I Just wanted her to breathe

Published August 6, 2014 | By Greg Hodgson-Fopp

Continues on from the  First Hour of Life.

Immediately after their birth, there was a flurry of activity and emotions so diverse and intense, that it’s really hard to see through them to document what exactly I was feeling. I had just been told by the Birth Teams that the babies were perfect in every way, and as if to prove it, the girls had posed for a couple of quite unflattering photos in the O/R while Natasha was still being tended to by the medical team.

Perfect Head to Toe

Reaching the Scripps hospital “Well Baby Nursery”, the girls were placed in these perspex walled little containers with warm lights shining on them to keep them toasty warm, while the nursing staff went about gathering their required measurements and monitoring their health.

Our Paediatrician (Dr Warner, who has been amazing) came in immediately for a visit and proceeded to take a look at both girls, examining them, checking their vital signs, their not-so-vital signs, the rotation of muscles and joints, and a number of other factors I am sure I missed. After the examination he pronounced them ‘Perfect, head to toe’.

I can remember breathing out for what felt like the first time in 9 months. It was exactly what every parent wants and desperately needs to hear when their children are born, and I think I just about hugged every person in that room in the next five minutes. Charles and Natasha’s mum – Aloma – were hovering just the other side of the window and I nipped out to give them a quick hug as well.

Verity was duly weighed (6lb 3oz / 2.8kg) measured (18″ / 46cm) and then without further ado was given her hepatitis B vaccine, her eye ointment and then swaddled. Her heat light was turned off, and she was wrapped and handed over to Matt to be given her first bottle, which she devoured hungrily. Nature’s primal instincts seem to be strong in this little girl, she had a powerful – almost primal – desire to feed right right from within 1 hour of emerging from the womb.

Delilah was a little slower. She was crying a lot, but not particularly vigorously and huffing and puffing a lot too. The nurses were quick to reassure me that she was still undergoing the transition from the womb to the real world, which is a pretty powerful thing to have to do when you’re so small. She needed to cry and howl and the nurses tentatively obliged by encouraging her to give out a powerful big howl, by flicking gently at the sensitive soles of her feet.

An hour or so later, while Verity was already sleeping off her first feed, Delilah still hadn’t started breathing evenly and was huffing and puffing. Neither Matt nor I had left her side at all, he had fed Verity and then we kept trading places so that one Daddy was at the bedside of each girl.

Just a little oxygen required

At one stage while I was hovering over Verity, the nurses had made a decision to give Delilah a little help and introduced a small cup shaped nozzle that bled oxygen into her crib. It wasn’t a mask, and didn’t attach, it was just a “little extra help”. They continued to reassure me that most babies manage to cry open their lungs and cough up the remaining amniotic fluids within an hour or two of birth, and this was perfectly normal.

It’s hard to go back to the emotions that I was feeling at that point. I was elated and jubilant about the diagnosis of ‘Perfect, head to toe’ and at the same time I had this sickening fear in the pit of my stomach that all was not well with Delilah.

I stood over her for hours. Each time the nurses tried to reduce the oxygen flow to see if she was okay without it, my eyes would glue to her tiny little face for the smallest sign that she was capable of doing without it.

Loads of people will talk about how the passage of time can slow under certain conditions. They talk about how minutes can seem like hours when doing something fun or dangerous. But I can tell you now that time will never pass so slowly as when you are watching your child and waiting for their every breath to make sure they’re still with you.

All I wanted her to do was breathe.

Breathe deeply, breathe evenly. Breathe on her own, without the puff of oxygen in her face. Take a huge deep breath and then settle into a comfortable rhythm. That was all I wanted in the world. I hovered there over her for six hours. It seemed like six weeks.

She was huffing and puffing. Breathing too quickly. Short little gasps that used all the wrong muscles. She was breathing with the sides of her torso, not inflating her belly or moving her diaphragm down in the way we do when taking a full lungful. And in doing all this effort just to get enough oxygen, she was wearing herself out.

The nurses were incredibly good and patient, and the paediatrician returned to have a look at her as well. The head nurse from the ICU (who was one of the women in her ‘Birth Team’ as well, I recall) came back and was deciding whether to bring some equipment from ICU to the nursery to give that a go.

We tried a few positions to see if the fluid would shift. I was given her to hold against me in case that comfort would settle her down. We tried rolling her onto her stomach with her bum raised. The nurses tried to gently pat her back to encourage the fluid to loosen up and be coughed out. But none of this made any difference, and she was slowly running out of energy, her breaths getting a little bit more ragged and a little bit more tired.

Gently, the nurses tried to make me see what they saw.

She wasn’t getting stronger.

She wasn’t going to be weaned off the oxygen today. Every time they reduced the amount, she deteriorated a little bit, and had to work a bit harder just to stay awake, and in doing so, that wore her out a bit more as well. All the things they’d said about “Most babies clear their lungs after a couple of hours” was not going to apply to Delilah. She was not “Most Babies”.

As she lay there huffing and heaving away, trying to get enough oxygen, I willed her to just give us a good strong wail and eject that fluid so she could settle down into a regular breathing pattern.

The head nurse from the ICU came back at the 6 hour mark. She’d spoken to the Doctor and they had made the decision to admit Delilah.

We had to leave Verity

Verity was safe and sound, gently sleeping off her first feed in a crib, swaddled to the chin and already sporting a lovely knitted hat.

Matt and I accompanied Delilah down the corridor to the level 2 nursery, which was barely 10 metres from where we had been in the Nursery. Once inside, they quickly took Delilah from us and placed her in one of the high-tech beds that they have set up in there. She was attached to a blood-oxygen monitor, then a body temp monitor was taped to her. Then a respiration monitor was affixed with more sticky tape. Then they tried to find a spot in her arm to add the IV needle that she needed.  They rolled up a machine that creates lung pressure (CPAP) and started to use tape to anchor it to her 6-hour-old cheeks.

Matt and I were given seats nearby and I watched as they gently, carefully and with a great deal of tenderness made Delilah the centre of a matrix of machines, monitors, pumps and computers. Let me say first that I absolutely cannot fault the medical expertise or the gentleness and carefulness of the staff. They were incredibly considerate of her fragile little body, and took great pains to reassure her as they went about the very necessary tasks that were part of safe-guarding her life.

But I don’t think any parent could watch their 6-hour-old child be hooked up to so many devices of plastic, tape and metal without a primal, lower-gut reaction to it. At the same time, the words from the Doctor were going through my head again and again. “Possible infection”, “Pneumonia”, “Anti-biotics”, “Fluid on the lungs”, “Air escaping into the chest cavity”, “Small hole in her right lung”.

I completely and totally lost it.

I was sitting in that office chair they had politely rolled up for me, Matt’s hand gently rubbing my lower back, and I felt more helpless than I have ever felt in all my life. The roller coaster of emotions had plunged through the floor. It seemed like just moments ago we were sailing at the peak of ‘Perfect, head to toe’ and now here we were being wired into a bank of monitors. There was absolutely nothing that I could do to help my little girl, and nothing that I could do to stop this process of assimilation into the machines of ICU. Like any sane baby, she was pretty unhappy about all this tape and all these pricks and pokes, but she was so drained from trying so hard to breathe that she didn’t have any strength left to wail or complain.

Delilah and I both just passively shut down and accepted the processes we were respectively going through.

I’m going to stop writing here and finish this later. I feel the need to go upstairs and squeeze Delilah so tight that she squeaks.