Ruth Durkin: All I want for Christmas is you
A mix of prenatal depression, her firstborn needing an extended stay in neonatal intensive care, and ongoing mental health difficulties didn’t provide a dream start to life as a parent. Nevertheless, a turbulent 12 months have put what’s important for Ruth into perspective this Christmas.
In the last two months of my pregnancy in 2017, I had prenatal depression. This meant that in addition to physical exhaustion, I had a black cloud of pessimism and negativity darkening my days. During this time, I struggled to feel any bond or connection with the little boy growing inside me.
My Bipolar Disorder means that my default mode is fairly gloomy anyway, but this was a darkness that shocked even me. I was adamant that something was going to go wrong with this baby. I turned down the offer from a friend to organise a baby shower, refused to open anything gift-wrapped and dissuaded people from buying anything for my baby. On my last day in the office before leaving for maternity leave, I reluctantly emailed my contacts at the instruction of my manager to say I was leaving to have a baby. When I bemoaned her suggestion, I explained that I didn’t want everyone to know I was pregnant, as it would mean more people to tell when something went wrong.
I cannot claim to be psychic but just as a broken clock is right twice a day; in these circumstances, my bleak premonition was right. After several complications, I had to have an emergency C-section at 2.18am.
I hadn’t envisaged what it would be like when I first saw my baby, but the only reference point I had was what I had seen in films. The new mum lying there with immaculate make-up, staring doe-eyed at their new arrival, cradling them in their arms as the Father looks on proudly. My reality was a little different, as my son was rushed straight past me, as I was lying paralysed on the operating table. We locked eyes with each other as someone carried him away. This was my first interaction with him, as we gave each other a knowing “what the **** has just happened?” glance.
The hours following this are slightly blurry in my mind. The cocktail of my bipolar medication mixed with a spinal anaesthetic and morphine, in addition to some trauma, left me feeling delirious, fatigued and confused.
Sometime in the afternoon on the day he was born, I was pushed in a wheelchair to meet my son. He was in an incubator wired up to several machines. Whilst I sat there, a nurse fed him milk through a tube. He was sweaty, his face looked swollen and his breathing was fast. A doctor came to speak to me to explain what was wrong, but I was so spaced-out and tired that I was struggling to keep my eyes open as I spoke to him. I could tell he thought I was very strange by the look on his face, but I felt like I was having an outer-body experience and just couldn’t function properly. By this point, my husband and I had named our son but I still felt disconnected to this little creature I’d produced who wasn’t doing so well. A nurse sorted out all his wires and carried him out of the incubator so that I could hold him. I felt a million miles away as I looked down at his vulnerable little body.
I had no idea that the ward I had just visited was the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). I thought he was in an incubator because he was having some minor problems with his breathing. I had no idea that he had turned blue a few minutes after the C-section.
Over the following few days I regained some semblance of normality and grew to understand what was happening with my baby. I learned that he had something called pneumothorax, which meant that one of his lungs had collapsed. He also had suspected sepsis, a problem with his diaphragm that was affecting his breathing, and withdrawal symptoms from my Bipolar medication.
The final ailment made me feel like the worse Mum in the entire world. During my pregnancy a Consultant Psychiatrist advised me to stay on my medication, as the risk the drugs posed to the baby were less than the risk of me being unmedicated. The reality of the situation was hard to accept, despite a Consultant Neonatologist telling me that what I’d done was the absolute best in keeping us both well.
Due to complications with my health, I was in hospital for six nights. During this time I slept and recuperated, whilst making regular visits to NICU (which was upstairs from my ward). This was my first baby, so I learnt to change a nappy through the doors of an incubator, and had to cuddle him whilst his monitoring wires were draped over me. His heartrate and breathing rate monitors were constantly beeping; with each beep, my anxiety heightened despite the reassurance of the wonderful nurses and doctors.
When the hospital discharged me, I started what would become a five-week stint of travelling to and from the maternity hospital. I was lucky that my Mum was able to accompany me, as my husband had returned to work so that he could save his paternity leave for when the baby came home.
During those five weeks, I fell in love with this little creature I’d created. His name is Gabriel John and he is the strongest and bravest person I’ve ever met. He regained his health with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. I personally think that experiencing difficulties together enhanced the strong bond that developed. I can’t remember now how it felt to not adore him and his infectious giggle.
I watched as his breathing rate became normal, his heart rate slowed down, his lungs healed and he became a normal temperature. This process happened alongside lots of other Mums and Dads with poorly and premature babies. It was a humbling experience that has left me in awe of NHS staff and of the camaraderie and support people show each other when they share a hardship.
I spent at least 5 hours each day in the hospital and grew tired of coffee machine drinks, packaged sandwiches and taxi rides to and from the unit.
Gabriel was in hospital over the Christmas and New Year period. Christmas at NICU was magical and heart breaking all at the same time. The babies received so many presents, Santa visited twice, and the atmosphere was one of positivity and hope. I was thrilled when the Sister told me we could take Gabriel home for four hours on Christmas Day. I think the staff thought I was a bit strange as I left a mince pie for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph at the end of Gabriel’s cot! Some of the presents and cards we received were from parents of babies who had previously spent Christmas in NICU. Hearing about their children who had recovered and knowing that they understood our situation was a huge comfort.
We wanted to give something back to the neonatal unit at the Jessop Wing. Instead of presents for Gabriel’s first birthday in November, we asked for donations and raised over £500. Gabriel is also going to visit the unit before Christmas to deliver a festive gift for each baby in NICU and their parents/guardians.
On 2nd January 2018, we took home our beautiful baby Gabriel. It felt surreal and I was absolutely terrified that was something was going to go wrong and I no longer had professionals alongside me to help if it did. To prevent him from catching anything, which would be dangerous because he’d been so unwell, I was advised to keep him at home for three months.
For the following three months, my gorgeous boy and I hibernated. We lived in our own little bubble far, far away from the outside world. We made up for lost time and became closer than ever.
As I grew nearer to the end of this three-month quarantine, I started to feel very apprehensive about taking him outside our flat. Every stranger looked like a predator, the traffic too fast and the bus too dirty. I started to border on agoraphobia and was in a state of panic when I tried to take him outside or to leave him with a relative.
My husband had a week off work in which he helped me to familiarise myself with taking Gabriel outside of the flat. We went to a baby-friendly cinema screening, for lunch at a pub and took the pram on the bus. This graded exposure allowed me to build some confidence in taking him out and about.
I am delighted to say that an x-ray has concluded that his lungs are now normal and healthy. He is a healthy and happy boy with no remaining problems following his time in hospital. I realise that we are lucky and that some other parents we met in NICU will have ongoing health issues with their babies.
Gabriel and I are turning into social butterflies as we attend baby groups together and meet new friends. The first chapter in his life is one that I will share with him when he is older and I hope that he will understand and feel proud of his spirit and determination.
I will never know how we would have bonded if his start in life had been unproblematic. What I do know, however, is that whatever life throws at us in the future, Gabriel and me will get through it together.
This Christmas I have the best present in the world; my healthy boy at home.