I thought I was as prepared as I could be. I had researched natural birth and c-sections extensively so that I would know what to expect, and not be caught by surprise.
That actually makes me chuckle as I write that, because Eli's birth could not have been MORE of a surprise. I never even considered the possibility of having a premature baby.
(Side note: Life rarely goes according to plan, so do prepare, but also relax and take it as it comes - motherhood is teaching me this the hard way!)
I was 33 weeks pregnant, and on our "Baby-moon" when I woke up one night with intense pain in my back and chest, that literally took my breath away. I wrote it off to the fact that pregnancy is really tough on your body and Eli must have just moved up into my ribs. I spent the next few days taking painkillers every 4 hours (lame painkillers that only took the edge off - the joys of pregnancy), knowing that I would go see my gynae for my 33 week check-up in a few days anyway.
After a crazy day at work (sending a picture of my "kankles" to my family) and rushing to be at my appointment on time, I finally got to the hospital. I was feeling pretty sick, swollen and exhausted.
It was a routine check-up with a urine test, blood pressure test and ultrasound.
I even discussed my birth-plan with my gynae, desperately wanting natural birth.
Our gyane didn't mention my blood pressure being high, but left the room to go get my urine test results. She came back saying that the protein levels in my urine are very high, measured my blood pressure again, it had gone up to 170/120, and proceeded to tell me that she suspects I have preeclampsia and that she is admitting me straight away. My weight gain had also been abnormal and the symptoms I had a few days prior all pointed to this condition. She also mentioned that the only cure for this condition is delivering the baby, and this will probably take place in the next couple of weeks. No bags packed, no baby room, still supposed to work for another month - it felt completely surreal and I had absolutely no idea how my life was about to change.
Follow the link below to see what the symptoms of preeclampsia are. (I had no idea I had preeclampsia and I'm grateful I got to the doctor in time. It can be fatal for mom and baby as it happens suddenly and isn't always so obvious)
I was admitted straight away for observation through the night, so they could try get my blood pressure under control. I was completely overwhelmed - never having been hospitalized and getting a catheter and drip within an hour. By early hours of the morning, the midwife attending to me told me to prepare myself for Eli to be born today. It was a very emotional night - feeling sick, scared, unprepared, alone and grieving the loss of what I had hoped would be my birth story.
By 06:00 am, when the gynae came to check up on me, I was vomiting into a bed pan (classy, right? - exactly how beautiful I imagined childbirth would be) and feeling at my worst. She made the call to schedule a c-section for later that morning. It was a crazy whirlwind of filling out forms, getting a crash-course on what was about to happen, and what would happen once Eli is born. I should prepare myself for Eli being in hospital for as long as he still should have been in my tummy (7 weeks). It was a logical fact, but devastating as my dream of taking my baby home with me was no longer possible.
After a very quick surgery, Eli was born and hearing him cry was the most beautiful sound in the world! The moment they took him out, I felt immediate relief from the symptoms. I was able to take a quick photo with Eli and give him a kiss on the head. He was wrapped up, put in an incubator and taken up to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit).
Eli James Saker was born Thursday, 4 May 2017 at 11:15am at 33 weeks, weighing 1,8kg.
I was taken to the high care unit for the night to recover and because my blood pressure was still very high. (High care was AMAZING - best sleep I had in months!) Till the next morning, when they took me off the drip and the pain start to set in. It was horrible and I balled my eyes out. Eventually, after a unsuccessful trip to the bathroom and nearly fainting, I was able to get out of bed and was moved to a general ward. That afternoon, more than 24 hours after Eli was born, I finally was able to go see my baby.
It was the craziest day for my husband too. He was torn between checking on me, and checking on Eli. (I wanted him to stay with Eli) He had to fill out all the paperwork, get together all the things on list that I was supposed to have in my hospital bag (which wasn't packed yet - because who has their baby at 33 weeks right?) and get a ton of things for Eli that was needed by the NICU. He even drove into a tree or something that day. (It's just as hard on a new dad who is in complete shock!)
LIFE HACK: I had a file with me where I kept every single important document, ID's, certificate, documents to register baby once born etc. I was able to give this file to my husband and he could complete all the admin with ease and not have to scramble for the right documents.
He was the smallest baby I had ever seen and I was even too afraid to touch him. He had so many wires attached to him and we were told how delicate these wires are and if pulled out, it can be very dangerous for him. I was able to pick him up and hold him for 5 minutes while they changed the sheets in his crib. He was doing well - breathing mostly on his own, mild jaundice and drinking a tiny amount of my expressed breastmilk.
I had to express milk every 3 hours in hospital. It was excruciating even just sitting up in bed, but having to get up, express milk, label it, take it to the fridge down the passage, sterilize the breast pump and repeat was honestly one of the hardest mental battles of my life. It was really good for me to see that I was stronger than I thought. These experiences build endurance, resilience, character and strength. I want Eli to know that he was worth fighting for and worth putting myself second for.
I was discharged on the Sunday afternoon and leaving the hospital without my boy was so much harder than I ever thought it would be. I was relieved to be going home though. The hospital was very far from home, and so the next few weeks would prove to be unbelievably trying as we had to travel to the hospital everyday.
I don't want to bore all of you with the details, but the summary of our time in the NICU is that it took 41 days before Eli was sent home. The biggest delay was that he battled to keep in large amounts of milk, and every time they increased his feed too quickly, he would spit up and they would have to slow it down or start again. He also got an infection when he was 1 week old and they had to stop feeds altogether and put him on antibiotics. It took over a week before I was allowed to hold him and do Kangaroo Care (skin-to-skin cuddling). That was an amazing moment!
Having Eli in the NICU was the most frustrating and emotionally exhausting process I have ever been through. The nurses and our paeditrician made a point of remaining neutral and not giving you any idea of a timeline. Which is understandable because one day I would arrive and he had a great night, and the next day not so great. It often felt like we were never going to be able to leave.
When Eli was 5 weeks old, I was allowed to breastfeed him for the first time. He latched immediately, drank 3x what he was meant to and it was one of the most magical moments of my life that I will always treasure deeply. For the first time since he was born, I felt like a mother.
As a result of the breastfeeding going so well, I was allowed to breastfeed more often, and it took 5 days for them to send him home with us. It happened fast and it was very exciting!
Having Eli home was scary (I couldn't believe they trusted me take take this baby home - I mean, I don't know what I'm doing?) but it was also so wonderful feeling like a real family. One day I will share more about the practicalities of having a preemie at home and what those first few months were like. (Spoiler alert: It was VERY challenging!)
Today, Eli is 9.5 months, full of energy and the happiest baby I know. He has caught up all his milestones and amazes me every day. See gallery at the bottom!
I know there are many families who have much worse birth stories and who endured much longer stays in the NICU, but having a premature baby and staying in the NICU is HARD no matter how long you are there. It is hard because it feels unnatural. It is hard because no one who is there wanted to be there. It is hard because you feel alone, and like no one really understands what you're going through. It is hard because your dream of becoming a mother was completely different in reality. It is hard for so many more reasons.
BUT, it is wonderful because you meet amazing people who inspire you with their strength. It is special because you see this tiny person do things they're not supposed to do yet. It is empowering because you surprise yourself with strength you didn't know you have. It is humbling, because you realize the quality of people you have in your life, who care about you more than you ever imagined.
It is an experience that has made me appreciate being Eli's mom and made me celebrate every little milestone like he has just invented something for the very first time. I do not take Eli's health for granted and I try to be grateful, because it really could be worse. There is so much to be grateful for.
If you are going through this journey at the moment or you're still processing the aftermath of the NICU, feel free to comment or send me a mail. I'd love to encourage you and listen to what you're going through.
My next post will be filled with helpful tips for surviving the NICU, a premature baby and being there for others while their baby is in the NICU.
Here some of my favourite photos from the last 9 months: