Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Story of Alexander (part 1)

Every pregnancy and birth is a beautiful story unto itself. No two pregnancies are the same, no two birth stories are the same. Alexander’s story is quite unique. It was both the most amazing and hardest time of my life. The story involves 12 months of trying to conceive, a wedding, a concerning medical diagnosis, intense medical observations, a very negative marriage and relationship, a stay in Ronald McDonald House, the amazing birth of my son, surgeries, an extended stay in NICU, the breakdown of my marriage, the support of my family and friends, finally being able to bring my baby boy home, a separation, moving my son and I to a new home, the beginning of a new relationship and the discovery of love greater than I have ever known.

Alexander at 17 weeks - photo courtesy by Matilda Beezley Photography

This isn’t going to be a quick, short post. Nothing about this is simple. So here it is. Here is the Story of Alexander.

I had met Peter* when I was working as a Paramedic. One of the jobs I was on had us cross paths, he worked for another service that we had contact with and we had seen each other a few times. I had thought he was a little cute but didn’t think much more of the situation. A few weeks later I received a message on Facebook – he had asked a co-worker for my details and they led him to my Facebook page. We met up and hit it off. Things were great at the start, we went on holidays overseas and throughout Australia, we got along really well and had fun together. An opportunity came up for me to transfer to a small country town, around half an hour from where I currently worked – it was a great increase in pay and would also give me a different level of exposure for my career. It was too good to pass up. We decided rather than renting, we would buy a house together. This idea quickly grew into renovating a house together and the hunt was on. We found a house and spent every spare moment we had working on it.

During this time things in our relationship started to change – just little things at first, the way we spoke to each other, things that never bothered us before started to be an issue. And I noticed that Peter started to withdraw from me. I never got a kiss hello or goodbye anymore, hugs were rare and just a general decline in affection. I’m a very affectionate person so I just put this down to stress of work and renovating the house. We would talk about it and things would change for a week or two, then settle back down to how they were beforehand. I was quite taken aback when Peter suggested for us to have a baby. We had spoken about it before, I had always said I wanted to have kids in the future, as in a few years away still, but Peter was concerned about his age (he was 8 years older than me) and wanted to start trying soon. I figured our relationship issues would go away once the house was done or once he was happier at work. I agreed and within the next month ceased my contraception.

It took us 12 months to conceive. By the later stages of that 12 months I was having weekly acupuncture, taking 11 supplements a day, had totally excluded alcohol, was eating the healthiest I had ever eaten in my life, was exercising 3 – 4 times a week and was becoming increasingly worried that there was something wrong. Peter hated needles and refused to be ‘checked’ to see if the issues we were having were stemming from his side so I had no choice but to continue with what I was doing. One night I was called to a job at work – a delivery. The dispatcher told me the patient was 14 weeks pregnant. I checked the information again. I was being sent to the delivery of a 14 week foetus. I prepared myself mentally as best as I could and set off on the job. I met the other paramedic on scene and we headed to our patient. We entered the house and met the young girl, around 18 years old – she was sitting on the couch in the lounge room smoking a cigarette. I asked her what happened and she told me. I moved the towel she had covering her and saw that she had delivered her baby – she was 14 weeks and 3 days. At this point my ‘work mode’ usually has kicked in and I just deal with what is happening, then think about the emotional side of it all later. I assisted the girl to the stretcher and asked her the usual questions. This was her third pregnancy. She had delivered one child who was now 6 months old, and had a previous miscarriage. She heavily smokes, heavily drinks, and uses recreational drugs. It was what she said next that shocked me the most. I must have been looking quite sad or something because she looked at me and said ‘it will be okay – I’ll just get pregnant again in a month or two’. I felt my heart shatter. Why was it so easy for her to fall pregnant and not me?? I carried on treating my patient, gave the handover to the hospital, locked myself in a room and cried.

Two weeks later I found out I was pregnant.

While we were rushing to finish off the renovations of our house, and finalising plans for the house we were planning to build (while I was battling with Hyperemesis Gravidarum and losing weight fast) Peter said to me ‘perhaps we should get married’. Wait… what?? I had mentioned to Peter prior to getting pregnant that it would have been nice to be married before we had a baby but I didn’t mean like this. Peter explained that he wanted his family to be complete – and by that he meant for us to all have the same last name. I was shocked. I didn’t want to have a big baby belly for the wedding. Peter’s resolve to that was for us to get married soon. As in, in a few weeks. I had never really wanted a big fuss of a wedding so I went along with it and said yes. He seemed quite passionate about it all. I had told him I would take care of the wedding plans if he just looked after the plans for the house. Although he agreed to this I knew it would never actually be the case.

We were married 5 weeks later – a simple wedding? It was anything but. We were married on Australia Day 2013 – it was predicted that we would have around 90mm’s of rain that day. That’s a lot of rain on any day, let alone your wedding. We actually received 380mm’s of rain on our wedding day. Not only did we have torrential rain but we all ended up flooded in. Us and 40 guests were stuck for 4 days. Our photographer managed to get out of the main area we were in but had her own issues on the way home – almost being washed away in a quickly rising river, being taken in by a nearby family and preparing to be air rescued. It was full on. Peter and I barely saw each other during that time – he wanted me to spend all of my time with his family (he didn’t like me spending much time with my family, I never really understood why, and this was a real eye opener for how much he was trying to keep me from my family). We argued, a lot. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Again, I chalked it all down to stress. We finally were able to make it home and pack for our Honeymoon to Fiji. We were at dinner with some friends a few nights before we left and Peter was joking around with a friend of ours about how we argued after the wedding – he then told our friend, in front of everyone, how he would rather take him to Fiji than me and proceeded to put me down in front of everyone. I was mortified. He had always had little stabs at me before but this was the first time he really had a go at me in front of everyone. I started to wonder if I was really as bad as what he made me out to be.

After our Honeymoon (we were evacuated from one of the islands due to an impending tsunami) and another little camping holiday (of which we had to leave early due to heavy rain and flooding) we came home and settled back into our lives. It was coming up to our 20 week anatomy scan and I was getting very excited. We were going to find out if we were having a girl or a boy and more importantly, find out if they were growing properly and all healthy.

The day of the scan came, our appointment was at 9am, nice and early. We were called into the room and the sonographer introduced herself. She put the doppler on my belly and within seconds we heard the gorgeous sound of our baby’s heart beating. She asked if we wanted to find out the sex of the baby and we both said ‘yes’. ‘Congratulations’ she said, ‘you’re having a boy’. My eyes started welling with tears of joy. I had a feeling from the moment I found out I was pregnant that this little bean would be a boy. I was overjoyed. The sonographer explained that she would now take a series of measurements and photographs to ensure everything was tracking well with our son. I let her continue pressing the Doppler into my tummy, and started to notice that she was taking a lot of measurements of particular areas, and paying a lot of attention to the lungs. She had a puzzled look on her face. This was taking a lot longer than I thought it would and I was starting to worry. She explained that she just needed to go and speak to one of the obstetricians and left the room. My heart sunk. What could be wrong? I did everything right. I don’t drink, I ate well, I exercise as directed to. What did I do wrong? The Obstetrician came into the room with the Sonographer and said that they had found some abnormalities and wanted to talk to us more in private. We followed him into his office and answered a barrage of questions. I asked him to explain to me what they found. The baby’s bowel was slightly distended and they had found a small amount of fluid on the baby’s right lung. There was no clear answer as to what this could mean, but he explained he wanted to refer us on to the Maternal Foetal Medicine unit at a specialist hospital in a city a few hours away. He wasn’t sure if they would want to see me immediately so I had to wait to hear. I was directed to the waiting room and I sat there, thinking, waiting, over thinking, scared… for four hours.

The obstetrician finally came back out to see me and told me that the specialist hospital would be in contact with me and I would expect to see them in the next few days. I have never known a feeling like this before. Absolute helplessness. I cried. It was all I could do. I hoped, I wished and I prayed that my little boy would be okay and it was just a mistake. I went on to see the specialists at the Maternal Foetal Medicine unit. They explained that they could no longer see the fluid on the lungs that was initially found and that it seemed to just correct itself. They did however see the distention of his bowel and that it was of considerable concern. It seemed that there was something causing a blockage but until he was born they weren’t able to tell what. I was to continue to see the specialists at Maternal Foetal Medicine at the Mater Hospital until the baby was born, and that I would also have to deliver him at the Mater Mother’s Hospital – an hour and a half away from my home. There were more meetings with nurses, midwives, counsellors, specialists and they were talking about staying near the hospital, surgery after he was born, perhaps having to have him early. My mind was racing.
Over the next few months I had several more appointments, scans every two weeks and prepared for being away from home for who knows how long. I was told that I would have to be in Brisbane from 36 weeks in case I had the baby early. We were going to be staying at Ronald McDonald House, right near the hospital. We were also told that our baby would most likely have surgery straight after he was born, then have to stay in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) for some time. Time was a concept, I quickly began to realise, that no one really had any solid understanding of. Nothing was able to be measured definitively. It all changed, day by day, depending on the circumstances at the time.

35 weeks pregnant, I was still so tiny - photo by Matilda Beezley Photography 

Once I reached 36 weeks, I stopped work (yes, I worked on road as a Paramedic right up to 36 weeks) and moved ourselves into our room at Ronald McDonald House. There I waited, and waited. At 37 weeks and 3 days I started having excruciating back pain. The only way I was comfortable was standing, sitting on an exercise ball or laying on the bed with my knees tucked in under me and my head down. At 37 weeks and 4 days my membranes ruptured. I was so excited to meet my little man. We called the hospital and they told us to head over. My contractions were difficult to measure as I had been having Braxton Hicks since I was 16 weeks pregnant. I called my mum and she and my brother jumped in the car to come to see me – driving the 3 hours to get to Mater Hospital from where they lived. After 11 hours of labour I was finally at the stage where they would allow me to push. They had taken the gas off me and I had no pain relief. Because they didn’t know what to expect when the baby was born they had a barrage of people there waiting in the room for him to be delivered, the midwives, obstetrician, NICU nurses, neonatologists, neonatal surgeon… a lot of people. The midwife was encouraging me, telling me everything was fine. I knew it wasn’t fine. I had been listening to the monitor of my son’s heart beat for the last 11 hours – it had sat at a steady 140 beats the whole time. I was now ticking along at a very slow 30 beats per minute. I know that’s bad. I knew I had to get him out but I was exhausted. The midwife realised I knew what was wrong, she looked at me and said ‘you need to get him out now’. It took every ounce of energy I could possibly muster but a few seconds later I heard my son cry for the first time. I didn’t get to cuddle him straight away. They took him over to the resuscitation area to be checked over and ensure he was okay after having a heart rate so low. The finally carried him over to me and I had my first cuddle with the little man who owns my world. He was perfect. I was allowed to cuddle him for a few minutes before they took him away to the NICU.

In the first 6 hours of Alexander’s life he had more tests and scans done than most people have by the time they are adults. At the 6th hour Alexander had his first surgery. He had a complete bowel obstruction, they removed 8cm of his small intestine. He would have to have another surgery in the future (again there was no time frame given) to rejoin his intestine – they were unable to rejoin it initially due to the complications from the obstruction. Alexander was intubated and sedated following his surgery. I cannot being to explain the way it feels to see your newborn son lying sedated with machines assisting him to breathe, knowing you cannot cuddle him, you cannot feed him and you cannot do what it is that comes natural to a mother. I stayed with him as long as I could, the nurse that was looking after Alexander sent me back to my room at around 11pm. She told me I was no good to him if I couldn’t even look after myself and that I needed rest to be strong. I was back with him at 7am the next morning. The following night I received a phone call at 2am – Alexander had pulled his own intubation tube out. They were going to let him have a go at breathing on his own as he seemed to be quite strong. There were no issues and he kept getting stronger. The next day he was moved to another ICU room, one with babies that were still critically ill but a step down from the initial ICU room.

Cuddles with Alexander before his first surgery.

We stayed in this room for the next 8 weeks. We met the most amazing people during this time. Day in and day out I stayed by Alexander’s bed side. I read Roald Dahl to him each day and told him stories of all the people he would soon be meeting. I had cuddles with him late into the night and let him sleep on my chest. Alexander wasn’t allowed to be fed because of the obstruction he had and complications from it. I pumped breastmilk every 3 to 4 hours. I had a very good supply and the nurses joked that they were going to have to get another freezer just for me. I met some wonderful people while Alexander was in NICU, other parents who were going through their own nightmare’s, nurses who became friends and family and who helped me through the days when things didn’t go so well with Alexander or when they could tell Peter and I were fighting badly.

Alexander's 'room' in NICU

Alexander’s stay in NICU was the hardest time of my life. There is so much more to this story and I do not want to do it any injustice by skipping through it. So this is Part 1 of the Story of Alexander. It is a difficult story for me to share – baring myself and sharing our story takes a lot of courage. Part 2 will come in time. I hope this has given a little more insight into our world and why it is perfect enough for us.

Tummy time spent on mummy's chest.

*Name has been changed for privacy purposes.