Twenty-Six Weeks and Five Days

Christmas on the Winnicott Baby Unit,

St Mary’s Hospital,

London 2001

I heard him cry. A nurse showed me a flash of his face, smiled, then rushed away.

‘Congratulations,’ the consultant said.

I suppose there’s not much else he could have said, under the circumstances, but I thought it bizarre. I felt terror instead of joy. I didn’t want this tiny, sick baby.

But he had decided to live, to breathe, so that was that. I had no choice, I had a son.

After a few hours, I was in better shape myself, and ready to see him. I was wheeled up to the special care baby unit. He lay on his back, lobster red in the dim light and covered in bubble wrap. His head was the size of a peach and his face was hidden by the brutal blue pipe of the ventilator taped across his cheeks. His eyes hadn’t opened because his eyelids were still fused shut. The cartilage in his body had not yet formed and his ears rolled into themselves like seashells.

He weighed less than two pounds.

My son was supposed to have been born on 16 March 2002, but instead he arrived a little over three months early, on 13 December 2001. On the day of my three-month ultrasound scan, I had sat in a waiting room, in shock, watching planes crash into the Twin Towers in New York. The doctor had reassured me my baby was fine.

That first time I saw him, I leant over his incubator but I was too scared to touch him. The nurse said I had to.

I hated the wires. They poked through the backs of his tiny hands, into his ankles and his miniature feet. I was scared when I lifted him up, that the wires would catch and pull and hurt him. For three months, the thing I wanted most was to hold him, without any wires, just a baby, skin to skin.

Every day they would stick more needles into him to collect a few drops of blood. He had too little energy to protest or even to cry.

He still has the scars.

After five days he was taken off the ventilator, the blue pipe no longer taped across his face, and he breathed mostly on his own.

The parents of the baby in the next incubator were teenagers whose baby was born even earlier, at twenty-one weeks. ‘Hello my little princess,’ the father said each day.

Some of the babies around us were allowed home after a day or two, others were rushed to surgery, two died. We were long-stay residents.

I sat for hours on end, in the armchair next to his incubator, while he slept tucked inside my shirt, wires and all. Every day I hoped he would not have a brain bleed, or pick up an infection. In the evenings, I would leave the hospital and nobody could see there was a part of me missing, nobody knew I was a mother.

The nurses walked softly on white-soled shoes. They worked twelve-hour shifts. I remember a young Filipino nurse with her hair in a long, sleek ponytail that hung down her back. She was my favourite, precise and gentle. When she was on duty overnight, I went home and I was able to sleep. I also slept when Amanda from New Zealand was on duty. There were others, though, who were careless, who dressed him roughly and laughed harshly over him. There were times where we would wake up in the night and drive all the way back to the hospital to check he was still alive.

My son slept and he grew, in his own quiet, determined way.

One of the other mothers called him a handsome brute.

Although his forehead had begun to bulge from the pressure on his still-soft skull, he did not get ill. He did not have a brain bleed. His retinas were not damaged by the ventilator.

I could feed him, through a tube at first, which passed from his nose down into his stomach. I pushed my milk down, using a small plastic syringe.

When he grew a little bigger, they dressed him in doll’s clothes. They have a cupboard full on the ward. I bought him a pair of newborn socks from The Gap but they came all the way up to his thigh.

Last year he started secondary school.

During the three months we spent in neo-natal intensive care, there were many small acts of kindness that meant the world to us. On Christmas morning, the nurses put up decorations and placed a small, wrapped gift next to each of the babies.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who performs miracles at the Winnicott Baby Unit, and courage to all parents spending Christmas in special care baby units.