Zach’s first operation – Going to theatre

Emmanuel arrived with lots of snacks and some fresh clothes for me. He had brought me some fizzy drinks and some chocolate as well. He always managed to make me feel better even in moments like this. Emmanuel kissed me and said good morning and then did the same to Zach.

“Have you been looking after mummy?” He asked Zach. I laughed softly. “Yes, he has,” I replied for him.

Then I explained all that the surgeon had told me. I explained the consent form. He held me and asked me if I was alright. I nodded. More tears.

We had no idea how this all worked from here. So, we asked our nurse. She was a very bright person with the confidence to her that we needed today. She had done this millions of times. It was reassuring. So, when she next came over to do Zach’s observations, we asked her what happens. She explained that usually we could carry him or we could take the whole cot and wheel him.

She leaned over and looked at his infusions. “Yes, just prostine will need to come with him. We can take off the fluids. So, I will carry the prostine infusion and you can carry him. Or we can wheel him in his cot. It’s up to you really, but usually, we carry them. So, you can carry him.” She spoke quickly and efficiently which I liked. For some reason she made me smile. My heart rested slightly when she was around. Plus, she had green eyes. I have always thought of green eyes as lucky. She started counting his breathing. I turned to Emmanuel. “Do you want to carry him?” I asked. He took a brief moment to think and then nodded. “yeah. Ok. Yeah.”

It was a waiting game now. The surgeon had seen me in the morning around 9am. Zach didn’t go to theatre until just before 1pm. We sat and waited, quietly. Holding Zach and messaging family. Just before 1pm our lovely nurse came over and said that they were ready for us. She promptly came around the bed area and started moving and changing his wires. “So, are you walking with him?” She asked to confirm. “Yes. Emmanuel will carry him.” I replied.

“Ok great.” She continued to sort out taking off his heart and blood saturation monitors. He was finally left with just one line attached. His prostin infusion. The nurse removed the infusion pump from the grip on the stand and held it up. She turned to us. “Ok, we are ready to go.”

Emmanuel scooped Zach up from his cot and wrapped him in his blankets. He opened his eyes and looked up at us. He was so calm even though he had no milk from 6am onwards. He must have been hungry but he didn’t cry. He just looked at us as if to say ‘it’s all ok.’

A student nurse joined us and walked just in front so that she could open doors and press lift buttons. We walked down the ward towards the lifts. I felt as though everybody was looking. Like we were walking down the aisle. But at the end of this aisle was an anaesthetist, not a priest.

We walked one behind each other, the student nurse, Emmanuel and Zach, the nurse carrying the infusion pump and then me. We fanned out as we reached the lifts. “His second time seeing something other than the ward,” I said. Zach was looking up at the clear blue sky through the glass atrium roof. Emmanuel was looking at his face, holding him tightly. “Look he is just looking around.” 

We watched our son as he took in the sky and I hoped that maybe it was enough wonderment for him to want to see more. Maybe he would be filled with joy and stay. I kept my thoughts to myself. We stepped into the glass lift and travelled down one floor. As we stepped out, we continued to watch Zach. He was just staring at things around us. Looking at everything. Enjoying his closeness with his daddy. The nurses chatted about the corridors down here being colder. But we were in our own little bubble. We walked through glass corridors that were stunning in design but indeed cold. I wrapped Zach’s blankets tightly around him. Zach looked up at Emmanuel and locked eyes with him. For the rest of the walk to the theatre, he didn’t take his eyes of his Daddy. It was as if he was saying ‘it’s going to be ok’ to him. I watched them watching each other. Emmanuel smiled up at me. “He is just looking at me.” He said. I nodded at him through bleary eyes. It was so peaceful and calm. Like we were walking home after a trip to the swimming pool. All water weary and worn out, but feeling snug and dry. We reached the doors to the area where the theatres were. We had to wait a few moments for somebody coming past to let us in as the nurses didn’t have clearance on their key cards.

We stepped inside the theatre area. I didn’t pay much attention to the surrounding but it was a pretty dreary place. No windows, stark white walls and I think green in sections. Small offices lined one corridor wall. A group of doctors all staring at a screen together in each one. We turned a corner. “We are in theatre 4.” The nurse told us. I smiled. “That’s my lucky number,” I whispered to Emmanuel and Zach.

We stepped inside the small room that comes before the actual theatre space. This would be as far as we would go. The anaesthetists were waiting for us. The same ones I had met before of course, plus a new guy. Tayo. They were all so sweet and sensitive. I think anaesthetists are some of the kindest people I have met. It may just be their nature but they are so calming. They explained that there was a heated airbed to put Zach on. I put my hand on it and it was lovely and toasty warm. I smiled at them. That alone was reassuring. Zach was still just staring at Emmanuel. So calm. Emmanuel and I covered Zach in kisses and laid him on the warm air bed cushion. He snuggled in immediately and looked up at us. Fully awake, beautiful. The most awake we had seen him. The anaesthetists explained that they would administer the drugs now that would make him sleepy. We told them we would stay until he was asleep. I held his little hand and kissed his face. I watched as he became sleepy and closed his eyes. His tiny little body, covered by just his nappy, grew soft and limp. His head moved to one side. The anaesthetist gently lifted his head and supported him. I think this was more for our benefit. This was it. The moment we had to leave him. My eyes burst like swollen dams. Emmanuel gripped my waist and walked me outside.

We held onto each other as we retraced our steps back out to the glass corridor. The nurses scooted in front of us and opened doors. They were quietly talking and giving us space. I could hear the nurse explaining to the student nurse that some parents want space and some may want to talk. You have to learn to read the cues and do what’s best. It was very sweet what she was saying. I stopped midway down the corridor the tears overwhelming me. Emmanuel held me as I cried on his shoulder. “My baby boy.” I sobbed.

I was shaking as we left the area and walked around the corner to the lifts. We went back to the ward to collect my bag to take back to Ronald McDonald House with us. The nurses were asking if he was in theatre, as we had waited so long for his surgery when we originally thought it was only going to be a few days after he was born. It was a relief that he was finally having it. I felt relieved that it was finally happening. That struck me as we were back on the ward again. A few other nurses and doctors that we had gotten to know joined us with expectant faces. “He is in there now,” I told them. They all reassured me with smiling faces. I think they were relieved as well. It’s hard to see parents go through this day after day. And with Zach, we were just waiting and waiting as the doctors decided what to do each week and each meeting they just kept waiting. In the grand scheme of things, 10 days is not long at all. But for us, it felt like forever.

We collected the bits that we needed and headed to Ronald McDonald house.

Zach’s first operation – Meeting the surgeon

The ward was quiet that morning. I felt that everybody seemed hushed and subdued. Either that or I was blocking everything out. It was sunny and the big glass windows at the back of the ward were letting in huge amounts of light. I was still in my pj’s. The morning was progressing quickly and I had again only had a few hours sleep. The nurses seemed to be off in other areas. Their desks sat quietly, folders dotted around and cups of tea that looked cold sat untouched. The small room that sat across from the nurses’ station was also empty today. There are usually doctors milling around in that area constantly, but today nothing. I was anticipating Zach’s surgery that day, but the day just seemed to be dragging along. I had no clue as to how the next steps would look. I was lost in that tense before moment. Like Christmas eve, but a lot less fun.

I was breast pumping on one side when the surgeon came to visit me. Zach was asleep in his cot. He pulled up a chair and sat next to me. He introduced himself and got directly to the point. He is a very handsome faced man with a very well-kept appearance. A serious but kind nature to him.

He told me that he would be performing Zach’s operation today. He told me briefly what he would do. He would be taking a piece of donor tissue and using that to reconstruct the ‘arch.’ I asked him to repeat what he had said about a donor. He nodded and replied “yes a piece of tissue from a donor’s heart” I had no idea before that moment that Zach would have somebody else tissue inside of him. What I thought about it later it was pretty amazing to think that one person who donated their organs would be able to save hundreds of babies with just one heart. It was only a small piece of tissue needed and so one organ could help many babies. I was astounded! I didn’t show that. I kept my poker face together and just nodded, still slightly dazed that this was finally happening.

He continued to explain that Zach would go onto a heart bypass machine. This means that the heart doesn’t pump the blood around the body for some time, a machine does the job instead. To use a bypass machine a certain amount of blood has to go through the machine. Babies don’t have enough of their own blood for this process to work. So, Zach would need some blood from a donor for that process to happen. I knew he would be on bypass but I had no idea that he would need blood. So, I offered mine. I knew we were the same blood type. The surgeon kindly explained that that would take a lot of time. I would have had to give blood weeks ago to do that. But being pregnant with Zach of course that wouldn’t have worked either. So, I had to settle for what I was being told. Again, I nodded and kept all the emotions inside. I was concentrating so hard on what he was saying to me. He told me that after the operation he would call me straight away to let me know how it went. I thanked him for offering this. He handed me the consent form and ran through the risks. Bleeding, infection, death and re-narrowing of the arch in the future – needing more surgery. The risks, of course, were not great but Zach simply wouldn’t live without the operation so there wasn’t a question involved here. It was just knowing. I signed the paper with shaking hands. He asked me if I had any questions. I looked away from him and paused. My mind was blank. I turned back “just look after my baby boy for me.” I said and finally, the tears came. “I will” He answered and stood to leave. I said thank you a million more times as he nodded goodbye. I then looked at Zach asleep in his cot and cried.

Still holding onto the breast pump machine in one hand I stood up and leaned over him. I stroked his little face. I looked at every single tiny inch of him just in case I would never see it again. I leaned in further and smelled his hair. I wanted to hold everything in my memory in case my little boy was taken from me. In case he wasn’t meant for this world. He started to stir and wake. I detached myself from the pump and lifted Zach to me. Taking his wires and blankets with him. I held him so tightly as I cried over his tiny body. I kissed him all over his face and rocked him until he fell back to sleep. My perfect little boy. His face was so round and adorable. His perfect little fingers. His chubby arms and round shoulders. His perfect little chest…Inside was a broken heart. How could someone so perfect everywhere else have something so majorly wrong. I held my hand over his chest and felt his heart pumping away. It was only able to do so because of the drugs that he was on. The fast pumping flutters hit against the palm of my hand. Keep beating little one. Stay with me. Just for me. I will always be here for you if you want to stay. It’s up to you baby. I will hold your hand if you want to stay. I said inside my head as if he could hear me. He snuggled in closer to me and rolled his little lips together. That was enough for me. If you want to stay sweet Zach then I will be here. I laid him down softly in his cot and found myself some tissues. The only thought that comforted me was that it was up to him. His little soul or spirit, however you like to think of it, needed to decide if it wanted to stay here with us and in this body. I don’t know why but that was just how I thought of it. It was up to him now. Just the same way he had told me his name when I was in the early months of pregnancy. He would let me know if he was going to stay or not. If I got to take him home or not. Taking in a thought like that is pretty impossible. Especially in such a high-stress environment. So, I just focused on what I needed to do there and then. I called Emmanuel to tell him that the surgeon had just been. He would be gutted to have missed it but he didn’t say anything. He told me he was on his way over.

I sat and waited, just staring at Zach and expressing breast milk. I couldn’t do anything else. Just sit and be with him. He was born on the 18th of February 2020 and his operation was the 27th February 2020. He was just ten days old. Please, please let me have more than just ten days. I spoke in my head to myself, to the universe. Who knows? Please, please just let me have more than ten days with him.

The showers on Savannah

If you have ever used a public swimming pool or leisure centres showers then I am sure you can relate to this.

Firstly, you have to make sure you have all the essential items. Towel, shower gel, flip flops, clothes to put on afterwards including knickers and enormous nursing bar. Breast pads. Toothbrush and toothpaste and some moisturiser and deodorant. At every shower, I forgot at least one of these items. A toothbrush is ok because you can just go back later and clean your teeth. But forgetting your bra or trousers is slightly different. Then you have to think do I put my towel around me to walk back across three ward bays or do I put my pj bottoms back on and risk people thinking I have no clean clothes or am willing to spend all day not dressed. If you forget your bra then you can do the ‘I am carrying all of this in front of me for no reason look’ as you smile at nurses on your way back to your area. Just don’t try and wave.

Once you arrive at the shower and discover there is no hook for your dry items you realise you are going to have to hang said items on the side of the dirty laundry bin, that is for some reason only known to the NHS, kept in the wet shower room. Once you have carefully placed all items on the edge of the laundry bin you then turn to see the shower. It is a shower but it is sticking directly upwards and facing the ceiling. You take the head part of the shower out of the wall holder and turn the knob on the wall to test the water. Still fully dressed in pj’s at this point. Big mistake. You are now drenched. The shower spurts out in every direction, icy cold and full blast. This is going to be harder than expected.

After peeling off the wet pjs and placing them in a heap on the floor, making a mental note to ask your partner to bring some fresh ones for you later you return to the shower. This time carefully facing it away and down you turn the knob again. Coldwater. The only way to get hot water is to turn the knob all the way up. The water jets out as if it is trying to clean tile grout. You cannot let go. Do not let go. Also do not put the shower back in the holder on the wall as it will squirt everything in the room including your dry clothes.

So now you must hold the shower whilst finding your shower gel. Once located you must hold the showerhead between knees to use both hands to open the shower gel. Open shower gel. As quickly as possible wash every bit of body, one-handed with body puff or just shower gel and hands if nothing else is possible. End shower and step away feeling slightly better but not exactly clean and refreshed.

Turn around and see that your once mostly dry towel is now soaking wet from the shower spray. Do your best to dry your body. Fail and put damp clothes on to damp body. Clean teeth whilst wiggling around in damp uncomfortable clothes. Tie back unwashed hair and vow to wash it tomorrow. Moisturise face and spray deodorant. Congratulations you survived the Savannah shower! Now you are ready for another day in the wilds of the Savannah ward.

Savannah part 3 – The night before the operation

Each day blurred into the next. The doctors came and left with the same words. “We will just wait a bit longer.”

Zach’s heart showed a bit of a conundrum. The doctors could see that his heart on the left side was smaller than the right. They were concerned that once the narrow part of the aorta was repaired, the left side of the heart might not cope. It might be too ‘stiff’ to pump blood around the body well enough. He was a borderline case from the start. The left side was ‘adequate’ they hoped, but it was hard to be completely sure. So, they waited. We waited. Instead of having surgery within a few days of birth as we had thought we had to wait and see. The doctors needed to see what his heart would do as he grew slightly in the first few days of life. They just needed more time to decide what was the best course of action for him. They were considering closing the ASD, the hole in the heart, at the same time as correcting the narrow section of the aorta. Doing that would put even more pressure on the left side. So, for a week they didn’t know what was the best thing to do. It was frustrating at the time, but I can see why they wanted to be sure. All I could see was my baby who needed surgery wasn’t getting it. Every day was a struggle for him. He was attached to all these tubes and wires. He wasn’t feeding properly and was generally just uncomfortable. In my mind, the surgery would fix all of this. The quicker the surgery the quicker we were fixed and going home. Of course, things do not work like that, do they?

So, each day the scan of his heart would happen. Each day the doctors would tell me the same things. “We are not sure about the left side, let’s wait.” When the day finally came that they said those all-important words I was relieved.

I didn’t want Zach to have any surgery at all. But I also did not want to see my baby as he was for much longer. So, when they told me on the Wednesday that his surgery would be the next day on the Thursday, I was happy.

How it works is, each child is reviewed every day. The cardiac doctors came around as a big team and discuss the child with the parents and nurses each morning. They then make any treatment decisions for the day. If the child needs another X-Ray, a cardiogram or just to be monitored for example. This is noted by the nurses and reported to the relevant teams who would need to come and do these extra things for the child. Away from the bedside and in a small office the doctors then discuss the child. If there is anything urgent, they will make decisions then. Then there is the famous Wednesday meeting. On a Wednesday the entire team of cardiac doctors that are on rotation that week will meet with the surgeons, anaesthetists and other professionals required. They discuss each child and make a choice of what to do.

After the first Wednesday meeting of Zach’s stay, they decided they needed to watch and see how he responded outside of the womb and how his heart worked. In this week they gave him the drug that kept open the duct in the heart to allow oxygenated blood to go to his body. During this time, he showed good oxygen saturation levels and blood pressure across the upper and lower parts of the body. His blood pressure on his arm read the pressure before the blood went via ‘the duct.’. The blood pressure of his leg read the pressure after it went via the ‘duct’. A change in his leg blood pressure could indicate that the ‘duct’ was closing. This was shortened to pre and post blood pressure. So, we had two machines that read his saturation levels and his blood pressure ‘pre’ and ‘post.’ All of these remained stable. So, we waited.

The following week at the Wednesday meeting they finally decided that they would perform the repair of the arch. The aorta that comes out of the left side of the heart would be reconstructed at the section that it was narrow. Meaning that could then take him off the Prostin drug, allow the duct to close and blood would then flow through the new wider aorta as it should be.

On Wednesday the 26th February at just 9 days old, we knew that Zach would be heading to surgery the next day. That evening I went to our accommodation and slept for a few hours. Knowing that I probably wouldn’t sleep very well after the operation had taken place.  When the doctors came around to give us the details of the surgery the next day I wasn’t there. Emmanuel explained to me on the phone that they would need to take bloods before the operation. They need three vials. Which is about 8ml. This doesn’t sound a lot, but to get that out of the heel of a small baby; it’s a lot. He knew I hated to watch Zach as he screamed at the doctors forcing blood from his heel. What was worse is that it often never came willingly so they had to start all over again as the blood would clot. He asked the doctors to do the bloods as soon as possible before I came back so that he could be with Zach and save me the trauma of holding Zach’s hand as he wailed. They managed to get the bloods before I got back. Emmanuel said it was actually pretty ok this time. By this point, Zach’s poor feet were covered in pinpricks in various states of healing from blood collecting and blood sugar tests. The poor thing hated his feet being touched and would cry the second his sock was taken off. He was just days old and already had learnt that this meant something bad was coming his way. We often had to help hold him still whilst they took bloods as he would wiggle around making it harder for them to get anything. It creates a battle within yourself to take your baby and protect him from this pain but also knowing that it’s for his own good. I often cried next to him as I calmed him afterwards. I held his little head in my hand and soothed his cries. He would sometimes open his eyes and look at me as if to say ‘mum how could you let them do that.’ I joked with the nurses that when he was home, I would give him little baby massages and never make him wear socks so that we could undo the damage done. To the nurses and doctors, they did this every day. To us this was new. The pain was fresh and the screaming baby our first.

Once they had what they needed they left Emmanuel to calm Zach down. When I arrived later to switch with Emmanuel, Zach was peacefully asleep. Hopefully, this would be the last blood from the heel they would need for a while. We thought. We were wrong.

I was woken up at 5am by the doctor on the ward for that night. She told me very softly that the bloods they had taken had clotted and that they needed more. My heart sank. I couldn’t take much more. I had hardly slept again. Still being ill myself and waking up to express and Feed Zach every few hours. But I pulled myself up, rubbed my hand across my face to wake myself up and nodded at the doctor. “Ok,” I whispered.

She came over with the tray and equipment she needed. With just me and her, we got the bloods that they needed ready for him to have his operation in the morning. I held his body still as he woke up the ward with his cries. She squeezed and squeezed his little heel, letting each drop of blood collect into one of the small vials. After three vials were full, she was finished. She gave me the cotton to hold on his foot to stop it bleeding. I held his tiny body against me and calmed him down again. It was done. The last piece of the puzzle before he could have his operation and we could start the road to recovery and the road to, home, right? Wrong again.

He also needed his vitamin K injection. I didn’t know if he had it when he was born and it wasn’t in his notes. Nor was his blood spot from when he was born. So, at around 7am they came and took more bloods and gave him his vitamin K injection. I was in pieces on the floor by this point. I could not handle any more. Inside I was falling into myself. I could only think about the next moment ahead of me. I organised the bay area and sorted out putting rubbish in the bin, tidying his nappies and wipes. I packed my suitcase and moved bags around. I wiped down the table and folded blankets. It gave me something to do whilst I waited for the breakfast trolly to roll around. Then Zach awoke and I started to feed him. The merry go round of constant feeds and expressing, feeds and expressing. Then he wet his entire cot as he urinated whilst I was changing his nappy. Not once, but twice. I was defeated. The nurses helped change his sheets whilst I held him and his wires clear of the cot mattress. Another pile of dirty sheets, disappearing to be washed. It was like Zach knew and was rebelling against the situation.

I cried that morning more tears as I waited to know if his bloods were ok and if he would finally have his surgery. It felt like we had been here forever, that each day was a year in length. They went by so slowly but somehow so fast as well. I wanted to blink and be home. I wanted to walk away and never come back. But more than anything I wanted to hold my son and for him to be ok. Not just ok but happy. There was no point in any of this if he wasn’t going to be happy.

Savannah Part two – Tea and Toast angels

Savannah ward became my home for the next six days until Zach would have his first surgery. We had no idea it would take that long before his operation but he was a tricky little critter and so posed a conundrum for the doctors. For six days I stayed on the Savannah ward with Zach day and night.

The first two nights I had the hospital bed that sat upright in the bay next to Zach’s. The nurses pulled the curtains around to make us one giant bay together. The first two nights I managed at least two hours of comfortable sleep. The third night the ward was full so I had to sleep on the pull-down bed next to Zach’s cot. That night I remember so distinctly. I was laying on the bed shivering and shaking from the urinary tract infection I had. I was wrapped up in two hospital blankets, but I was still icy cold. I had an upset stomach and kept getting up to have to go to the toilet as everything was simply passing through me. (TMI.) And Zach was not feeding very well. He was feeding constantly or just sleeping for too long and his blood sugar would then drop. By the time the morning arrived I was a wreck. Then an angel nurse came in and saw me crying over Zach’s cot at the start of her shift. He was sound asleep and I was drowning him in my tears. She promptly pulled the curtains around us and stated ‘I am getting you some tea and toast.’ I nodded unable to speak. I leant back over his cot again and continued to cry. She reappeared later with the tea and toast.

“I’m sorry” I mumbled. Wiping snot from my nose.

“I haven’t slept and I am ill and I have a bad stomach and I can’t help myself I just keep crying.” I blurted out all at once. Angel nurse stood calmly and listened to me as I droned on about my poor self and how much I felt like I couldn’t look after Zach. I thought He was upset all the time. That I didn’t know if we were doing the right things for him. She listened and listened as I cried my way through an onslaught of emotions. I finally managed to pause and drink some tea.

“It’s a really good tea. Thank you” I told her.

“The trick is to use two tea bags.” She smiled at me and somehow, I felt better. Her kindness and the tea had brought back some sense of logic.

“Can you watch him whilst I have a shower?” I asked her. And of course, she did.

The angel nurse that day took care of me just as much as she did Zach. We started talking about many things and somehow my day lifted. It took me away from what was happening in front of me. I will be forever grateful to her.

Some of the nurses on Savannah were the kindest people I have ever met. I honestly don’t know how they did it. How they keep their patience. How they deal with seeing sick babies’ day after day. The Savannah ward is a unique place. A sort of microcosm. An ecosystem all of its own. It became my whole world and the nurses, my friends. Myself and Emmanuel had nick-names for some of them as we couldn’t remember all of their names. One was ‘Team leader.’ As she seemed to be the one that everybody was friends with. She was the Queen bee of the group when she was in. There was ‘Social Media’ who was often on her phone. We overheard her once asking a colleague what emoji she should send to a guy she was talking to. Each nurse had their own way of doing things as well. It was a game during shift changeovers to see which nurse we would get. I loved messaging Emmanuel and saying, ‘Today is going to be a good day, we have one of our favourites again’. At night If I had a nurse that I trusted (which was most of them) I would ask them to do one of Zach’s feeds for me if I was asleep so that I could get at least four hours sleep. They would often sneak into the bay and do just that. Letting me get some much-needed rest. They would say ‘well we have to be awake so we might as well do it. But you need some sleep.’ 

As the days on Savannah wore on, my time there started to get to me. I was going back to Ronald MacDonald House (our accommodation) in the afternoon and getting a two-hour nap. Then about four hours at night if I was lucky. Which sounds great for a new mum, but I wasn’t at home. I couldn’t lounge on the sofa all day, or call my mum or mother in law to come and help me. I had to sit and wait for the doctor’s rounds. I had to try and take in the information they gave. I watched Zach’s machines as they beeped away all day. I kept track in my head the of all the numbers. I was constantly on high alert. I think my cortisol stress hormone levels were probably through the roof! Plus, I was recovering from my own surgery. Every time I lifted Zach out of his cot, I could feel my wound pull. I would wince with pain as I pulled myself up from the low-down beds to stand up. My feet were swollen and puffy. My body ached for a proper bed and I cried constantly. I was a mess. But I looked around and every other parent there was in the same position as me.

All the parents dealt with things differently. Some would keep to themselves and watch their phones all day long. Others would chat to everybody they could. Some started to take it out on each other. I heard one distinctive argument from a couple that I will never forget. I wish I hadn’t have overheard it, but we all deal with things differently and I guess that was their way. One night on a ward together and you know the sound of every body’s snores, their babies cry and each person’s toilet habits during the night. You get very comfortable very quickly. Let’s face it they all saw me wandering around with a bra and maternity pjs on all day. I was constantly breastfeeding and had no care for covering up. So, they probably thought of me as the crazy, breastfeeding, crying woman.

There is a parent’s room at the end of the ward on Savannah. A haven for parents to step away from the bay when needed. To make a cup of tea or to store food. To be honest It wasn’t the nicest room in the world. It did have a lovely big open window that looked across to St Thomas’ Hospital building which is quite beautiful. I stood by that window and cried when Zach had his blood tests done. I stood by that window when I just needed to breathe after another day with no news. I stood by that window listening to hear if Zach had woken up. It was a good window.

The parent’s room also became the place of small talk. ‘How was your night?’ ‘Are the stitches out yet?’ and ‘ah fantastic she had her feeding tube out.’ Were common conversational topics. At first, it was really scary to talk to other parents. I felt as though I wasn’t qualified to be there. But I soon realised nobody was. We were all new to this. Or most of us were. Most babies on this ward were cardiac babies, all under a month old. Some were older. But I only saw one child who was older than five and she was only in for the day. That’s the nature of the ward and the specialism in the hospital. It all happens when babies are firstborn. So, unless someone had an older child then we were all very new to this. The nurses knew more than us. Heck, even the kids knew what was going on more than we did. It is scary being a first-time parent, then being a first-time parent to a cardiac baby.

Soon those small conversations became mood lifters. A little chat about progress during the time the kettle boiled could lift a whole morning. Often, I would feel as though Zach wasn’t like the others and as he hadn’t come in and then gone for surgery. But as I got talking, I realised it was common for babies to take longer, or to come back later. It made me feel better to know it wasn’t just us. The same for when I was feeling as though Zach was doing really well. Another parent would need me to reassure them. I Would tell them that we had been here a week and that it does get easier. We were all in the same boat, floating down the Savanah River.

Postpartum and morphine

Gracious Mummy blog

The thing they don’t tell you about the postpartum hormones is this: They suck. Yes, you are overwhelmed with love for you baby but you also feel like absolute crap. So that is to be expected right? You have just had a major operation. You are not at home right away and you can’t even think about your body functioning normally! Your baby has to be lifted to you. You can’t shower on your own and you are desperately trying to work out the whole booby, milk, breastfeeding thing. (Or formula measurements.) But what I have never once heard anybody speak about is the morphine plus hormone cocktail that creates a six-day high before you crash into a big pile of poo! At the time I didn’t realise it, but looking back I was clearly high for six days straight after birth!

I was being wheeled across the ward to see my baby. I was given three ok-ish meals a day. I had my partner taking such good care of me. I was floating around. Oblivious to the fact that our first night on the ward I was the only mum who didn’t have her baby next to her. I heard one crying in the night and thought nothing of it. The next morning, I woke up and put on make-up! Then I took selfies. I sent one to my best friend. First full day of being a mum. I captioned it. I didn’t even have my baby with me. I was delirious and full of adrenaline probably. I had slept for about an hour. Between still having the catheter in and the pain when the medication wore off, I could not rest. That and there was also a man in a chair next to his partner, snoring his head off in the cubicle next to us. I mean, bless him he must have been so tired. But wow he was loud.

I was wheeled across to see Zach and for some reason, the situation had not sunk in. I was seeing the world in front of me, but I wasn’t seeing reality.

Then day six hit and a tsunami of emotions took me down. I was breastfeeding constantly and I mean constantly. I woke up at 7am and picked up my baby. I put him to the breast. He fed on and off until 10am! A minute on and a minute off. For three straight hours. I did not know this at the time (I was told afterwards by a midwife) but when you breastfeed your hormones surge. Prolactin is one, which releases the milk. But to do this, dopamine has to stop. Dopamine is the happy hormone. So momentarily you feel like crap. But if you are feeding constantly, you feel like crap constantly. Then on top of this, oxytocin goes crazy so that you bond. But that feeling can be a bit too much and well the result was a lot of tears. I cried over Zach so much in those first few days he must have thought it was raining. At 10am I managed to put him down in his cot for long enough to have a shower. When I came back a nurse was rocking his cot as he had woken up and “was a hungry chap.” I could have crumbled down into a heap on the ward floor there and then. How could he be hungry? He had just fed for three hours straight. I smiled at the nurse and thanked her. I lifted my screaming baby and held him in my arms trying to comfort him. The wires and infusion lines came too, of course. I put him to my breast. He latched and the after two minutes fell asleep. I put him back in his cot. He screamed, so I fed him. And so on for thirty minutes until I gave up and just let him sleep and feed on my boobs. I was exhausted. On top of all of this Emmanuel had to sort out some food for us and go about buying some nappies and a few other things we needed. He wasn’t there until later on day six. My mum came to help me. But there wasn’t much she could do other than hand me my water bottle and hold Zach whilst I went to the toilet.

Day six also happened to be the day I was told I had a UTI. I was given antibiotics. No wonder I had been feeling awful.

In the afternoon I was told that my beautiful son, who had been feeding all day, had low blood sugars. It didn’t make any sense! I must be doing something wrong? They came to take his blood every hour from around 2pm onwards. This involved pricking his heel and squeezing the blood out onto a thin strip that goes into a small handheld machine. The number pops up. 1.8. it’s too low. Keep feeding him they tell me. Like I am sat there twiddling my thumbs.

By the time Emmanuel got there around 4pm, I was a state. I was crying constantly. Telling anyone that would listen that I had a UTI and that my baby just wasn’t feeding properly. I had no idea what was going on but this felt like torture.

Did I also mention that I had stopped taking the morphine and the dihydrocodeine? That’s right I was going cold turkey. I had been on these meds for five days, every three to four hours. Then I stopped them just like that. On the same day that your hormones take a dip and you ride the lowest low possible. It was a dark day. The morphine and the codeine had been masking some of the hormonal and emotional surges. I am certain that I was feeling a slow build to this day and yet I was numb around it. The second I stopped the numbing agent everything hit me.

I stood by Zach’s cot with Emmanuel and my mum and cried as they told us they needed to take more bloods. I had no privacy to cry. No bed to go and lay down on for five minutes. I just had a noisy ward, an armchair and two very loving supporters who could do nothing for me. It was uncontrollable. Surprisingly, I felt no embarrassment. I didn’t care that everybody was seeing me at my worst.

I slept on the ward again that night. Or laid down and cried. One kind nurse suggested to me to express and she would give him a bottle so I could get a few hours’ sleep. I did. I expressed just enough for one full bottle of 41ml. He guzzled it down so fast it was like he hadn’t been feeding at all in the last 24 hours. I was so confused. He finally settled and slept. I slept and woke after two hours to see the nurse feeding him. I expressed again. We continued the cycle until the morning. I had managed a few hours’ sleep and felt a little better. Zach had a full tummy and his blood sugar was up slightly. He was clearly not getting enough from the breast.

All of this, the blood sugar, the pain meds, the breastfeeding, The damn hormones. They all came at once. They all hit me like a flood. I have never in my life felt so powerless to what was happening to me. Day six for me was just as the midwives later told me it would be. The worst day. The classic postpartum ‘everything goes wrong’ day. But for me, I did it whilst on display on a ward with nurses flittering around and doctors telling me different bits of information. I had support but all I wanted that day was to crawl into my own bed and sleep.

I remember one of the male doctors walking past and my nurse quickly asked him what to do for Zach. “She is feeding him too much. It should be every three hours.” He barked at her over his shoulder as he disappeared into his office. The nurse came over to tell me what he had said. So, we tried that and Zach’s blood sugars dropped again. It was the worst advice I was ever given.

It turned out Zach had a tongue tie that nobody did anything about. Because Zach could latch, they all assumed he was fine. This was why he couldn’t get enough milk. His tongue tie wasn’t sorted out until months later. He was too old by then. I expressed and bottle-fed him. Sadly, my breastfeeding journey was a tough one. Maybe I should have just carried on with the morphine for a little longer. 😊

The Savannah

When Zach was born, we were in the neonatal intensive care unit and then the HDU neonatal unit at St Thomas’ Hospital. We then moved over to the HDU on the Savannah ward at the Evelina Children’s Hospital. Its very confusing, but the first HDU is next to the labour wards so parents are next to their babies. Savannah is a part of the Evelina hospital – in a whole other building!

We were moved to the Savannah ward late one evening in the first week of being at the hospital. Myself and Emmanuel call the Savannah ward, The Jungle. It is pretty wild. Imagine a large room with six cots all containing tiny babies. Next to the cots are the worried parents and walking back and forth between them are the nurses and doctors. Each bay has a blue curtain that pulls around your allotted little space. Inside that space, that is perhaps the size of a small shed, are two chairs a storage cabinet, a table and a mountain of medical infusions and monitors. Plus, two suitcases, three bags, breast pump equipment, shoes and a coat. Then imagine living in that space whilst trying to breastfeed your brand-new baby. The nurses have their desk area right next to the first cubicles. There is also the doctor’s office, scanning room, toilets and shower. It was as Emmanuel called it ‘The wild, wild west.’

When it was time to move across, we were walked from St Thomas’ to the Evelina with our two nurses and a student nurse. It was the first time Zach had seen the outside world. He looked around from his cot as we passed through glass corridors, taking in the blue sky, before falling asleep. He then slept for the rest of the walk. We were taken through the old part of the hospital where they have the teaching areas. There is a display case of old medical equipment. ‘The iron lung’ and other old ventilators. They looked like torture devices and sent a shiver down my spine. It made me think that medicine had a pretty brutal history. Street doctors that hacked off limbs and dentists that pulled out teeth with big metal plyers. What about the people that had been hooked up to those old machines, had they lived? Had any of this horror movie looking stuff worked? A movie scene popped into my head; the man had been strung out by his organs but he was being kept alive by machines. His intestines hanging on hooks. His heart beating out in front of him. I physically shook my head and tried to concentrate on Zach. He looked peaceful in his cot. Like an emperor on a travelling throne being brought across his land. All these people here for him and he was blissfully sleeping.

We arrived at the Savannah. As Emma and Emily dropped us off, I hugged them both. I had grown very attached to them in my days in the HDU. Our Savannah nurse came over to introduce herself. The HDU nurses were explaining to her about Zach’s medication and infusions. My heart quickened. Why didn’t she know this stuff? Were we safe here? Was Zach’s careful care going to be messed up? I started asking questions. My anxiety started to rise. In HDU you have two babies per one nurse. Here the nurses can have three babies at a time and there are six bays. I was so scared that something was going to go wrong. I was becoming prickly; I didn’t know how things worked here. A heath care assistant came over to help us ‘move in’ and when she started to move the breast pump machine out of the way to get to the plugs behind it I started almost yelling at her.

“I NEED THAT, you can’t take it!” So, I wasn’t quite yelling, but I certainly wasn’t nice to her. She explained that she was just moving it. I thought she meant moving it away from my area so I continued to tell her that she can’t. Emmanuel stepped in to explain what the lady meant. I stood back and let her finish. I felt awful. She was only trying to help me. The next day when I saw her again I apologised for how I had spoken to her. I explained that I was really unsettled being moved across and I was just feeling really anxious. She was lovely and thanked me for apologising. We actually got on quite well and started joking with each other about miscommunications. I didn’t see her much after this, but I would smile at her when she was around and she to me. “Well done.” My mum said to me after I apologised to the woman. It doesn’t matter how old you are but hearing well done from your parents always means something. “Thanks mum, she really didn’t deserve how I spoke to her. It was only fair.” Yes mum, I am a grown up after all!

Each bay has a pull-down bed next to the patient’s bed for a parent to sleep on. It is tucked into the wall. It is a few wooden slats with a thin foam mattress on top. It reminded me of the mats that you get in sports halls for PE. Where you line them up and do forward rolls and cartwheels across them. They are great, but not for sleeping on.

When the nurses switched over and our night time nurse came over she offered me a proper hospital bed in the bay next to Zach’s. There was nobody in there and she knew I was just a few days post-surgery myself. I could have kissed her. She pulled the curtains around us to make one big giant bay. For the first time I got to sleep next to my baby boy. The hospital beds elevate at the head end so that I could sleep sitting up. After a C-section it is extremely difficult to sleep laying down. It’s difficult to do anything to be honest, but laying fully flat is agony. So, there I was a new mum sleeping next to my baby for the first time surrounded by four other mums and babies all cocooned in blue curtains. The thing about the blue curtains is that they don’t block out any noise. So, all night long you can hear the nurses, the other babies and parents shuffling around. Of course, when one baby cries in the night so do all the other babies. It’s like they play tag with each other. ‘You start crying first this time and I will for the next round. Then we can take it turns like a dawn chorus so that nobody gets any sleep.’ I imagine this is what the babies were up to. So that first night I managed about an hour. 

The best thing about Savannah ward is the breakfast. When hand over is just finishing and all the curtains are being opened, the breakfast lady comes around and she says these magical words “Toast or cereal?” I always had toast and a cup of tea. The toast was cold and the little pots of butter and jam were those plastic kinds that taste more like sugar, but it was delicious! After hardly any sleep and facing a day of uncertainty on the ward, tea and toast just made the world better for a brief moment. In fact, tea and toast become something that I relied on. When Zach was awake at 3am and not settling. Or they came at midnight or 5am to take yet more bloods from his poor feet. I knew in a few hours that I was going to have five minutes where I could eat some jammy toast and drink some very strong milky tea. I often ate it one handed whilst holding Zach. Or Emmanuel would feed it to me if I had no hands free and he had arrived early. It’s the small things that become crutches. It’s the small details that make the long days and weeks bearable. They also fed the breastfeeding mum’s lunch and dinner. I didn’t always eat it but it was a small comfort to know that I would have hot food there at 8am, 12 noon and 5pm.

The only other thing that’s better than the tea and toast in the morning is when you have had a particularly bad night or early morning and one of the nurses brings you tea and toast accompanied by a listening ear.

The first day on the ward my mum was still in London so she stayed with me all day. She was there as I fed Zach constantly. She helped me as I cried because he just wasn’t getting enough. She listened to me moan all day long. There really wasn’t much she could do but at least she was there. Emmanuel had to go and sort out a big food shop for us and take It back to our accommodation. He also had to unpack all of our suitcases and organise our room where we were staying. I am so glad I had my mums’ company that day. But at the same time, I felt so bad for just being this big mess. This definitely wasn’t the happy day with their grandchild that most grandparents dream off. It was so handy having her there though. When I needed to go to my own appointment the day after. Mum and dad sat with Zach whilst Emmanuel took me across to St Thomas’ hospital so that I could see the midwifes. They sent a picture in the family WhatsApp group of Zach in his cot. ‘First babysitting duties’ was the caption. Mum and Dad stayed for a week in total. It was perfect, they were there when we couldn’t be. They sat with Zach we had to do other things. My mum was a friendly face in the sea of nurses when I was trying to feed and change him. Sometimes you do just need your parents. Myself and Emmanuel soon felt ready to do this with just the three of us, as a family. When Mum and Dad went back home we were ready to try to handle this all ourselves. I will always be grateful that my parents got to see Zach when he was so little. Soon his other grandparents would meet him as well. It really meant so much to me for them all to come to the hospital to be with us.

HDU and Breastfeeding

This was it, the moment I was waiting for. Zach was three days old and my milk was starting to appear. A small screen was placed around a chair area next to Zach’s cot. With the help of nurse Emma, Zach was lifted out of his cot and placed on me and a giant pillow. I put him to my breast and he started to latch and suck quite easily. This is it! I thought we are doing it! Then He pulled away and started to scream. I mean really scream like there was poison coming out or something. I rocked him and soothed him and tried again. The same thing happened. He started ok and then he pulled away and screamed. The nurse came back over to see how it was going. She could clearly hear him screaming. I showed her what he was doing and she sat down beside me to help.

“Let’s calm him down and get him nice and relaxed. An angry baby won’t latch.” She informed me.

So I rocked him and patted him until he was calm again. We tried again, but he just yelled at me. He got so upset that red patches appeared across his whole body.

“Maybe he can’t get any out. Let’s express a little first and see if that helps.” Emma suggested. She disappeared off and came back with the hospital breast pump machine and the attachments. The machine was on wheels and reached around a meter tall. She opened two packets of sterile equipment and handed them to me.

She explained how the plastic tube section can’t get wet. If it does the suction would stop working, but the rest can be sterilised. She showed me the suction part of the equipment and gave me a sterilising bag that goes into the microwave with some water in it to be able to steam sterilise it. I had no idea how any of this worked! It was staring at some very strange objects. She sat with me and explained how to connect it all and how to use the machine. I didn’t get much out at first but it was a start. The start of a very long expressing relationship.

I tried Zach on my breast again and he latched for a short period but still wasn’t happy. Emma said she would arrange for a lactation consultant to come over and help me later. I was so thankful that I had all of these professionals around me to help me. I let Zach rest. We would try again later that day.

In the early evening, myself and my mum went over to see Zach and to try breastfeeding again. This was the experience I will never forget. I had the small screen offered to me again, but I wasn’t fussed and it took a while to set it up. We didn’t bother in the end. My mum sat with me, the lactation consultant appeared, Emma was there and so was another nurse. I had an army and we were ready to do this.

Zach was placed on me and our giant cushion. I unhooked my bra and placed him on me just as I had done before. His suck reflex kicked in and he started to suck, but not for long. He started to cry just as he had before. The lactation consultant stepped in to assess his suck. She put a glove on her hand and her finger in his mouth. Zach sucked on her finger reflexively.

“He has a slight tongue tie but he should be ok.” She informed me. I took her word on it and didn’t think much of it.

“Let’s try this” and she gave me lots of things to try. A sandwich hold for my breast. A ‘rugby hold’ for Zach. Expressing a bit of milk first. Many, many things, but Zach just screamed. We had to stop after a while as he was so worked up. I felt deflated. I so badly wanted him to be able to feed that I felt I was failing him already.

We tried one last time before the lactation consultant left. We got everything in position and then she very quickly grabbed me and Zach and pushed his head onto me so fast Zach had no option but to latch and suck and he did. He was finally feeding. I was so happy. What I didn’t know at the time was that forceful action that she had just performed would only have very short-lived success. Zach was feeding, for now. Every time I fed him, I now copied what she had done, as soon as his mouth was open, I quickly shoved his head on my breast. I would later learn that this just isn’t best practise.

High Dependency Unit

HDU – 20th February 2020 – Zach is two days old

I remember the phone call so clearly. I was sat up in bed on the post-natal ward. Downing my morphine tablets and eating my cold toast and tea when they rang.

“Hi its Emma from HDU, EVERYTHING IS FINE.” She said this first, right out of the gate. I was holding my breath until she had finished that sentence.

“Zach has been moved to HDU” She continued. I stopped breathing again. What on earth was HDU?

“He is doing really well and he didn’t need the support in NICU.” She added.

“Oh really.” Was all I could come up with

“HDU is lower support than NICU” She explained realising my confusion.

“Ohhhhh” I said, “that’s brilliant. I am just eating my toast and tea. I will be over as soon as I can.” I told her with excitement and relief.

We said goodbye and hung up the phone. I turned to Emmanuel and retold the conversation to him. He had heard it, but I think I needed to say it out loud once more. He was doing so well after just two nights that he had been moved to High Dependency Unit (HDU) and out of Intensive care.

I gulped down my tea and ran to the shower doing ten-star jumps and some night fever arms for good measure. I put on a beautiful gown and danced my way to my son. NO. What actually happened was I had to ask Emmanuel to come and help me out of bed. So lucky he has strong arms. Then I waddled to the bathroom and prayed that I would be able to erm…..use the facilities. No such luck. But I powered on and stood in the grotty shower and washed the best that I could without being able to stand up fully.  I was relatively clean. Drying was another mission, but all I wanted to know was where my son had been moved to. What number was his bed? Did he have a good night? Had I missed anything at all. I had to get dressed with Emmanuel’s help. Yes, he had to help me put my underwear and trousers on! I guess at home you would just stay in you pjs but I had to put something clothe worthy on before leaving the room. I managed to tie my hair up and put some moisturiser on my face whilst Emmanuel showered as well. Despite our best efforts, it was still an hour before we made it across the hallway to his ward. We found his bed number and parked my wheelchair beside it. I could stand and walk but walking across the wards would have taken me forever and I would have been in agony. It was far quicker to just chair it across. We stood by his bedside staring at his sleeping form. The same wires, the same bed. They move the babies in their beds. So, for the majority of their stay, they are in their own cot. It’s the easiest way. We had an addition to the cot; we had a poster of his name that somebody had made and coloured in. It was the picture of a parrot. A squawking parrot, because our son squawked when they came to do any procedure on him. He had been given the symbol of the parrot. We loved it. It was laminated and stuck to the end of his cot across the top where the heat lamp lay above his head parallel to Zach.

Zach lay sleeping soundly in his bed oblivious to any fuss around him. He was two days old and he was blissfully, thankfully for him and us, unaware. Or at least at that moment, he was. His nurse came over and introduced herself to us. Emma. She explained that during the night Zach was doing so well that he didn’t need the one on one care that they have in NICU. So, they moved him over here. We immediately liked Emma. She had a warmth about her but also a very professional manner. You could just tell she was experienced and knew what she was doing, but that she cared and understood. Because of her, and perhaps the Morphine I was on, the next two days in HDU were actually pretty good.

Zach had no horrible procedures, caused no trouble and slept a lot. We almost had the experience that most parents get. We got to know our new tiny human. We laughed as he wiggled in his sleep and made cute faces. We handed each other baby wipes as we changed his nappy. And by we, I mean his daddy. What! It was hard for me to move around still. I don’t think I changed a nappy until Zach was four days old. Whoops. I missed all of the meconium fun! My parents came to visit us. We had to swap out a person each time as we were only allowed two people by his bed at any one time. I think we cheated once or twice and had both my parents there with me for a period, but we were well behaved. My mum held Zach in her arms with a beaming smile on her face. My dad told me about their visit to the National Portrait Gallery they had gone to visit that morning. It could have almost been my living room. Except for those beeping machines and wires attached to Zach.

Then it was time to start breastfeeding. Emma informed us that the doctors had instructed: “to get him feeding.” I was up, my role was here and I was ready. Or was I?