I met my husband (from the states) about 15 years ago, where we both worked, at Boom Chicago (a Comedy club) in Amsterdam. He is a professional drummer, so we lived a party lifestyle for about 10 years until we decided to get married and possibly even start a family. Which wasn’t an easy task when your husband is away on tour every weekend!
But we did it, we got pregnant! Unfortunately, though, we had an early miscarriage at 10 weeks. It was disappointing but actually made our determination bigger to really go for it and 2 months later I was pregnant again!
Except this time, it felt different. I knew I was pregnant a week before I even did the test. We asked the hospital if we could get an early scan to see if there was a heartbeat. I remember constantly repeating a mantra to myself, saying: “please be alive, please be healthy, please be alive, please be healthy” … over and over again for weeks.
At the hospital for the scan at 7 weeks, my husband stayed seated at the desk and couldn’t make himself face the screen until he knew for sure there would be a heartbeat.
I had asked the doctor to turn around the screen as well, and only show me if it was alive.
“We have a heartbeat”, the doctor said… “IT’S ALIVE!” I screamed at my husband, and I started smiling, until the doctor said: “But the second one isn’t that strong…”
WAIT WHAT?!? SECOND ONE??? I put my glasses on, sat up and looked at the screen. Then looked at my husband who had just become as white a sheet. I sank back into the bed, and said, “Well, we only need one? So… we’re good!”
This is why I felt pregnant so early on, it was twins! Unfortunately the second fetus did not survive, which is called “vanishing twin syndrome”, which is is a type of miscarriage when one of the embryos or fetuses may no longer be detected at some point in the pregnancy. The baby that doesn’t develop fully is called the ‘vanishing twin’. (We later found out that vanishing twins occur in up to one of every eight multifetus pregnancies and may not even be known in most cases.)
We were thrilled that one baby survived, and the 12, and 16-week scans went well. We found out it was a girl, which confused me actually! I was convinced she was a boy the way she was kicking me like Bruce Lee, but there she was on the ultrasound, our little girl!
When the 20-week scan came along our entire world changed. We had just received news that my father had a rare form of asbestos cancer and wouldn’t have long to live, a few months at best, and my grandfather who had been fighting a long battle with multiple cancers had decided to end his fight via euthanasia in the next months as well.
Given the tragic news from my family, we were already not in the best of spirits when we went to the 20-week scan. The technician then told us that my baby was too small.
“Oh”, I said, “Yes, they had mentioned that before, but I come from a family of small babies, so it’s fine, right?”
“No, the technician said, “You need to go to the hospital, this is not good.”
From that moment we were thrown into a rollercoaster of emotions. So many intense things happened to us in short period of time. It turned out that my placenta wasn’t working well and if the baby would not grow bigger than 500 grams by week 24, they would not be able to help me, and they would let nature take its course.
I was put on a trial drug either which was being tested to open up my veins in the hopes to save the pregnancy. I had to go to the hospital every other day to see if the blood flow was still going to her brain, all while my father was dying across town. The deadline came and went, and even though she was just under the 500 grams, they decided to continue treating me.
They knew that it was inevitable that I would to get sick at some point, since it was clear that my body was not responding to the pregnancy well, and if that would happen, they would immediately need to perform an emergency C-section. I had to stay in the hospital for the remained of the pregnancy, but I refused to be admitted until my father passed away (which was scheduled via euthanasia).
We came to an agreement that I would go into the hospital every day to get checked and I was allowed to be at my Dad’s cremation, but not the wake, I would have to come to the hospital as soon as possible. So, I did, I went to my father’s cremation with a packed hospital bag for myself.
I stayed in the hospital for another 2,5 weeks… and they kept asking me if I had symptoms, I told them I was fine, just an ulcer and migraines, surely from all the stress around my Dad’s death. Because of the stress surrounding the situation with my father, I, nor the doctors noticed that I was much severely ill than we all thought.
It wasn’t just stress, it actually was my liver and other vital organs starting to fail to due HELLP syndrome, is a rare but life-threatening condition in pregnancy which causes red cells in the blood to break down. It is often linked with preeclampsia and eclampsia.
I used every ounce of energy to hold on to that baby. I wasn’t ready to lose 3 generations in my family and I would do anything in my power to keep her in. My new mantra I repeated in my head was “1 day in the belly = 2,5 days less in the incubator!”
But one night, I had thought my ulcer had ripped, and the pain was unbearable! I didn't want to call for the night nurse though, because I was so full of needles and IV’s and my veins weren’t healing correctly (another warning sign of the illness that we all missed) which meant that the next IV would be placed in my leg, and I was just not having that! (Ah, the things that seemed important back then…) I secretly took paracetamol instead of calling the nurse and suffered until 6:15am when I couldn’t deal with the pain anymore and rang the buzzer for help. When the nurse saw me laying half off of the bed in pain, not cracking any jokes, she rang the alarm bells. “Call all the doctors, call the husband, put her on medication (whatever meds they were putting in me), we might be getting the baby out today,” she said.
And so, it happened. On April 5th, at 19:15, Ruby Etta Germain was born at 29 weeks (with the size of a 27 week old), weighing in only 795 grams (1lb 12oz) and 34 centimeters (13in). I had no idea what happened because I was fully under anaesthesia and was kept under for a while. While lying on the table being prepped for the c-section, all my vital organs had shut down, and I started bleeding to death, they had 2 liters of Blood Plasma there, just in case, and that saved my life.
When I woke up, in a morphine-induced haze, I barely knew where I was and they told me, you have a baby! “Oh?” I said? “Really??”
They had rolled me in my bed to the NICU to look at her, but I was on morphine, not wearing my glasses and only saw a plastic box.
The next day we went to the NICU again because it was time to hold her… hold her?? Wait what?!? “No” I said, “this is to foreign to me, this is what’s going to happen: My husband will be holding her, and I will watch. My brain needs to process this first,” I explained.
And that’s exactly what happened, I saw my husband holding this tiny worm-like thing, and by a stroke of lighting, all the synapses in my brain clicked… and suddenly, I was a Mom. I don’t know how, why, or if people are supposed to experience it this way, but it was a shift in my being that I can’t describe.
And with that, my fighting power came back, that night I yelled to the nurse: “Hook me up to a breast pump!” They told me due to weakened state and morphine it will take a long time for my milk to come in and to not be discouraged… I would show them, I thought, and within 48 hours I HAD MILK!! It was the only thing I could do in this situation to help her and felt extremely important to me. We swaddled her multiple times a day, while the other parent would clean her incubator, this of course was not necessary, but we felt like we had to do it, anything that we could do to be involved and improve her stay.
Finally, after 3 months of hospitals, horror stories of blood transfusions, infections, formula mix ups, constant heart failures, food allergies, and a lot of crying and emotional meltdowns. WE TOOK HER HOME!!!
Once Ruby was home, many friends and family around us thought we could get back to ‘normal’ at that point. Unfortunately, there was nothing ‘normal’ about what we had gone through and it was very difficult to move past that. It took about a month when the nightmares and flashbacks started. The beeping of the washing machine would take me straight back to the monitors of seeing her heart failing and me trying not to completely fall apart. While my husband kept having flashbacks of me lying dead on the operating table, or the sweat and panic of not being able to put an IV into this newborn baby because her veins were too small, wondering if she would make it.
Needless to say, as a family it impacted our life immensely and more than we ever expected.
It sounds terrible, but unless others have been in a similar situation, they cannot understand.
The complete feeling of helplessness and fear.
I often imagine being a nurse or doctor in the NICU, and dealing with these parents, fighting to keep these little babies alive, knowing not all of them will live, and in the meantime being nice and full of patience and understanding to parents like us… I have so much respect for the NICU staff and am forever thankful to them!
So how are we doing now?
It’s been almost 5 years since that dreaded 20-week scan…. And we are just fine.
My husband and I came through it, not unscathed, but with a newfound respect for each other and with the knowledge to always keep an eye out for each other to make sure we don’t sink away in a depression. The PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) hit us both hard, and we will never be the same happy go lucky people as we were before, but we came out stronger than we even thought we were.
As for our daughter Ruby, this child is a warrior! It’s unbelievable that a small little person can live through so much pain and still come out normal. She has an immune system unlike any I’ve ever seen, it’s like pain doesn’t exist in her world, she barely cries and has a wicked sense of humor! Yes, she’s smaller than her friends, and mentally maybe a few months behind, but she makes up for it by not giving up, which is surely what kept her alive is what will make her succeed in life.
*This is what I have to remind myself of, so to say my post-NICU Mom-mantra, when that strong and sassy little character tests my limits multiple times a day! Haha!*
Lana, Mom of Ruby, Amsterdam, The Netherlands