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.

Alone To Recover

The nurses checked on me every half an hour after my C-section surgery. I was in a private room with a view across London. Emmanuel was with our baby. I was so alone at that moment. Yet I still felt full and happy, not sad. I felt like I had accomplished something. Something with a nine-month build up.

Emmanuel came to my room and gave me my phone. He had kept hold of it for me after Bethany (the Anaesthetist) had taken our wonderful birth photos for us. I had been alone with no phone for almost thirty minutes. I think that feeling was more bizarre than the numb legs were. He bowled into the room with the biggest grin on his face. He was a father. No matter what, from this point onwards he was a Daddy. I had had nine months to get used to the idea of having a baby every time I felt him kick. Emmanuel had this moment. It was written all over his face and his navy-blue scrubs. I am a Daddy. He looked like he might burst.

“How is he?” I asked.

“He’s good. The doctors are just sorting him out now.” He beamed at me with such joy, I couldn’t help but feel the same way.

“Go. Go be with him.” I would have pushed him out of the door if I could have.

“Are you ok?” he asked.

“I’m fine. Just go.” I was again left alone.

I looked through the pictures on my phone. Seeing it all captured made me so happy. I zoomed in on Zach’s face, his wide-open screaming mouth. That beautiful squashy nose. In one picture his face was next to mine and his hand was reaching for me. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Then my phone pinged and Emmanuel sent through pictures of him now. His bottom half was tightly wrapped up in a hospital blanket. He was wearing a hat with a white and grey star print on it that I had picked out as his first outfit, He didn’t need the baby-grow that matched as he was on a heated bed. His chest had three little wires attached to it with different coloured sticky pads, a red, a green and a yellow. These were to measure his heart. But I didn’t know that at the time. I barely saw them. I just saw his face. His beautiful fluffy new-born face. My son.

My parents had booked a hotel room in London near to the hospital. As soon as we gave the go-ahead for them to visit, they appeared in my room in a nanosecond. Armed with a gorgeous teddy and a card. It was so surreal to see them there. I had just briefly met my son and now my parents were about to as well. They came to me at my bedside, because of course I couldn’t move, and gave me hugs. I told them right away to go and meet their grandson. It didn’t take much convincing before they left to go and find him.

Again, I was alone. A nurse came in and took my blood pressure and observed my bleeding. Which involves lifting the sheet to peek at you and see if you are bleeding on to the giant pad sheets.  At the time I did not care a dot. Looking back, it was really humiliating. I asked when I could go and see my baby. As soon as you can get into a wheelchair was the answer. Over the next hour and a half, I sat there trying to wiggle my toes and get my legs to move enough to be able to get into a wheelchair. They offered me morphine and I accepted. Anything to make it easier to get off this bed and into that chair. By 3.30pm just over two hours after I had been stitched up, I was calling the nurse.

“I can do it. I can get in the chair.” I was so determined that I didn’t care if I actually felt ready or not. She wheeled in a chair with a humiliation pad on it. And a big sheet to wrap around me so that I wasn’t flashing my butt to everybody through the back of the chair.

I used every piece of strength I had to heave myself into that seat. I could move my legs but not properly. I was using my arms to get off the bed and closer to the wheel chair, closer to him. I stood one foot on the ground and lifted, exposing my naked back to the nurses. I did not care. I swung around and placed my butt down into the seat.  Leaving my remaining leg to drag behind me, with some effort I managed to pull it across and into the footrest. The nurses wrapped the sheet around the chair. I was so happy with myself that I ignored the pain in my abdominal region. I pushed it away like a leaf down a sticky stream of mud. It was not going to stop me seeing my son.

My dad came to wheel me over to the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). I gleefully joked with him about Mario Kart driving as we whizzed past the rooms and receptions of each ward. We passed the lifts that separated the mothers from their babies. A wall between us. Soon, so soon, I was outside the room where he was. Emmanuel came out to meet me and to wheel me in. My wound was throbbing now. The morphine hardly touching the edges of the pain, but it was certainly making me high. I didn’t realise at the time but the morphine and the dihydrocodeine were making me feel giddy. I was a little bit ‘away with the fairies.’

I was ready. A nurse held the door open for us and I was pushed inside a softly lit room filled with four baby beds. I was about to meet my son, properly. To hold him in my arms for the first time. To look into his face, to hold his hand and whisper his name.

20 Week Scan

We sat in the waiting room for over forty minutes awaiting our 20 week scan appointment, with all the other mums and dads at various points into pregnancy. The room was packed full of hot bodies with the heating cranked up to full blast like it seems to be in every hospital. I was melting! Finally my name was called and we were shown into a small dark room. My partner, Emmanuel, sat in the guest chair next to the bed and a screen was pulled around us. One woman sat by the computer ready to take down the measurements that would be read out by the sonographer.  They both introduced themselves and we set to work. You know the drill: the cold jelly, the uncomfortable bed and the pressing down until they find the right spot. Then we could see him, a leg, and a rib. So clear in grey and black on the screen in front of us. I was twisting my head to see it all but I didn’t care about the pain in my neck, I just wanted to see my little baby, who I had felt fluttering away in there for the last few weeks.

“Oh we would like to know the sex as well please” I said to the sonographer.

“Let’s see if we have a healthy baby first. We will look at that late”, was her sharp reply.

I was shocked at her bluntness but didn’t think much of it. Of course this is the anomaly scan. They are literately looking for anything that may indicate an unhealthy baby. Down’s syndrome is the one we probably all know about. Along with the other genetic conditions that can be possible to find early. But what we don’t often realise is that they are checking everything! And down to the measurement of a thigh bone can be an indication of an illness, disease or under development. For example, they check the face not to see how adorable they look but to see if a cleft pallet is present.

So the measurements began: the thigh bone, abdominal circumference, the skull and various others. All looked normal. Then we came to the heart and the sonographer couldn’t get a clear view of our little one’s chambers. I was asked to jump up and down, wiggle my hips and generally make a fool of myself to try and get the baby to move. All of which are massively difficult whilst squeezing you bladder closed as it is of course full. We try again. Still nothing.

“Please empty your bladder” was the short sharp instruction I was given. I trundled off to the toilets and did as she asked. I returned to the room and resumed my position on the thing pretending to be a bed. She started pressing the tool across my belly once more. The baby had not moved. This was a trend we had seen at our first scan and would continue to see right up until the end. Our little person in there – always hid from the scans and later the heart monitors. He did not like any of the intrusion, much to the annoyance of the medical professionals. The sonographer was getting irritated. She could clearly see a heart, because I could. We could all hear it beating away. That amazing moment when you hear their heart beat. But ours was dampened by the huffs and puffs from this woman. She presses harder, moves the end of the instrument more aggressively. She still cannot see what she is looking for. She calls in her colleague. I turn to look at Emmanuel who was holding my hand. He makes a face that I know to mean. ‘I know what you are thinking. I am thinking it too.’

The colleague comes in and takes over for a few minutes. They start chatting over us. Not saying anything to us at all at first. Then the second women speaks.

“Yes I agree with you.” She turns to us and finally acknowledges that we are even there and I am attached to the stomach that she is scanning. “We think we can see a problem with the heart. We have to confirm it with each other; which we have. We will send you to fetal medicine.” She finished and left the room. The original sonographer continues her scan and actually starts to explain what the heck is going on. My heart was racing by this point. What a way to drop that on new first time parents, with no explanation. We were stunned. The woman showed us the screen and pointed to the heart. “This side looks smaller than the other and there is possibly a hole, but we can’t see clearly because the baby is in a bad position.” She bluntly stated then began to move the wand away.

“Wait, have you seen the gender?” I asked.

She says nothing and places the wand back on my belly. “Here’s the spine and the bum and that there is the genitals. He’s a boy.” Just as plainly as if she was telling me the day of the week.

I was reeling with information. I wiped down my stomach, said my thanks to the women and left the room. We were in stunned silence at first. Taking our seats again to wait to have my notes folder given back to me. I felt an excitement and shock that I knew I was carrying a son. I had been thinking I was having a girl from the start so this blew my mind. So much happiness! I was having a boy and now we knew! But this sat within a whirlwind of everything else we had just been told. My mind cleared and the information began to settle. That our baby, who was so tiny in there – had a heart problem. Or a possible one. It felt like nothing and everything all at once. Like being sick and hungry at the same time. I couldn’t think about it enough, it was as though the thought had legs and was running away from me.

For some reason the rude manor & tone of the woman who scanned me, sat in front of anything else. I was SO annoyed with her! How dare she be so rude? I spoke with Emmanuel and we discussed that maybe she couldn’t see what she thought she could because our baby boy was sat in the wrong position. Maybe she was rushed and stressed and this was just a blip of information. But something in my own heart told me otherwise. This was the start of a long journey of happiness and anger mixed together at every turn. The not knowing is the hardest thing at all. Nothing is confirmed.