Life & death in a day
The 23rd November is no longer any other day for us. It’s now etched in our calendars as probably the most emotionally epic day of our lives. Anticipation, elation and heartbreak all rolled into one.
The night before had been a fraught one, as I said in my last blog. The butterflies had shrunk overnight, but they were still churning in our stomachs as we made our way to Auckland Hospital to wait on our Caesar. After nine months of anxiety, we were about to meet our baby… and more than likely, alive!
It’s a strange feeling walking into a hospital to have a baby and knowing you’ll likely walk out with nothing in your arms. Every other time I’d walked out with people cooing over the cutey in a capsule. As we waited for admission I looked around at the other couple there and wondered what was going through their minds. I’m sure their nerves were twitching too, but hopefully not for the same reasons as us.
The Caesar was booked for 10.30am and we were quickly gowned up and on the go through to theatre… ahead of schedule.
Now Caesar is often thought of as the soft option, a shortcut to your bundle of joy… And with Jake, it definitely seemed that way (despite the fact you’re shackled to a bed, tilted on a 30 degree lean, and delivering in front of about 12 people in the full glory of fluorescent lighting).
This time round, it was a little less of a walk in the park. Time and timings have always been rather important in this journey, and never more so than at delivery. The staff knew our plan inside out, as did our parents, who were making their way in to hospital with our kids, so they could be there waiting in the wings to meet the baby when she was born.
But timings got rather thrown out when the anesthetist began attempting to give me my spinal block. After three rather painful attempts by one anaesthetist, a random diagnosis of scoliosis (curvature of the spine) in the mix, and one successful attempt by another anesthetist, they finally had the epidural in my back and slowly the feeling in my lower body was fading out. Only 45 minutes later. I had thought we might be all done and dusted by then!
I lay on the surgery bench strung out like the Vitruvian woman, waiting for the anaesthetic to kick in. My nerves were so high that I just couldn’t stop my upper body from shaking. Supposedly that’s a drug side effect too, but I don’t recall it being like that in my other Caesars. I had to grit my teeth to stop them clattering together and persistently relax my muscles every few minutes as they’d worked themselves into tight knots. Tears streamed down my cheeks as all the emotion and effort of the last nine months was about to become a reality. You really feel totally helpless in a moment like that – what more can I do? This is it.
My midwife held my hand through all the tugging and pulling of the operation, and finally the baby was born… No crying sound, which is slightly disconcerting for a parent! But I’d prepped myself for that. Finally after what felt like a good 30 seconds, my midwife confirmed, “She’s breathing”.
So, Nina Kelly Christie was born, alive, at 11:38am, 4lb 11oz (2.1kg), 48cm long, at 36 weeks.
Our midwife passed Nina to Russell and he bought her over to me to meet her. I don’t know what I expected from this moment. I hadn’t formed any image in my head about what it might look like – getting excited about things doesn’t really feature in my emotional repertoire. Plus, we, and the medical team, really had no gauge as to what might happen on the day and whether she’d have any physical deformities. But she was tiny, absolutely beautiful (while covered in vernix!), and wide-eyed. She looked too perfect to have so many things wrong with her.
Before she was born we had made decisions about how much intervention we wanted to happen. Because we knew her condition and the impact it might have on her little life, we had said we only wanted assistance to help her breathe, so clearing the airways and a resuscitation bag if necessary – no intubation. This was for a couple of reasons:
We were pretty sure we wouldn’t have long with her, so in the time she had we wanted her to spend it with us rather than with the medical team.
Tubing her up to an oxygen machine wasn't going to advance her life in any way… it may prolong it, but wouldn’t change her development or the challenges she faced because of her chromosome condition. And at some point we’d probably have to make the unenviable decision to turn the switch off.
If babies are intubated they have to move to NICU… and no kids under 5 are allowed on NICU because of the risk of infection to high-risk bubs. We were really focused on giving our kids the opportunity to meet her and this would have excluded Jake, at least.
Now Nina was breathing but not well at all. She was covered in vernix and seemed pretty clogged up so the team took her to the other side of the room, with Russell, and tried to get her breathing a little better with the resuscitation bag. At this point when you see your baby struggling to breathe it’s pretty natural to ask, ‘what more can we do?!’, as Russell did. But the obstetrician explained to him that in most people our brains tell our lungs when we need to breathe and this just happens automatically – in Nina’s case those connections in the brain just weren’t there.
And so for the next 1 hour 47 minutes of her life she went on breathing, probably at only about four or five breaths a minute. She met her brother and sister, her grandparents and her aunt. She was cuddled, kissed, dressed, and loved, and we had an amazing almost two-hours together that we never expected to have at the start of all this.
She never struggled, she just breathed when she needed to, and then over the hour as she became more tired, her eyes were closed more than open, and slowly she drifted off, in my arms.
And that was our time with her – little but lovely. Despite having our baby die that day we felt such a sense of elation at the whole experience – the fact that we got to meet her, how we were cared for in every way by the team at Auckland Hospital, the way they threw the rule book away on so many occasions (Caesar, family allowed in the recovery room, photographer in theatre… and so many other little things that really made a big difference to our experience).
My emotion must have rubbed off too as I was really struck by how such a little life can have so much impact – even just in theatre and on the ward, the amount of tears and genuine empathy I saw and felt from staff, even people who had never met us before and didn’t know the background to it all.
As I said, we walked out of life and death in a day feeling pretty elated. The evening of and days after, a little less euphoric! When the bustle is gone, you’re on your own, and there’s no baby to soak up every minute of your time. The next few days and weeks were also a realisation that this is over. This ‘odyssey’ that consumed a lot of our life in 2016 was over… Life feels a little empty, or perhaps even boring! We’re back where we were before even thinking of bub. But that’ll have to do. Life, as normal, may well be a good way to start 2017.