Today Hoda Ali is doing a guest post for Upfront Mama. This is the incredible story of how her son, born at 23 weeks, beat the odds and survived…..
On February 6th 2016, 17:00, I was baking a cake for the after-party of the play I was in. I was going to ice it with the words “No Dangerous Corners Here” because it was a round cake and the play was called “Dangerous Corner.” (Witty, aren’t I?) I was 22 weeks pregnant and had only just started talking to my bump that day; it had only just become a bump and I was really enjoying my afternoon rubbing it and telling it what I was planning as I left my cake to cool on the side. Suddenly, I realised the time! I was due on stage in 25mins and it was a 15min drive away. Hurriedly, I got into the car, stuck the wipers on and drove like the wind up through Cricklewood Broadway. I checked the clock and thought about my opening line. GASP! I left my costume at home, I had to go and get it. What would everyone say if I turned up without the right clothes? I didn’t want to let anyone down. The rain was coming down in buckets, it was dark and the cars wouldn’t let me do a 3 point turn to go home. Panic rose in my chest, I could feel my heart beating hard and I was suddenly desperate for a wee when I heard it. A distinct POP sound. I parked up in my driveway and I felt the wee come, running down my legs, all the way to the front door and along the hallway to the toilet; I couldn’t stop it. My mum took one look and said “that’s not wee.” And promptly called an ambulance.
The next afternoon I sat in a hospital bed still feeling small and scared but hopeful as the consultant obstetrician walked into my cubicle. She was still wearing her scrubs and without introductions opened with “You should have an abortion. This pregnancy isn’t viable. We will give you a pill to start the process.” I looked at her hard. “Won’t I have to give birth to it anyway?” “Yes.” “Then I’ll take my chances!” She rolled her eyes at me and walked out. I was crying when the midwife came to check on me afterwards “If you have hope, you have everything.” She said.
A week later, after a relaxing and promising week in hospital, I lay upside down on my bed with my legs in the air telling the registrar that I wasn’t going to let this baby come now, at 23 weeks, we argued with me in that position for about 10mins before I reluctantly agreed to turn the right way around and have gas and air. A lot of gas and air and not just when I was in pain either, all the time, just because it made me feel good. I started offering it around like a hookah pipe. I kept making jokes about the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. The labour was quick and, I suppose, relatively painless although in hindsight I remember little of the pain but I do remember refusing to push and telling the registrar to “just make him go back up” with the hand that she’d decided to stick up me with no explanation. Later that night, I’d dream I was giving birth to thousands of octopi with wriggly tentacles.
Apparently, we went to visit him that night and were spoken to very kindly by a lovely nurse with blonde curly hair called Jo. I don’t remember the visit but I do remember Jo, my favourite nurse. She was there when I went back the next day and looked at this creature, this little alien, that they kept saying was my baby. But it wasn’t my baby, my baby was bonny, it had Owen’s nose and my chubby cheeks, it had plump fingers and that squidgy newborn baby look. It most definitely wasn’t the size of a mouse, it did not have stick legs like a bird, weird scaly skin and no discernible nipples, it wasn’t this baby. It took a week of sitting beside his incubator reading him Winnie the Pooh before I stopped imagining that I was still going to get that chubby baby and I accepted that this little newborn pup was actually my son.
A day or so after he was born, the neonatal consultant called us into a room and after a lot of percentages of percentages, told us our baby had a 2% chance of survival. I dried my tears, walked to the incubator and told him he was going to beat those odds, as though it was a maths test, as though it was up to us. I don’t want to take away from his strength but if I had known that there were gremlins in those nurseries; silent shadows lurking behind the monitors watching us, feeding off our hope and joy and striking when you least expected it; I’m not sure I’d have said it with such conviction. Those gremlins messed with us every day, a great morning with a celebratory lunch could turn into a nightmare week or you could come in walking on sunshine to hear “we had to bag him last night.” I had to tell people to stop asking me how he was; because even when he was well, he wasn’t well – he was in intensive care, on life support machines. I felt sick all the time; a constant feeling of dread and worry. People would tell me it was normal “Welcome to Motherhood.” But they didn’t really understand. The only people who understood were the other parents, the other mums who spent their days on this rollercoaster of daily dread; trying to become experts to feel we were in control – Why did they incubate him again? What was his oxygen level? How were his sats overnight? His heart rate is high, stop giving him caffeine. It’s low today, I think he’s getting sick.
I often wonder, if I’d known then what I know now, would I have been able to get through it? Because for me, it was blind stupid optimism that kept me going. In the beginning, I honestly thought we’d spend a few weeks in hospital and then go home. I never realised the mine field that lay before us. At various times, he had septicaemia, a collapsed lung, a heart valve that hadn’t closed, poor weight gain, blood transfusion after blood transfusion, suspected Necrotizing enterocolitis (the baby killer) twice, Colitis twice, chronic lung disease; he spent so long on oxygen machines that he needed laser eye surgery, a million other things that I don’t remember and I always say we had an easier ride than some of the other babies. I started to think of them all as little superheroes in superhero costumes, going out to battle the gremlins with us standing by cheering them on from the side-lines. Ineffectual bystanders, unable to do anything but hope for the best. Unlike most Hollywood Blockbusters, not all of our superheroes made it. It seemed incredible to me that death was a possibility and it was shocking when it came. The superheroes who didn’t make it, they were stronger and braver than anyone else I’ve ever met, they were stronger than some who survived. But there’s only so much fighting anyone, even a superhero, can take.
Four long months after my cake baking evening, we came home but the dread stayed with me. I felt it all the time, whether he was asleep or awake. Whether I was awake or asleep. I had a recurring dream that I left him alone in the bath and came back too late so I’ve never given him a bath alone. I had another nightmare where a nurse took him from me but as she turned around, I saw she was actually a 7-foot skeleton in a brown cloak and I watched in horror as bits of my baby’s face fell off chunk after chunk as I stood screaming at it but dream screaming, the kind where no sound comes out so you scream more and more. I’d wake up more tired than when I’d fallen asleep. I had promised him that I’d take him out a lot when we got out of the hospital, so we’d go out a lot; do lots of things, watch a play, walks in the park, trips to the zoo, dinner at grandmas, dancing around to club classics but it was always there, that feeling that something wasn’t quite right, that I couldn’t quite relax and I thought maybe they were right, maybe this is what being a parent feels like.
It was only a couple of nights ago, nearly 8 months after we brought him home and almost a year after he was born when he was asleep and I was engrossed in series 1 of Unforgotten that I realised “I’m taking him for granted, sitting here, watching the telly and not feeling that feeling.” I’m taking him for granted, the way every other parent does when their lives are normal, ordinary, mundane. And I grinned from ear to ear because whatever lies ahead, right now I’ve finally made it; it’s taken a year but I’ve arrived “Welcome to Motherhood.”