A new Dad’s account of how it feels to be told you’re having a premature baby, and then having one 24 hours later.
One year ago today, we welcomed Isabella Siena Rainbow Bright into the world. She was born at 24 weeks plus two days. She weighed just over half a bag of sugar, 630g. And for the next five months after that, we went through a relentless cavalcade of extremes that made thinking about this day, today, unbearable.
But we’re here. It feels weird. I’ve told the story (read part 1 here and read part 2 here; or listen to the podcast) of how those next five months under the care of the most dedicated, incredible super humans at Homerton and St Thomas’s Hospitals in London brought home our super baby, healthy and happy. But I’ve never gone into the story of the preceding 24 hours in much detail.
Well, strap in.
As I write, I sit here with my wife, drinking a G&T. The gin of this comes from a very tiny bottle, a wedding party favour that Sarah never got to drink. The little bottle sat next to our wine glasses at the reception, draped in white ribbon and etched with our names. Sarah’s bottle — which we vowed to crack open a year later — was the last thing she saw before she rushed herself to the hospital, one year and 24 hours ago.
What follows is the account of a drunken dad-to-be, who unexpectedly gets told his wife is having a baby, four months early.
When your wife gets pregnant a million thoughts and anxieties rush through your mind. A premature baby is not even close to being one of them.
Isabella Siena Rainbow Bright was supposed to be born on August 23rd. Instead she was born on May 5th, nearly four months earlier.
Incidentally, it’s not lost on me that she just missed out on Star Wars Day; instead Isabella landed on Cinco De Mayo, which is a holiday celebrated in parts of Mexico and the US in honour of a military victory in 1862 over the French forces of Napoleon III. So, historically it’s a more interesting birthday; anecdotally, less fun.
Anyway, in the week leading up to May 5th (and to put this timeline into perhaps more profound context, we’d only found out we were having a girl about a week prior) Sarah was feeling ill. The morning sickness had not been her friend during pregnancy, so this spate of nausea wasn’t seemingly out of the ordinary. On Friday 3rd May she went to our local, Homerton Hospital in London’s Hackney, with abdominal pains but was given the all-clear.
On Star Wars Day itself, we were at a wedding for our dear friends Rachel and Mark. Incidentally there was already an extra something special about this date, a pertinent completeness about the wedding for them and for us; it was about a year and a half earlier — at our wedding — that Mark decided Rachel was the one, something he kindly alluded to in his speech that day.
Rachel and Mark were married in a very fancy hotel in London’s Liverpool Street. Liverpool Street Station is a relatively short train ride away from Homerton Hospital and from our house. Having continued to feel a little crappy over the course of the reception, at about 9pm Sarah decided to jump on the train home. She told me not to worry and to continue propping up the free bar; I obliged.
It was on the train that Sarah started to get some serious pains. She made, what turned out to be, an absolutely critical — and when I say critical, I mean, critical — decision to redirect her route to Homerton to get checked out.
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say we would later find out she was already in labour at this point. What’s nuts is it doesn’t bear thinking about what could have happened if anything had gone differently that night. To be honest, we try not to.
You can imagine my level of panic when, at about 10:30pm, drunk as hell — like, wedding drunk — I received THAT text.
“Don’t want to alarm you, but I’m at Homerton…”
“Shit,” I thought, instantly sizing up which would be quicker — train or taxi, train or taxi, train or taxi? Dashing into Liverpool Street Station I surveyed the boards — train was definitely quicker. I called ahead from the carriage to an Uber to pick me up at the station and told the driver to ‘step on it’ to the hospital. I’ve never told a cab driver to step on it.
I stormed in to Homerton Hospital in my suit, tie hanging askew in that ‘end-of-wedding’ fashion. The distinctive smell of hospital floor cleaner filled my nose in a very familiar way. I think most East London dwellers can appreciate a drunken visit to Homerton on a Saturday night is something one experiences more than once in one’s life.
Bear in mind that at this stage I expected that my wife was ill, pregnant, and required hospital treatment. How ill exactly was of course an unknown and I was as concerned as any concerned husband would be. I did NOT expect the doctors to tell me my wife was in labour. And I did NOT expect them to tell me that we’d be having this baby in the next 24 hours — or however long it would be that they could slow down the labour process.
But that’s the news that greeted me. And it hits you like a bag made of bricks that’s full of more bricks.
As it happened, it was extremely lucky they did slow the labour down as that gave the midwives and medics a chance to administer crucial treatments, treatments that would protect Isabella on this dangerous quest that was quickly unfolding before her. They gave magnesium treatment to Sarah, which protects little Isabella’s brain, and steroid treatment, which would kickstart her still-developing lungs into functioning. Remember that none of her organs should be gracing the wider stage of the big world yet. They’re not supposed to be doing that for months.
So, we were told Sarah was in labour. Struggling to come to terms with this fact, I think my exact words at this point were “What the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck?” before spinning aimlessly on the spot and then sitting, head in hands, on a birthing stool.
I was panicking and moreover looking for purpose. Was this real? Was this actually happening to us? What even is ‘this’?
At the same time I was also apologising profusely to the doctors, midwives and nurses for being drunk. Despite the exceptional drunkenness I was sober enough to realise that I was exceptionally drunk at that one time in my life when being exceptionally drunk really was the worst possible state to be in. This is a frustrating added burden, let me tell you. Nevertheless, as it turned out, my role as ‘panicking drunk husband’ provided continued comic relief for both Sarah and the Homerton medical staff. In my bid to find my purpose, for now I was more than happy to play the class clown.
There was nothing I could do about the drunkenness except wait to sober up, of course. But the midwives recognised I needed some vague semblance of a direction. They pulled me aside and pointed out that Sarah needed clothes that weren’t a wedding party dress — the nurses said Sarah was the most elegant woman to grace their Maternity Suite for some time. She also needed toiletries and her pregnancy book (she didn’t need this really, it’s all on the computer, but anything to get me out of the way and doing something useful). They sent me packing back home in a taxi to get things; it was going to be a long, long night.
I got home, explained to the cat what was going on, realised that he couldn’t care less, figured that coffee might be the obvious way forward here, and stood in the garden with a mug of particularly strong black stuff trying desperately to gather what little sense I had left in me.
I pulled myself together and packed our overnight bag. This by the way turned out to be another source of light entertainment for the medical staff the next day. They were clawing to have a look in the overnight bag, fascinated to have any insight into how a drunk, panicking husband’s mind works in a time of crisis.
On that note, let’s say this — my aim was true and my intentions were good, though what I eventually hit fell a little left of the target. In this overnight bag, panicked me managed to pack no underwear; no toothbrush; some shit socks; some beautifying toiletries, but nothing that constituted the light moisturiser that she actually needed; several T-shirts, T-shirts that would have comfortably fitted a non-pregnant Sarah; and I’d also packed her dazzlingly white, White Company dressing gown (“Yeah, I see where you were going with this one,” explained a doctor, “Thing is we don’t really do white in hospitals, it tends to get a little messy.”) Basically, I meant well but I couldn’t have failed harder.
The next morning, the doctors came to check on Sarah. They confirmed what they thought had happened and what we, ultimately, had feared: she had an infection and her body was set on getting Isabella the hell out of there.
It was nobody’s fault and there was sweet nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. Life had simply dealt us a shit hand. And Isabella was not staying around for the flop. Fold, now.
I had semi slept next to Sarah in the cocoon-like enclave of the Maternity Suite, after spending a considerable amount of time the night before on my hands and knees with reams of paper towels, desperately soaking up the pool of boiling coffee I’d managed to spill everywhere in my ridiculous inebriated state.
“Are you OK?” the entering midwives asked Sarah, with a gentle voice. She was. In spite of the situation she was positively glowing.
“And how are YOU doing?” they asked me. A wry smile suggested they knew the answer.
To call this a hangover would be doing a disservice to hangovers. This was the mother of all hangovers. Imagine the time you got the worst pounding your head can administer on itself and then multiply by the second worst. I’m sure this was not aided by the fact that I was acutely aware we were going to have a baby in the next couple of hours.
A weird day ensued. I mean, it doesn’t get much weirder. But it was going to be a weird day despite the whole baby thing. Both our mothers had arrived on the scene by now — Sarah’s mum had arrived at first light, having driven through the night, and my mum jumped on the first train to London at silly o’clock in the morning.
We were all beginning to come to terms with the inevitable. About 24 hours ago we were pregnant and relatively nonchalant; now we’re having a baby. This is us now; this is the new normal. Time to adapt and do it swiftly. We were introduced to the softly spoken anaesthetist, who came in and started administering a cocktail of drugs to Sarah. She was not complaining about this in the slightest. To my delight, he then offered me the nitrous/oxygen gas.
“Do you want some of this?” he asked, clearly seeing I was in dire need of literally any form of respite or remedy. “We don’t usually give it to the dads, but we’ll make an exception in your case.”
This was a very good call. Being slightly high was infinitely more manageable than being very hungover. At least I could rationalise everything, rather than arduously wait for the sledgehammer having a go at my brain to tire itself out.
We sat in the room, both it should be said now reasonably content, given the circumstances.
We started listening to a comedy podcast. It was by the comedian Simon Evans, about the formation of today’s financial sector and stock market. This might seem odd, I’ll grant you, but at the time it was a subject so far removed from the reality we were dealing with as to happily detract for just a moment.
The episode we were listening to charted the history of the Marxist doctrine (which is funnier source material than you’d think). At one point, the comedian addressed his audience.
“But, I mean, come on, who here really HAS read the Communist Manifesto?” he asked, a rhetorical “no one” implied in the answer.
“I’VE READ THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO,” Sarah ceremoniously shouted, one fist proudly raised. The former politics student was riding the happy wave of an epidural-infused brain. I can’t begin to imagine what a passing nurse must have thought at this outburst. But it was just one of those hilariously innocuous moments that couldn’t fail to bring home the absurdity of what we were going through.
The hour was now approaching. Nothing felt real, yet we were still acutely aware of the gravity of the situation. We still weren’t completely clear on how this would all play out. Then the doctors and nurses became noticeably more animated. When were we going to do this thing, we wondered?
“Right now,” said one doctor, getting more suited up.
“What, like NOW, now?” I asked. “Like, this second, now?”
“Yep, now now. This baby’s coming,” she replied.
Panic set in again, not because the baby was due but because I suddenly realised at this point that I didn’t have a fucking clue what to do next.
‘Normal’ — for wont of a better word — dads have had the benefit of NCT classes and baby first aid classes and various sessions of sitting with other worried dads in circles, discussing what it all means to enter fatherhood on a philosophical level.
I was going in cold — no training, no prep, just follow your gut and don’t get in the bloody way.
Sarah was looking anxious; I held her hand. I looked at her and asked how she was doing. She said she needed to calm down somehow. The first thing that came to mind was breathing. It’s the first thing they teach you when it comes to any kind of physical or performance-based activity. I also reverted to my only point of reference here — the movies. In any birthing scene in a movie the dad always sits there and breathes a lot, in in in, out out out, etc. That’s just what the dad does.
This approach seemed to make sense in the current scenario. I told Sarah to breathe deeply and with me. Focus on just the breathing and nothing else. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth. I was kind of winging it, but it seemed to work, Sarah said she was calming down. Relatively speaking.
But things were now getting serious. I can’t tell you how terrified I was for Sarah. Every trembling ounce of my energy was focused solely on her. I held her hand, kept talking to her. About anything. Just telling her how well she was doing and that, let me tell you, was no hyperbole. I was in awe. How could someone as inept as me be lucky enough to call this warrior before me my wife?
Sarah just went for it. Hell for leather. I don’t really remember what happened, but it happened quick. Neither of us really had a chance to reflect — the midwives gripped one hand, telling Sarah to push and breathe, and I gripped the other, essentially confirming to Sarah that I agreed with the pushing and breathing course of action. I mainly just stared, scared stiff and stunned by what my wife was doing right now.
All I remember was that after, maybe an hour of pure, concentrated intensity, one of the doctors exclaimed that she could see the head. “Already?” I thought. It felt like five minutes. Naively I assumed that all births take, I don’t know, days.
Spirits were high at this point.
I should say here that there are a number of different reasons why the name Rainbow is on Isabella’s birth certificate. This is one of them. One of the doctors delivering Isabella, seeing that our surname is ‘Bright’, asked flippantly: “Ooooh can her middle name be Rainbow? You know, like Rainbow Bright?!”
For the uninitiated, Rainbow Brite (to give it the proper spelling) was a space-based cartoon character from the ’80s, a galaxy-venturing girl adorned in rainbow colours who brought light and love and colour to a grey and desolate distant world. It seemed appropriate — plus we’re both proud ’80s babies — so we thought: “Sure, why not?”
No sooner had everything started than it was seemingly all over. Sarah pushed and pushed, each one harder than the last. This was a sprint, not a marathon. Sarah’s coaches were on the sideline egging her down that track, each metre she covered more determined than the last. And then, the final, massive push. The push to end all pushes. The finishing ribbon in sight, Sarah went for it, gripping my hands like a rock climber’s fingertips to a sheer cliff face.
But unlike the movies, there was no crying, no big reveal. Isabella came out in a whirlwind. The doctors confirmed she was breathing. She was then immediately plonked into a plastic bag to protect her skin, which of course was not yet ready for the harsh outside air around her. She was so tiny, and everything was such a mad mess of gloved hands, wires, tubes, plastic and syringes, you weren’t even sure which bit was the baby at first.
At this point, there were 21 medical professionals in the room, roughly split half and half between those looking after Sarah and those looking after Isabella. Up until now we’d been dealing exclusively with the maternity staff, whose primary concern is the mother’s health and to ensure the birth process goes smoothly and safely. In a most dramatic fashion, they were now handing over to the neonatal team. It’s weird to look back on it now when you think those neonatal staff, the new faces that had just turned up on our scene — their first move to put our baby in a bag — would soon become the most familiar, friendly faces in our lives.
This moment was, as you’d expect, the culmination of a traumatising 24 hours. We got a glimpse of the shape of things to come, though. Joking that we hadn’t even bought a car seat yet (when you give birth, normally, you’re supposed to bring a car seat to the hospital so you can take baby home), the doctor turned to us and jokingly-not-very-jokingly said we wouldn’t be needing a car seat for quite a while yet. Which couldn’t help but turn our minds to how long a while would be, what might happen to us all in the meantime. The sprint was over, we realised; the marathon was just getting started.
We were in bits. Emotion piled on emotion, exhaustion on exhaustion. Everything felt surreal. After fiddling with tubes and wires and god knows what else as I watched on, a tiny Isabella, the size of a hand, was handed to Sarah. We posed badly for a couple of photos, our faces grimaced, before Isabella was whisked off in an incubator on wheels to NICU — the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit — our new home from home.
I ran behind the team as they smashed their way through double doors after double doors into NICU where they set Isabella into a permanent incubator. This was my first foray into NICU. It’s like a set from inside a Star Wars spaceship. Hi-tech. Oppressive. Screens and wires, beeps and alarms. Doctors and nurses walk around purposefully with syringes and clipboards, fully gowned up with rubber gloves and face masks and looking serious. It’s almost dystopian — a feeling not helped by the unenviable reason you’re there in the first place.
Tears were streaming; I cried like I’ve never cried in my life. I watched a breathing tube go down Isabella’s throat. Her tiny, delicate throat. It was all too much now. I was overwhelmed, that palpable feeling of being on the verge of breaking down was beginning to brim up. The neonatal nurses saw my face and suggested that maybe it’s better if I go and help Sarah at this point; they’d call us when Isabella was more settled in her new plastic womb. I agreed and walked — numb — back from NICU to the Maternity Suite. I saw my mum and my sister and collapsed in their embrace, all of us sobbing uncontrollably. I rang my dad; he broke down, too. I never hear my dad break down. Ever.
It’s hard to convey the trauma of what was happening right here. There are no words that feel adequate. Not only do you not expect a premature baby for even a moment, when that baby actually pops into the world for real, the uncertainty of what is to come is crippling. Your thoughts accelerate.
There’s the immediate heartbreak of seeing this brand-new person — someone you’ve already fallen head over heels in love with — be taken from your arms and plonked in a plastic box, wires and tubes protruding from every possible place a wire or tube can fit. But while you’re living in this terrifying now, trying to process a crisis on the ground, your mind doesn’t stop racing into the mid-term, and into the long-term anxieties. You know that this is just the beginning of the potential crises, of which there will probably be many. You’re not out of the hospital woods yet, in fact, you’ve only just started hacking at the undergrowth.
Meanwhile you’re acutely aware your baby has suddenly been filed in the ‘at risk’ category for potential longer-term issues — brain, lungs, heart, everything that keeps you or I alive is inevitably at increased risk. And of course, none of these problems may materialise. Or all of them might. They might be serious problems. They might not. They might go away with treatment. They might go away on their own. They might be something that Isabella has to manage her whole life. Not knowing never stops being overwhelming.
The best way I can describe it all, and I still do to this day, is it’s like living with a boxer in front your face. You don’t know when they’re going to punch you; you don’t know how hard they’re going to punch you; you don’t even know if they’ll punch you at all. But they’re always there, fists up, ready to strike.
And right there, I felt like I’d just emerged from a fight. I was bruised, dazed and physically shattered.
But then something quite transformative happened. Something that has stuck with me to this very day. If I was to face my constant boxer, this was when my coach pulled me back to my corner for a life-changing time-out.
It was at probably my lowest ebb. I was sat alone on the hospital corridor floor, my eyes streaming, trying to make head or tail of things. The consultant doctor from our delivery team spotted me and approached.
“You OK?” she asked.
“No… yes… I don’t know…” summed up my response.
“Look,” she said. “I know this is hard. I’ve seen so many dads in your exact position and every single one feels like they’ve been hit by a train. You’re in a crazy, overwhelming situation and it’s taken you completely by surprise. One minute you’re pregnant, the next minute your baby’s out and fighting for her life in an incubator. Trust me, I get it.
“But here’s the thing… you need to be strong now.”
I looked up, stunned. I’m not going to lie, at that exact moment it felt like the doctor was getting a sucker punch in.
“You need to be strong for your wife,” she continued. “You need to be strong for your families out there. And you need to be strong for your daughter. They’re all looking to you now.”
It took a fleeting nanosecond to reflect on my own feelings only to realise what she was telling me here. This wasn’t any old pep talk. This was everything I needed to hear. As a human being. As a father.
It’s funny, you hear about people going and ‘finding themselves’, like when they go travelling. People spend a long time trying to get to the heart of their identity, who they are, their raison d’etre, their purpose for being. Perhaps we need to be pushed to the edge to find it because, here, in all its glory, was mine. This is my reason for being. And I was hearing it for the first time in my life. That doctor flicked a light switch and I couldn’t have been more grateful. Something, somewhere in there, turned on.
As it happened, about a month later I bumped into that doctor again, in the very same corridor. I’d finally got an opportunity to thank her, not just for delivering my daughter but for saying exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. The power of that moment is immeasurable.
The next five days were a blur. Sarah was getting over her infection, tied to a hospital bed and hooked up to an antibiotic drip. Mainly we spent the days going to see Isabella in NICU, and then quickly retreating back to the Maternity Suite when we realised it was all too much. I was so thankful when Sarah was discharged and we could at least sleep in our bed. NICU is an unforgiving, relentless landscape.
But it’s full of amazing people. People who exude a level of professionalism and skill that can only be matched by their compassion. And it is your child’s first home. Her second was NICU in St Thomas’s Hospital in Waterloo, two months later. Three months after that, we bought a car seat. We took Isabella home for good.
Happy birthday, my little warrior. My little rainbow.
This post was previously published on A Parent Is Born and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Jonathan Bright