I have wiped tears from the keyboard and laughed out loud tonight while reading journal entries from the time that Elsie was born prematurely (16 weeks early) four years ago. So it’s now that I’d like to share a short story—actually, it’s almost entirely snippets from my journal—that I compiled a couple of years ago about her early arrival.
I called it ‘Flame of hope’:
We were parents at last. But parents of a tiny creature whisked away at birth, put in a plastic box and given a fifty percent chance of survival.
With my arm through the porthole, I rested the tip of my little finger in her palm and hoped like hell she would wrap her hand around it.
‘I’m certain that life presents no more demanding challenges than having a baby in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at 24 weeks gestation,’ the Head of Neonatology said across the top of the humidicrib.
* * * *
Two months before, Anthony and I stepped off a plane in far north Queensland for our last holiday as a couple before the baby arrived. I was glad of the opportunity to straighten my back and pressed firmly on my belly to ease a sharp pain.
The next day at the Ayr Hospital, a doctor tied the straps of a plastic apron behind his back and announced that there was no way to stop the labour. I looked at him in his shorts and sandals. He appeared no more ready for the arrival of this baby than I was.
An empty humidicrib loomed beside me during the ride to Townsville. I closed my eyes, determined not to deliver a baby in the back of an ambulance while Anthony followed in a hire car.
It was a 50-minute drive to Townsville. I listened to the doctor and matron talk about their holidays.
The nurse said my name and I opened my mouth. Ten minutes must have passed. She placed another pill under my tongue to slow the contractions. Forty minutes and four pills to go.
It was not until I was wheeled into the maternity ward of the Townsville Hospital and greeted by a friendly nurse that I could open my eyes to the situation I was in. I had made it. So did Anthony, his eyes red.
Over the next few hours, doctors and nurses told us what to expect. More from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) came to do the same.
‘Hope it’s a girl; they’re stronger,’ a nurse said, wheeling in a flat cot warmed by its overhead heater.
A radiographer brought in a large ultrasound machine and slid the camera across my belly.
‘Do you know what you’re having?’ she asked.
‘Not yet. You may as well tell us who we’re working with,’ I said, looking at the blurred limbs on the screen.
The NICU nurse smiled and showed Anthony three tiny beanies: one pink, one orange and one white. He chose orange and she left it on the cot under the heater.
The baby arrived with shiny, translucent skin, dark hair and bruises over her entire body. Her mere passage through the birth canal was enough to burst her tiny, thin-walled blood vessels.
Doctors and nurses surrounded the cot and walked quickly with it as they wheeled it away.
The next day, a doctor took us to his office.
‘I have some concerns about your daughter,’ he said.
The frail little creature, sprawled in the humidicrib with eyes fused shut like a baby sparrow fallen out of its nest, was our daughter.
She weighed 634g. We named her Elsie.
This was parenthood. Wasn’t there supposed to be some overwhelming feeling of love that no-one can explain or prepare for? Bonding, cuddles, eye contact and some newborn baby smell?
‘There are question marks (a) over her survival, and (b) over any disability she may have. But while there is uncertainty, there is hope. And the flame of hope is still flickering.’
In the first few days, we were afraid to love Elsie. There were too many tubes, wires and monitors going in, out and off her fragile body. She was too small and frail. All we had was the hope that she would not die. No certainty. If we didn’t love her, surely it wouldn’t hurt as much to lose her.
It was hard to know whether to celebrate or mourn the birth of our daughter. I had known nothing about premature babies and was able to tell how much our friends knew by their text messages. Those without children wrote, ‘Great news, congratulations! Love the name.’
Those with children wrote, ‘Thinking of you both, and praying for Elsie. Please let us know if we can do anything to help ;-)’
All of the thoughts and prayers, cards, gifts and love from our families and friends made us feel very lucky and supported.
But the medical team was doing all they could and Elsie all she could. Nothing else would determine whether she lived or died.
As for us, I produced and froze breastmilk that we hoped one day she could drink, we sat beside her and we looked after each other. At times, none of that felt like enough.
Over the next few weeks, I imprinted in my mind her hairline and how her hands looked like a doll’s. If we did lose her, I wanted some memories from the short time she was ours.
It was not long before the instinctive love for our beautiful little girl was unquestionable and earlier attempts at not getting too attached impossible. Hope and confidence replaced fear and confusion. We found joy celebrating small victories rather than sorrow for missing out on the idyllic arrival of a newborn.
For us now, the doctor’s flickering flame of hope was a bonfire. A fifty percent chance of survival. We had lost a pregnancy in the past because of a defect with the baby discovered at the 18-week scan. If we could be the one in 750 back then, the one in two chance of survival offered for Elsie by comparison was enormous.
Of the 24-weekers that survive, half will have some sort of disability, from blindness to cerebral palsy. The odds were good; half will not.
I felt her arm twitch under my hand. The drugs that had paralysed her to allow another lumbar puncture were wearing off. Again they had folded her little body in half, inserted a needle into her spine, and withdrawn some spinal fluid to test for infection.
‘Thank you for all that you’re doing,’ I said to the Head of Neonatology, standing tall on the other side of the humidicrib.
‘Don’t thank me,’ he said. ‘We mangle marriages in here and we mangle family relationships.’
I thought back to the year before when I had delivered a tiny dead baby at 18 weeks, curled up inside a red tear-shaped sac.
And I thought about our obstetrician telling us after our third pregnancy loss that another patient suffered seven losses before her first baby was born. When we got outside I had asked Anthony why that woman would do that to herself.
‘Because she wanted a family,’ Anthony had said.
That simple answer had been a pivotal point for me. We also wanted a family and whatever happened to us along the way would be what happened to us along the way – part of the journey Anthony and I would take together, supporting each other with the experiences and growing closer with our shared hopes and heartbreaks.
‘I guess we’ve had a few trial runs of rotten luck to know how each other copes. And to learn that things may not go as planned,’ I said.
‘You’re very lucky that you can both be here by her side,’ he said, moving towards the door.
Other women around the room sat alone staring into a humidicrib, but Anthony could be here because his father was taking care of things on the farm. Suddenly, another season of failed crops and the drought back home were insignificant.
‘The baby’s lungs are a concern. There’s no room left to move on the ventilator,’ the doctor said as he walked out. ‘If the steroids are going to work, we should see some improvement by tonight.’
If they didn’t, doctors would turn off the machine that breathed for her. Our poor little baby girl. How long would it take for her to die and would we be able to hold her at the time?
‘Let’s not worry about that unless it happens,’ Anthony said.
I nodded. That was true. They had not turned the machine off, so there was no point crying about it.
We peered back into the humidicrib and drew instant and further inspiration from Elsie’s strength. I smiled at her eagerness to begin life as soon as possible and raised the tiny orange beanie gently so I could see more of her forehead.
And then I felt the grip of her tiny hand around the tip of my little finger. If Elsie was going to be strong, who were we not to be the same?
* * * *
Yes, we are parents at last. Parents of a healthy and delightful 2-year-old girl named Elsie. Like other parents, we feel blessed and fortunate to celebrate small milestones, feel mixed emotions, gain a new perspective and appreciate the preciousness of life.