‘To all the parents of NICU babies, I’m thinking of you’

This time last year, I was sitting in my hospital bed, numb and exhausted, when a knock rattled the door.

"Happy Mother's Day," said the uniformed woman with a smile, as she handed me a single red rose in cellophane.

I held it in my hand, overcome with sadness.

A few days earlier I had given birth, but I still wasn't sure I would be taking a baby home.

Felix was born at 6.48am on a Friday morning but my day wasn't spent bumbling through those first wild hours of motherhood getting flustered when my baby cried, changing my first nappy, wrangling a newborn into breastfeeding. Instead, my newborn baby lay four floors beneath me in neonatal intensive care (NICU).

By nightfall of his birthday, I still hadn't seen or held him. The doctors thought it best I didn't come into NICU. They didn't want that to be the first image I had of my little boy, they said.

So I lay in my hospital room, alone, unable to move, trying to make sense of the sea of sounds and images, whirling through my mind.

Amelia Saw with her son, Felix, last year. Picture: Supplied
Amelia Saw with her son, Felix, last year. Picture: Supplied

The slap of the midwife's hand as she slammed it down on the emergency buzzer. Someone shouting, "Flat baby! Flat baby!" The rush of hospital staff as they swarmed the room like moths. The sight of a baby's pale, limp body being ripped from my chest and the warmth of a midwife's hand as it held mine while doctors resuscitated my baby. "Don't look," she said, "don't look".

It wasn't until 12 hours later that I finally saw Felix. A tiny tangle of tubes and brain monitoring, shivering with blue lips - a result of being "cooled" to prevent the damage doctors suspected occurred during his birth.

They couldn't tell me if he would recover. They couldn't even test to see what damage had been done for six long days while they waited for swelling to go down.

While all the other mothers jiggled their screaming babies on the maternity ward and wheeled their bassinets into the lunch room at meal times, all I longed for was to hear mine cry.

Instead, my first weeks of motherhood were spent in the "milking room" alongside intensive care. Each day rows of women sat side-by-side, electronic pumps attached to their breasts, extracting milk for their desperately sick babies to be tube fed.

We were strangers - united by trauma - but the milking room was a place of camaraderie and support. Stories were told over the rhythmical hum of the breast pumps.

Amelia Saw wasn’t able to see Felix for 12 hours after giving birth. Picture: supplied
Amelia Saw wasn’t able to see Felix for 12 hours after giving birth. Picture: supplied

It's weird to share your most vulnerable moments with a stranger. Weirder still to do it topless. But somehow the mutual vulnerability was empowering. We were in this together.

There was a mother of twins, who was still at work when she delivered her babies at 26 weeks. Another was mother to a baby girl, born so premature she weighed just 420 grams at admission. After multiple strokes and lung collapses, both mother and baby were still battling on.

There were mothers from the country, non-English speaking mothers, single mothers, IVF mothers, well-dressed mothers, broken mothers.

Mothers who would be taking healthy babies home, and mothers who would not.

In my case, Felix had earned his admission to NICU in the final hour.

At 37 weeks, I was diagnosed with mild pre-eclampsia and put on medication to control my blood pressure. Felix and I were monitored closely in those last weeks, but every time his heartbeat was checked a giant smile would sweep across the midwife's face. "Happy baby!" she would say reassuringly.

I was induced on my due date and Felix coped well through the 24-hour labour. Until he didn't.

Felix coped well through the 24-hour labour. Until he didn’t. Picture: Supplied
Felix coped well through the 24-hour labour. Until he didn’t. Picture: Supplied

By the time he entered the world, he wasn't breathing. He barely had a heartbeat and after resuscitation, doctors were concerned he showed depressed brain activity due to oxygen deprivation.

"I didn't think that was going to happen," the highly experienced obstetrician told me tenderly afterwards. "Sometimes in medicine, we just don't know why things happen. There was no indication. It happens in about 1 in every 1000 births, we just don't know why."

I spent those early days of motherhood glued to Felix's intensive care crib, his tiny fingers wrapped around mine. I would sing softly, but somehow in the trauma I had forgotten every nursery rhyme. So Felix heard jazzy renditions of Nat King Cole instead.

"Unforgettable, in every way

And forever more, that's how you'll stay

That's why darling it's incredible

That someone so unforgettable

Thinks that I am unforgettable too …"

Felix celebrated his first birthday last week. Picture: Supplied
Felix celebrated his first birthday last week. Picture: Supplied

When Felix and I were finally discharged several weeks later, the doctors couldn't tell me he was going to be OK.

His brain scans had come back to show only minor damage which should resolve itself without any major issues, but it was a "watch and see", they explained. They couldn't make any promises.

But last week, we celebrated Felix's first birthday with a cheeky, clever and active (almost) toddler - a little boy who has not only met his milestones but soared past them.

We ate too much buttercream icing, played with balloons and admired his Spot the Dog cake. It was the type of day I prayed for during our time in NICU.

Not every mother will be enjoying a happy Mother's Day this year, and not every NICU family gets a joyful outcome. But if you're reading this and currently living through hell, please know there's every chance things will get better.

Take my word for it.

Amelia Saw is a journalist with News Corp Australia

Originally published as 'To all the parents of NICU babies, I'm thinking of you'


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