Written by Sally Barker
The room was silent, the sounds that escaped the ultrasound machine were different than usual, and the sonographer turned to us with a sympathetic look on her face and said, “It’s time, we have to take your babies now.”
I knew my twins would be born prematurely; however, never in my wildest dreams could I have envisioned this to be at just 28-weeks’ gestation. You see, I never thought I’d have children, partly because I had polycystic ovary syndrome and also because I simply thought I wouldn’t be a good mother. But when I realised I was pregnant I was ecstatic – and then terrified.
I’m Aunty Sally and I play the role really well, I honestly have no idea what to do with a baby. So, you can imagine my surprise when my gynaecologist showed me two heartbeats. I burst into fits of laughter, while my partner looked and sounded like he he’d just received the most devastating news ever.
After the scan
In the car ride home, he was trying to figure out how to pay for two weddings if they were girls. Yes, men tend to revert to this type of thinking. For me, I was concerned with how my body would cope with growing two babies. I’m 5ft 4inches and at that time I only weighed about 50 kilograms. Growing two babies would be a real feat.
Now, by the time I came to realise I was pregnant I was already about 11 weeks along, so finding out at 12 weeks that it I was expecting twins was overwhelming. The anxiety surrounding carrying two babies soon settled, but not for long. At 16- weeks’ gestation following a routine scan, I was taken to a private room and told that one of my babies wasn’t growing at the rate that was expected.
Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome was suspected, which at the time meant absolutely nothing to me. However, I understood enough to know it wasn’t good. A follow up scan two weeks later revealed nothing new and at 20-weeks’ gestation I received the diagnosis of Selective Intrauterine Growth Restriction (sIUGR).
I gave up work a lot sooner than expected
The medical team instructed me to give up work immediately, so my quick stop off to have a scan on the way to work didn’t go exactly as I planned. Why was this happening to me? I kept asking myself. All my life I had seen friends and family having babies without a hitch. Basking in the glow of pregnancy and becoming a mother. It just wasn’t fair.
Every week I’d headed into the hospital to see the specialist in the high-risk pregnancy centre and would hold my breath as she smoothed the warm gel on my tummy as I emotionally prepared myself for the worst. And, at 24-weeks’ gestation it happened. The blood flow to my smaller baby, Aasha, had slowed and showed signs of reversing. It was estimated that both girls weighed only about 400 grams and would be delivered within the next day.
The next few hours were a blur as I was jostled into a cubicle and jabbed with a dose of corticosteroid to help develop the girls’ lungs in preparation for their birth. Following the jab, I was admitted to the ward to wait to have a follow up shot 24-hours later. Just 18-months earlier, babies in this situation would delivered immediately after the second steroid shot; however, there had been a discovery that in a small number of cases a follow up scan often revealed the condition would stabilise. So, I waited. Burying my emotions to avoid how traumatised I felt.
Had the steroid injection worked?
As I was wheeled into the ultrasound room the following day, awaiting to see if we fell into the lucky group who responded positively to the steroid injections, my skin prickled, my ears burned, and my heart beat was heavy and fast. The first sounds out of the machines seemed to be coming from a distance and gave no indication of whether we would be wheeled off to the operating theatre. The specialist turned and said, “It worked.” Hot tears streamed down my cheeks, and my body shivered as I was wheeled back to my hospital room.
The next week was spent having daily scans and praying to have my babies inutero for a little more time. The best-case scenario was to make it to 30-weeks’ gestation. I was certain I’d get there. At the end of the week, I was allowed to go home under strict instructions to do absolutely nothing and that’s what I did. Apart from going to the hospital every second day for a scan and the odd trip to the supermarket.
At 27+5 weeks’ gestation, I had an unnerving feeling. Something wasn’t right. I hadn’t felt the girls moving all morning and I went into a panic. I was seen immediately by the specialist. Everything was okay. But the midwife congratulated me for listening to my intuition saying it could be an indication that it was almost time. She was right. Just two days later those sounds coming out of the ultrasound machine had changed. I knew. The specialist turned to me and said, “It’s time, we have to take your babies now.”
A complicated delivery
The delivery was fraught with complications; including a reaction to the epidural and feeling excruciating pain. After Bella and Aahsa were briefly held up for me to see, I was given a general anaesthetic and later woke up shivering uncontrollably in recovery. I didn’t get to see the girls until later that evening.
They were so small and had so many tubes and wires poking out of them. As much as I tried I couldn’t hold back the tears. Aasha was just 825 grams and Bella 1015 grams. That’s about the size of a small packet of sugar. Nine days later, I was discharged from hospital and had to go home without my babies. My heart broke just a little bit more that day.
Those days spent in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit were traumatic. Keeping in line with my entire pregnancy and birth. Daily heel pricks to test blood, x-rays, spinal taps, chronic lung disease, heart complications and constant infections. It was overwhelming.
After 64 days both girls came home.
It was a baptism of fire. My partner and I had absolutely no idea what to do with them. After months in hospital being told what to do figuring out how that would work at home without the support of the NICU nurses was a challenge.
The first few years were challenging, Aasha underwent surgery to correct lower abdominal hernias just a week after coming home. Bella got ulcers throughout her mouth and couldn’t feed. There were constant feeding and sleep problems. I spent those years pretending that everything was okay. I played along well with societies expectations that having babies happens to women every day and because my girls survived I had nothing to complain about.
We’re constantly told that as long as our babies are healthy and alive that’s all that matters or someone else has it worse off because one of their babies didn’t survive. I even had a woman say that I should be grateful because I didn’t have to push two big babies out. Well, it took me years to realise that it’s okay to acknowledge that my pregnancy, birth, and time in the NICU was traumatic and to give myself permission to heal.
Unresolved trauma of having preterm babies
Unresolved trauma manifests itself in your body in so many ways and I didn’t know that it was okay to feel that what’s supposed to be the most beautifully natural experience was the most traumatic thing I had endured. Today, I can say “I experienced trauma,” and I say it without judgement, shame, or blame. I have also given myself permission to heal and now include this chapter of my life in my story instead of brushing it aside.
My intention for now and the future is to help women speak out and acknowledge their trauma to allow their healing to begin. Remember, your partner might also be suffering the effects of unresolved trauma. Check in with each other. This might just save your marriage. Unfortunately, I discovered this too late to save mine.
Sally Barker is a Pregnancy & Birth Trauma Healing Coach.
You can find her at The Pregnancy & Birth Trauma Healing Lounge http://bit.ly/2NPdqfZ
Her book Double Happiness Multiplied – What You Need to Know About Having Twins, Triplets, & Quads is available here.