“Things are going to happen very fast, but you are in preterm labour and you going to have your baby right now!”

Excuse me?!?!

Let’s backtrack to 18 hours before….

I was in my den adding items to my baby shower registry.  I was 28 weeks, 4 days pregnant and my belly finally popped.  I was very tiny throughout my first two trimesters, so at last I had that visible, round, baby bump.  I was enjoying every moment and was in awe every time the baby moved.  The baby was very active and I was certain that the baby was playing a non-stop soccer match.  Soccer does run in the family.  That evening, my mother called me and asked how I was feeling.   My words were literally, “better than ever!” Nothing I did that night was out of the extraordinary.  I spent some time on the computer and then hit the tube for the remainder of the night and went to bed.  I had a hard time falling asleep though, as I did every time my husband was working his on call shift at the hospital (he is an internal medicine resident).  Finally, after counting a million sheep, I managed to doze off at about midnight.

The following day, I woke up for work at 6:15 a.m. as I always did, but this time I felt different.

I was in pain, but not just any pain, it was something I had never experienced before.  I felt as if there was a sharp knife stabbing me repeatedly in my lower abdomen and back. However, I thought that they were just growing pains and it was all completely normal.  So I carried on with my day, made breakfast and got ready to go to work. Somehow I made it to work, but the pain I was experiencing got worse. 

The pain would be on and off, approximately going on every 5 to 10 minutes.  I barely made it to my desk and couldn’t even start off with a client call as the pain persisted. I thought; OK I must be feeling really bad, let’s try to make it to lunch.  My colleague sitting next to me looked at me and said, “you don’t look too good.  Maybe you should go home and rest.” I tried to shrug it off, played tough and said, “it’s just some growing pains, I’m sure I’ll be fine.” It could also be the Croatian in me – stubborn and ignoring the pain, because after all, I didn’t want to use a sick day just because I was pregnant.  My grandmother was pregnant 7 times and had to work on the farm, so the least I could do was sit at a desk.  Well, I wasn’t feeling well, and somehow my colleague (thank God she did) convinced me to go home and take the rest of the day off.  I left after an hour and barely made it home.

When I arrived home, the pain worsened.  My husband, exhausted from his 26 hour-long  shift, found me on the couch to his surprise.  He asked me why I came home so early and I replied that I was in pain, so he advised me to rest.  As he went upstairs to sleep, that’s when the screaming started.  The pain continuously got worse and I decided to go to the washroom, when I noticed spots of blood.  I had just lost it.  I started to scream, my husband rushed downstairs and asked me what was going on. “I think something is wrong….I’m spotting blood.”   Both my husband and I knew something was not right.  Within 10 minutes he showered real quick and rushed me to my family doctor, who took us in immediately. It was 12:30 p.m. by this point. As my doctor proceeded to examine the baby with her doppler she stated, “baby’s heart rate is fine and baby’s head is down.  But I don’t like that you are spotting…go to the hospital for monitoring immediately.”

We jumped into our car and within 10 minutes we made it to London Health Sciences Centre – Victoria Hospital.  At this point, the pain was really excruciating, 1 minute on, 1 minute off.  Could these be contractions?  Or Braxton Hicks? It was about 1:30 p.m. when we checked into OB triage.  The clerk shouted, “this lady needs a room now!” I was immediately placed into a room and was examined by the resident who initially thought I was having the case of Braxton Hicks.

I thought, “would this mean I would have to be on bed rest for the remainder of my pregnancy?

When I proceeded to the washroom to do a urine sample, I was bleeding even more.  The only thing on my mind was, is the baby OK? What is happening?  The OB then proceeded to examine my cervix.  She rushed out of the room and stated that she would return shortly.  I then looked up at my husband, who witnessed the whole examination.  I asked my husband:  “what is happening??? Is the baby OK?? Are we having the baby today?? Do you know what is wrong?!?!”  He replied apologetically, “I don’t know, I don’t know…. Let’s wait to see what the doctor says…”  He was clutching on to his chair for the life of him.  I had a feeling he knew something was about to happen, and was afraid to tell me himself. The resident returned and started to explain that membrane was coming out and I was 10 centimeters dilated. And this is when my heart sank. The resident held my hand, looked at me and said: “Things are going to happen very fast, but you are in preterm labour and you going to have your baby right now!” What the??!  I then entered into a state of shock, as if I entered oblivion, or living a horrible nightmare. 

All I could think about at that point was the baby.  
Was the baby going to be okay?  
Will the baby survive?  
How did this happen?  
Did I do something to cause this?

My husband kissed my head and said “I love you” as I was being rushed to the OR.

As we arrived to the OR, the staff physician introduced herself, along with a fellow, a team of nurses as well as the resident.  I felt like I was starting a marathon, as the nurses went into my face and shouted “you can do this!”

I couldn’t believe this was happening; I was having my baby nearly three months early.  We didn’t even paint the nursery yet, or get the car seat, or even pack a diaper bag.

I just hoped and prayed during those scary moments that the baby was going to be okay. Then things started to really hurt. The physician announced: “and now, here is the part known as the ring of fire (crowning)!” The baby’s head was starting to come out.  “Head full of black hair!” cried the fellow.   Well duh, neither of us are blond so that was a given.  
At 2:30 p.m., I gave one final push and the baby came out.  I heard a cry and just thought to myself thank GOD the baby cried, as I knew that the baby was alive.  They placed the baby on my skin briefly and turned the baby around.  The doctor then declared “it’s a boy!!!”  My husband started to cry both out of love and fear. 

I couldn’t believe that I just gave birth to a beautiful, tiny, baby boy, three months early.  

He was just 4 ounces shy of 3 pounds and was in the 61st percentile for weight on the date of his gestation.  

He was absolutely beautiful.

I was able to see my son before I went into recovery and he to the NICU.  The neonatologist examining him explained to me that the fact we did skin to skin and that he cried upon birth are two very good signs that he will do well, however, to expect him home around the due date.

At that point, we parted ways and they rushed him to the NICU – our home over the course of the next 9 weeks. I then went into the recovery room.
It felt very dark and lonely.

I kept touching my belly, as I was so used to for 7 months, and felt a sense of loss and sadness.  This is common after pregnancy, but for me, it was worse as it was preterm.  I missed my son right away and felt so far away from him.  I felt guilty because he was born so early and I kept wondering what was going to happen to him.  The nurse then came in to check up on me and started talking to me about colostrum and pumping. 

Ah, the pump machine, my friend for the next 6 months!

After she collected the colostrum for my son, I rested before I checked into my own room which was just down the hall from the NICU. My husband was going back and forth, checking up on our son and on me. It was my husband who had to make that very mortifying call to our parents that their grandson was born. Later that evening, my husband entered my room, along with my father-in-law and brother-in-law and brought me clothes, toiletries, food and flowers. He looked at me and said, “our son is going to be okay, he’s going to be in the NICU for a while, but that is okay, as long as he’s healthy in the end. Your job for him now is to pump because that is the best thing he needs right now.” And so it started, the nurse came in and showed me how to use the pump that would provide my son with the nutrition he needs while in the NICU. It was hard, but I knew that if anything, I owed this to my son.

That night, at about one o’clock in the morning, I asked to be taken to the NICU to see my son. When I entered I felt as if I was in a NASA space station. As I do not have a medical background, I did not know what to expect. There were so many monitors and beeps, different dings and sounds, with all the babies in incubators. I then saw my son. The nurse opened the isolette and let me touch my son. “Babies this small are very sensitive, so please don’t stroke, but you can just keep your hand on him, as they like that.”

He was beautiful and so tiny, but mighty.

I just couldn’t believe that he was already here.  We then started to say, “well of course he came out early because he was too excited to meet all of us!” The following day I met the social worker, as well as my obstetrician, who both assured me, this was not my fault, and that these things do happen. 

In Canada, one out of every twelve pregnancies are preterm.  So that one pregnancy just happened to be me.

During my 6 week follow-up with my OB, I was told that the cause of my preterm labour is unknown, I had a perfectly healthy placenta and that sometimes, they can’t explain why these things happen.   I had to continuously remind myself that everything was going to be okay and that my son was in the best place possible.  With that being said, it took me a very long time to accept what happened and I just knew I had to be strong for my son.

Following my discharge, we literally lived at the hospital (it was already a home for my husband who worked there, which was convenient for him).  

We made the NICU our nursery, and although it wasn’t the one I had imagined, it couldn’t have been better.

The neonatologists and nurses were wonderful and we learned a lot from them.  There we learned how to feed & bathe him, change his diapers and administer his vitamins.  We took a baby safe course (which I hope to never use!)  and met so many other wonderful, strong parents along the way. 

One of the most special things to do in the NICU is kangaroo care, which is skin-to-skin contact between the mother and infant. 

Studies have shown that kangaroo care is very crucial in a preterm infant’s development, and also promotes bonding and milk production for the mother.  I was fortunate to start kangaroo care the very next day after his birth and it was something I looked forward to everyday.  That was our time to bond, reflect, pray and simply be together.  My husband was also able to participate in kangaroo care, as bonding with the father is equally as beneficial.  We would sing to our boy, play music and read him stories.  We prayed a lot with him.  Being Croatian and Catholic, our faith is what helped us get through those weeks.  We had so much support from the Croatian community as everyone stood behind our little family and prayed. 

We were very fortunate as our son didn’t have any issues, and was essentially a “feeder and grower.”

I also spent the majority of my time pumping there.   Babies who are born before 37 weeks gestation don’t have the motor skill to suck, breathe and swallow developed yet, so they are fed breastmilk through an NG tube until they learn.  We started practicing breastfeeding when he was 34 weeks gestation, as he showed interest.  The nurses kept telling us, “one day, he’s going to turn the corner, and he won’t look back!”  Around 37 weeks gestation he mastered both bottle feeding with some nursing.  And lo and behold, he had 48 hours of full feeds, was gaining weight appropriately, with no other outstanding health issues, and was ready to come home….2 weeks before his expected due date.

Looking back, I don’t know how we got through the NICU, but like anything in life, we took it one day at a time.  

As hard as it was, it was all worth it, as my son, who is now 9 months old, is at home, happy, healthy and meeting all his milestones for his corrected age.  I will say though that having a preemie does consist of ups and downs, and although that NICU roller coaster doesn’t seem to end at home, he has proven that he is resilient and can beat all the odds.

Preemies are true heroes.

Although I don’t wish upon anyone the pain that we endured during those first few days of his early arrival, all I can say is this: if you do go through it, it’s going to be okay. With faith, hope and lots of love, know that it will all work out in the end. In today’s day and age, babies born between 24-32 weeks gestation have over a 90 percent survival rate, as opposed to 30 years ago, where the chances of survival were less than 50 percent. It’s remarkable how well these babies do and as one neonatologist told me, these babies are very resilient.

Some people ask me when I am planning to have my next child, or if I am done after what I have been through.  I tell them this:  when the time is right, I will want to have another child.

If I had to go through preterm labour again, I would because it is all worth it.

I see it in my son every day.

Today, my NICU graduate is an energetic, fun-loving toddler with a passion for throwing things, dancing, singing, bears, cars, trucks and trains and everything in between. 

Author’s note:  Originally written on May 13th, 2015.  I did become pregnant again in 2016 and was closely monitored by a high risk OB.  I was suddenly admitted to hospital though for one week at 28 weeks due to a short cervix and sent home on bed rest for the remainder of the pregnancy.  Despite all my fears of going through another premature birth, I gave birth to a full-term baby boy on September 18th, 2016.  My older son got me through those scary days and inspired me to be as strong as he was during his early arrival.  

Natalie is an officer with the federal government and is currently on maternity leave. Natalie resides in London, Ontario along with her husband Michael and two boys, Tomislav and Ivan. Natalie’s interests are food, wine and travel and anything preemie.