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 Birth

As we drew closer to my induction date on the 16th February it was becoming apparent that Zach would not be turning on his own. Despite my attempts to get him to flip around, he remained in a head upwards position. I had a phone consultation with the doctor at St Thomas’ Hospital where I would be for the birth. She talked through the risks of attempting a breech birth. It did not look good. So reluctantly I agreed that if a 3rd ECV attempt didn’t work that I would have a planned C-section. The ECV and was booked for Monday the 17th of February. I was 39 weeks pregnant.

We arrived in hospital on Monday morning, I was so hopeful that he would turn but deep down I think I knew that he wouldn’t. I knew either way that very soon my son would be born. Either we would start an induction today if he turned. Or I would be going to theatre for a C-section if he didn’t.

We tried the last two ECV’s to turn our baby boy around but he wouldn’t budge. As it turned out Little Zach was stuck in position because I have a heart shaped Uterus instead of the regular oval shape. Or at least That is possibly why, He could just have been really comfortable there.

“You tried baby,” Emmanuel said to me as he held my hand. I was sat perched on the edge of the bed still waiting for the salbutamol to go away so that I could stop feeling jittery. We were left alone whilst the midwife arranged a room for us. We would be staying in until the C-section was booked.

We were checked in and given a private room. Then we waited. And waited and waited. It turns out that we would not be having our baby that day. The hospital informed us that they just couldn’t fit us in. So, we went for dinner and came back to the hospital later. The night was an odd one. We both knew what was coming but we were in limbo. Emmanuel had to sleep in the reclining chair next to my hospital bed for the night. We watched Love island and fell asleep early.

The next day I was woken up by the nurses at 7 am and given omeprazole to prevent acid reflux during the C-section. My blood pressure and oxygen saturation levels were taken and we were again left alone to wait. At 8 am the nurses changed shifts and we were visited once more. This time we were told we would be going to theatre today at some point. Today would be my baby’s birthday. I liked the date that it had fallen on which is a weird thing to focus on. But somehow the 19th Feb just wouldn’t have suited him and likewise the 17th. The 18th was a good day for Zach to be born. I liked it. So today was the day, then we waited. And waited and waited. We messaged family and friends and let them know what was going on but truthfully, we were just kind of floating around with no idea.

At around lunchtime, I was given some compression socks to put on and antibacterial wipes to ‘wash; with’. Along with a gown. I got washed up, dressed down and sat on the bed so that Emmanuel could help me with my compression socks. Trust me when I say there is no easy way to put on a pair of compression socks. It took about half an hour to get on just one sock. My feet were so swollen and the socks, of course, were so tight that the task became a hilarious event of pushing and pulling. It didn’t help matters that I hadn’t shaved my legs for months. Added friction.

Finally, with the socks on, we were called to theatre. It was literately a knock on the door and let’s go. We were taken to another room in another ward. This would be the room that I would come to afterwards for recovery. We lugged all of our bags and bits and pieces across. I set up my bottle of water and tablet ready on the table for afterwards. Then we sat taking in the view overlooking the London eye. We took some last photos of the two of us dressed in our gown and Emmanuel in his ‘scrubs’. The knock on the door came and off we went. We walked down the corridor to the theatre. I was holding my gown closed so I didn’t flash anybody my bum.

The theatre was not what I expected. We walked in through two sets of doors to a green coloured room and that was it. There it was right off the main corridor. You could almost stumble into it.

I was sat on a bed and given a chair to rest my feet on. My blood pressure etc. were all checked before we started and then the procedure was explained to me. I had a cannula inserted into my hand for drugs to be administered. Then a fluid drip was set up. I was given a pillow to lean over and hug onto. The anaesthetist then cleaned and numbed the skin on my back. She pushed between two of my vertebrae with her fingers for a while before finding the correct spot. She then inserted the needle and administered the spinal block. I could feel it, I won’t lie. But it’s not painful it’s more like pressure. Almost straight away my legs went tingly and I felt sick. I was helped to lay down before I lost anymore feeling. Emmanuel was given a chair so that he could sit by my head the whole time. The anaesthetist, Bethany, stood the other side of me. She was amazing. From start to finish I couldn’t have asked for somebody more kind or professional to take care of me. My gown was lifted to be used as a screen and a blanket placed over my lower half – then the part I had been truly dreading and I mean that. The catheter. My legs were moved by the nurses and the catheter inserted. I had no idea about any of it of course but I knew what they were doing as they were talking and telling me as they went. And honestly, that was probably the worst part. It still makes my tummy feel funny just thinking about it.

The anaesthetist used a cold spray to check I was numb all over before anything began. Once she was happy that I couldn’t feel anything anywhere we were ready. I was giving her detailed feedback. “well I know you are there, but it doesn’t feel cold.” I am sure she was used this. I was concentrating so hard in case I could feel anything, but I couldn’t at all. They do explain to you that they take away the pain but not the sensations. So, you will feel the movement. They said it would be like rummaging in a handbag! Nice analogy! There I was, Emmanuel holding my hand, everything numb and ready to go, but the surgeon was nowhere to be found. Bethany stepped up and called to someone to sort this out. She was efficient and assertive. It was just what was needed at the time. Then he entered, in a room full of women a man walked in. He took a moment to introduce himself to me before a proper screen was put up and I could no longer see anything except the blue fabric, Emmanuel and Bethany. The surgeon was concerned by the size of the bed and wanted the side extender removed as he couldn’t reach across. It was what felt like a power play but must have been a genuine concern. The side of the bed was quickly removed. It was time.

My blood pressure started to drop at this point and I began feeling sick so Bethany gave me some drugs to counteract this. I felt better almost right away. I was a bit shaky but this was just the adrenaline in my body, like when you go to the dentist for a filling and afterwards your legs are wobbly. Then it started. Within minutes we heard them saying, we can see the baby’s feet and bum. They all laughed as he pooed on his way out. Then we heard the most beautiful sound I have ever heard in my life. My baby boy cried as he was lifted out of me. Bethany took my phone and snapped loads of pictures for us. Thanks to her I have a picture sequence of the most amazing moment; the birth of my son. His bum being lifted out. His face appearing. His cord being cut. His screaming face and long body stretched out as they lay him across my legs. He was taken aside for a few moments to be checked and wrapped in a blanket before being brought over to me. Because of the poo, he had to go straight to NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) but I had a few brief moments of him placed next to my face. He reached out and grabbed at my face as if he knew who I was and was asking to stay with me. But soon, too soon, he was gone. Emmanuel kissed and hugged me and told me well done before he left with our baby. I was so adamant that he stayed with our son that I am sure I was practically shouting it.  I was alone in a room full of strangers. But the most wonderful strangers. The nurses chatted to me and kept me calm as they started to stitch me back up. I thought I would feel sad because my baby and my partner had both just left, but I felt pretty good. As if I had just done a workout.

As they stitched me back up, the student nurse and Bethany kept up the conversation. “is this your first baby?” “Did you know you were having a boy?” Questions that I would soon get very used to hearing and answering. Safe questions. Normal.

I asked how the stitching up was going. Bethany told me they were nearly done. I asked again “no I mean what layer are they on?” She paused before answering and telling me there were three to go. Fat and two skin. I told her I had watched a YouTube video on how it was done. She laughed and nodded.

The surgeon leaned over the screen and informed me that he had knotted the stitches on the outside and they will likely need cutting off later. The midwives would do this. This is not a normal procedure; stitches are normally all tucked in and would dissolve apparently. I still have no idea why he did this. Perhaps he was trying to start a trend. He said goodbye and disappeared off. The nurses cleaned me up and gave me a painkiller in the form of a suppository. I had no idea and wished they hadn’t have told me. I was leaned onto my side so they could clean the blood off me fully and then move me onto a travelling bed. I joked about being heavy. The five nurses chuckled politely as I am sure they had heard that joke a million times whilst lifting a 5’9 – just given birth so carrying some extra weight – woman across to another bed!

That was it. I thanked everybody as I was wheeled out of the theatre and down the corridor into my room. It was over. I had ‘given birth’ to our son. He was beautiful. That feeling is something I cannot explain. Hearing him cry and seeing his face for the first time. Something inside my heart moved for him.