"I tried to stay strong" - Chris' story #ByYourSide

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Ahead of World Prematurity Day, Chris reflects on his experience as a dad who had a baby boy born prematurely. In his story, he shares what practical and emotional support would have been helpful for him during Teddy's time in NICU.

We found out that my wife Phili was pregnant back in June 2021. It was our first child, so we were very excited but also had nerves and uncertainty about what to expect.

We had what you would consider a ‘normal’ pregnancy. Both the 12-week and 20-week scans were fine. We didn’t want to find out whether our baby was going to be a boy or girl, so the anticipation really started building!

Phili’s due date was at the end of February 2022 and preparation was well underway as we headed closer. But, in the middle of December Phili’s waters suddenly broke, just shy of 30 weeks. At the time she was still feeling okay but was naturally worried.

We initially went to Worcestershire Royal Hospital, which is where we planned for Phili to give birth. They monitored her overnight and at about 5 am she was taken to Birmingham Women’s and Children's Hospital, due to a lack of space in the neonatal unit in Worcester.

She was kept in for monitoring for a few days, so I took some leave from work to travel up each day. We thought she was going to be discharged and had even chosen what takeaway we were going to order, but doctors told Phili to stay for further monitoring instead of sending her home.

We’re so thankful because overnight she started feeling uncomfortable and unable to sleep.

By the morning she was becoming very dilated. I was an hour’s drive away and I'd got a bag packed ready in case anything would happen. When she phoned to say that they were taking her down to the delivery suite, I bolted it as fast as I could up to Birmingham.

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90 minutes later, our beautiful boy Theodore (Teddy) was born weighing just 2lb 14oz. The delivery room was full of people – doctors, nurses and even a paramedic who had never seen a birth before. Immediately Teddy was checked by the staff and then taken straight to the NICU. We had only five minutes to meet and cuddle him.

We quickly learned that the antenatal classes that we’d been to didn't prepare us for premature birth or complications, so we had no knowledge or understanding of what having a premature baby would be like. Our only source at first was Phili’s mum, a matron of a neonatal ward, so we could ask her questions about what was happening.

I spent the next two days travelling back and forth to Birmingham before we were told that Teddy wasn’t sick enough to stay in a level three unit. We didn’t get too long to process this news and felt hard done by because we just didn’t understand what was happening.

He was taken to Gloucester Royal Hospital where he was in their neonatal unit for two further weeks because Worcester had a full ward. Gloucester was a 90-minute round trip each day, a physically and mentally draining journey to do consecutively.

The staff were exceptional and considerate treating us as caregivers and not visitors, and the little things at Gloucester really made a difference for me. For example, I was able to get lunch and dinner at the hospital if I wanted to.

This was different to other neonatal units where I wasn’t offered food but mums were, an example where I felt unimportant despite being a NICU dad.

Elsewhere, I then had to deal with the challenges of trying to sort out time off work. I was lucky to have a supportive manager who understood the circumstances were very much out of our hands. But without any entitled leave, it added stress to an already difficult period.

I was then starting to use special leave which was running out, and I had that worry in my mind of not being able to be there for Phili and Teddy, especially as it was such a long journey for Phili to do on her own every day.

Equally, I had concerns about losing income if I took unpaid leave, so I was preparing to make an unenviable decision between being there for my family and having no money coming in, or having to work and not being able to care for Teddy and support Phili.

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Teddy was eventually moved to Worcester, his third hospital in such a short time. Here Phili started transitional care to get Teddy home as soon as possible. She made the selfless decision to stay in hospital for two weeks with Teddy to establish feeding through breastfeeding, and he was then discharged towards the end of January 2022.

This wasn’t easy and meant Phili was sleeping at hospital for almost a week, but she did what any mother would do if it meant Teddy could come home.

Unfortunately, Phili caught Covid-19 from someone in the transitional care unit, so she had to isolate for two weeks. It was really challenging as I had to take a further two weeks of annual leave and I didn’t get the time at home that I wanted to have with Phili and Teddy.

Reflecting on those 5 weeks Teddy was in hospital, we always get a lump in our throat about how hard that period of our lives was and everything we all went through. We spent so much on fuel, driving about 3,000 miles.

We were lucky that Phili and I could manage some costs, but now we've come to the point where Phili no longer has maternity pay and we've really tightened our belt. I sold my car so that we've got a cushion of funds available; with the cost-of-living crisis, we’ve now got a baby to think about and make sure we can afford the necessities like heating the house.

However, we’re really thankful that Teddy excelled in NICU - he was known as the yoga baby as he never had his legs down. He'd always sleep with his legs up in the air!

The staff across the units were really considerate, helping us with skin-to-skin contact and letting us feed him through a nasal tube. Having that responsibility and allowing us to be caregivers, as a parent in a really challenging and complex environment was great and really helped us bond with Teddy early on.

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Looking forward, my wish is for more people to be told about the neonatal experience and what parents go through. At the time I would have found it helpful to have read stories about what other parents, particularly other dads went through during the time when their baby was in NICU.

I’d love to have known early on the emotions they were feeling and to share the worries I had with people who understood. I tried to stay strong throughout but came to a low point a couple of months after Teddy came home after letting my guard down.

Even to this day I sometimes get a little choked up looking at photos of Teddy in NICU and what he had to endure.

Bliss was and still is an important part of our lives. After much time had passed when Teddy was in NICU, I found strength in needing to be there for Phili and saying goodbye each day was the hardest thing. We turned to the internet to find clarity, understanding and support for what was going on.

Bliss was the first place we found which showed that we weren’t alone in how we were feeling and that so many others had the same thoughts and worries that we did during our NICU experience.

Teddy's doing really well now, he’s nearly eleven months old. He's crawling everywhere and has just a fantastic personality. Thankfully we’re at the stage with Teddy where we can think about our own well-being more and look after ourselves.

For example, I’m so fortunate that Bliss has offered me a place to run the London Marathon, not just about getting fit, but so I can raise awareness and funds for a cause that impacts so many families each year. We’re also planning Teddy’s 1st birthday - where has the time gone!

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