In October 2006, 26 weeks into a twin pregnancy, my waters broke and I was admitted to hospital. The chances of survival for my boys would increase a little each day that the pregnancy was sustained, and I was put on bed-rest to await the onset of labour. Two weeks later my beautiful boys were born, weighing less than 3lbs each. Without a chance to hold or kiss them, they were taken to the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) where we were able to see them some hours later. I held my eldest child later that evening, and his brother a few days later when he was more stable.
I began expressing immediately, to give the boys those first precious drops of colustrum and to encourage my milk to come in. It was at that point that the SCBU staff spoke to us about donor milk. My boys were to be started immediately on milk, beginning with a millilitre each hour, fed through their nasal tubes. If I prefered, I could request that my small amount of milk be supplemented with formula, however I was overjoyed to discover that there was the option of using breast milk, donated by other women. Every mother wants to do the best for their baby, and I was no exception. In addition to the normal ‘baby blues’, I was convinced that it was my fault; that I had failed in some way for going into premature labour, and now I was unable to do anything to help my precious boys.
The babies tolerated their feeds well and began putting on weight and breathing independently. Gradually their feeds were increased, and as my milk came in I had more than enough for their needs. I looked forward to being able to breastfeed them both, and began to feel that I was a real mummy at last. I was expressing every three hours, day and night, and spending all day at the hospital with the boys. I was exhausted with the daily drive, the sleepless nights and the stress and worry of the daily updates, but it still felt incredible to be a mother.
Three weeks later our world came crashing down when our first-born fell ill with a hospital super-bug, and was put back on the ventilator. Each day brought more tests and more bad news, and a lumbar puncture revealed that he had bacterial meningitis. The word alone strikes fear into the heart of every parent, and we knew from the outset that it was be a battle that might not be won. We had fallen into the habit of calling SCBU morning and night, as well as the daily visit, and I began to dread each phone call, knowing that the outlook was getting bleaker. We held onto every crumb of comfort that could be gained from each update from the consultant, and swung wildly between hopeless optimism and complete despair.
Our boy fought very hard, but he suffered a massive bleed to his brain, and we were faced with some impossible decisions to make. The days that followed were unbearable, and impossible to describe. No parent should ever have to go through what we went through. In December we removed all intensive care from our little boy, and we held him for the first time without tubes and wires. At exactly five weeks old, he died in his Daddy’s arms.
The hardest thing was simply to keep going; to go back into SCBU and visit just one little boy, to call the unit and ask after just one baby, to continue expressing day and night when every ounce of me wanted to curl up and die. It was the hardest thing, but also the most straight-forward; having two children doesn’t make it any easier to lose one, but it does give you a reason to keep going. We had no choice, and eventually life became more bearable.
As time went on, and expressing became even harder, we began to supplement our surviving son’s milk with formula instead of donor milk. His weight-gain was good, and he was healthy, and we felt strongly that with donated milk in such short supply, we would rather it were used to help those babies most in need. Eventually my milk stopped completely. In February 2007, after thirteen weeks in SCBU, we brought our son home from the hospital and finally became a family.
Babies stay in SCBU for many different reasons, but all of them need all the help they can get. If you have ever expressed yourself, you will know that it is a difficult and time-consuming process. SCBU mothers are exhausted, desperate with worry, and dealing with the practical issues of managing a family whilst spending hours each day at the hospital. Being offered donated milk is like being thrown a life-line when you are floundering, and I beseech you all to consider promoting this cause. It is hard to explain exactly what it meant to me, but I hope that by reading this post, you will begin to understand.