Learning to change a nappy through an incubator porthole - Francesca's story

In this exclusive extract from Mother Ship, Francesca Segal recalls the first time she changed a nappy through the portholes of an incubator.

DAY FIVE

Wednesday, 7th October

I am a new mother learning to change a wet nappy, an everyday rite of passage. I peer down through the top of the incubator, with one arm through each porthole. The task ahead feels like performing a cross between keyhole surgery and a puppet show. But this will be my fourth; surely I will have made some improvement.

All manipulations of premature babies involve a multitude of factors. They must be handled like precious relics, like the irreplaceably old. Each move must be calculated and cautious, gentle as an art restorer working on a Vermeer.

From each foot runs a tube or wire; on the baby’s left foot the glowing saturation probe, the light shining hot through her translucent foot like the red glow of a slow-sinking evening sun. Into her right ankle runs the hated, necessary longline: somewhere in that fatless leg it ascends, almost to the chambers of her heart. From her left hand emerges an intravenous cannula for medication and glucose. On her bare chest are three sticky squares from which finer leads emerge, monitoring her temperature, heart and respiration rate. The nurses gather these three into a neat bouquet and tape them down with one tab of the nappy, to keep them from tangling.

With Raakhi’s encouragement I use the flat of my hand beneath the baby’s knees and thighs to push them back as gently as I can, and it is as if, in lifting her knees, I have opened a faucet. Perhaps I have compressed something in the baby’s tummy because suddenly there is an expulsion of poo, mustard yellow, coming with such unexpected trajectory and force it is as if someone stepped on an open tube of toothpaste. It is on the front and back of both of my hands, and smeared down both wrists. It is on the sheets, and on the monitoring electrodes. It is still squirting from the baby but I don’t even know how to begin to stop it. I have moved a hundred miles beyond my competency, and beyond any hope of resolution. I can only wait, like a castaway bobbing on a raft. If Raakhi doesn’t put her hands through the other side to help I will be trapped like this for ever. I begin turning from left to right and back again as I search hopelessly for a solution, when I see Raakhi beside me, her hand clapped over her mouth. It’s on her hat, is all she manages, and then succumbs to helpless giggles.

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