’s a wriggler and a fighter – and I can’t wait to hold him again.

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