Born to the stars
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
So many of us have our own stillbirth, miscarriage or child loss story; each tragic and achingly sad in its own way. This is my story. Trials, tribulations, heartache, despair. And hope.
In the early hours of Tuesday 25th February 2020 my baby’s heart stopped beating. In that very second, she became a statistic. The one in every eight stillbirths that occur each day in the UK. But, unlike the 60% of stillbirths that are left unexplained, the series of events that led to my baby girl dying are all too clear.
It had been a typical Saturday spent at the park followed by attending a three-year old’s birthday party. Nothing too strenuous – I was 32 weeks pregnant after all. I was feeling good, unlike the first 20 odd weeks of the pregnancy which had been plagued by sickness. Thankfully the days of fervently running to the bathroom, emerging with a mouthful of Wrigley’s, were firmly behind me.
Not long after going to bed that evening, I felt something. A small trickle. Is this my waters breaking? Can that be at 32 weeks? I could feel the adrenalin start to seep through my body as my mind raced as to what this could mean. But in an instant, my trusty, practical-self stepped in. Locating my maternity notes, I rang the Delivery Suite, calmly explaining the situation. No, no blood. Yes, just fluid. No, there’s no pain. I’m pretty sure I’m not in labour. Yes, I can come in.
Still somewhat shaken and clutching my maternity notes, I drove to the hospital leaving behind my husband and soon to be three-year-old daughter. It was nearing midnight. The hospital corridors were quiet as I navigated my way to the Delivery Suite triage. I sat alone in the waiting room; scrolling, writing lists, consulting with Dr Google, feeling my little girl relentlessly kicking, much like she had done for the past several weeks. Always letting me know she was there.
Some time later I’m called in and the onslaught of questions and examinations begin. Is the baby moving? How far along are you? Any blood? Any pain? A urine sample, blood tests, an internal examination, a blood pressure reading, CTG monitoring - for the baby’s heartbeat. All seemingly fine. The doctor in charge wondering if perhaps this was nothing at all. If perhaps what I’d mistaken for amniotic fluid was in fact urine – not uncommon at this stage in pregnancy, she reassured me.
Moments later the results of the amniotic fluid test settle the score. Preterm premature rupture of membranes confirmed. In other words, my waters had indeed broken. It was only seconds ago that they were considering sending me home. Now suddenly things have taken on a different tone. Talk of risk, premature delivery, infection, underdeveloped lungs. I’m trying to take it all in as they administer a steroid injection (would you prefer the left or the right buttock?), prescribe a course of antibiotics and prepare me for transfer to the ante-natal unit. I call my husband, shakily trying to relay to him everything that’s been said.
I take up residence in the ward. My new temporary neighbours, shielded by the blue hospital curtains, emitting sounds; some of slumber, others decidedly more active. I make a mental note of earplugs should I need to remain in another night, and drift off listening to the unfamiliar noises. My heartbeat beginning to slow as I’m calmed by the knowledge that I’m in hospital - surrounded by a team of experts.
I’m awake when the midwife comes to administer my 6am antibiotic and gives my vitals the all clear. And what about my baby? I can feel my little girl intermittently kicking, nonetheless it’s a relief to be told all is fine by the nurse and her trusted doppler. Following breakfast (and having discovered any request for non-dairy milk was futile) I call my husband. Not long after he arrives with our daughter in one hand, my green smoothie in the other. We juggle trying to have a serious conversation about the situation while simultaneously attempting to keep her entertained and quiet. We resort to Peppa Pig and biscuits - digestives, courtesy of the hospital.
We’re visited by a doctor who prescribes a course of action: monitor for infection and signs of labour with a goal to keep baby in until delivery is necessary. As my husband and daughter leave, it begins to dawn on me that I might be here for some time. A barrage of texts to my husband ensues… pick up clothes, wash stuff, probiotics, pyjamas, flip flops (because who wants to stand in the hospital showers barefoot?). Oh, and earplugs.
I’m not one to lie in bed all day, especially when I’m feeling fine - which now I am. Following neither a particularly delicious nor nutritious lunch I put in a request for a window bed. If I’m here for the long-haul, a room with a view, so to speak, is preferable to being enclosed in a wall of blue privacy curtains. I’m warned of the downsides that accompany the proposed switch; a faulty bedside lamp and the sounds of women in the beginnings of labour. Knowing a delivery of ear plugs is imminent I set up camp in my new bed, snapping a picture of the view to send to my husband.
As the day passes and various checks ensue, my little girl and I continue to receive the ‘all fine.’ A feeling of guilt starts to seep in as I catch up on the latest Love Island episode – am I unnecessarily taking up a hospital bed? But, as night falls, it’s not long before those thoughts are irrefutably quashed.
10pm and it’s time for my vitals check. I’m feeling fine, though the midwife notes that my heart rate is high. It doesn’t seem anything overly concerning given that everything else is good. Not long after however, I notice my entire body has come up in a rash. I’m hot and my skin feels like it has prickly heat. I notify the midwives on duty and they suspect it’s a reaction to the antibiotic, but apply a ‘wait and see’ approach. Come 11pm my waters completely break.
‘Gushing’ is the non-medical term I believe. And I’m genuinely shocked by the amount of liquid. I tentatively buzz the midwife with the bedside bleeper which I’ve been reluctant to use before now - not wanting to call them unnecessarily. Meanwhile I search for something to ‘mop up the mess’ on the floor by my bedside. It’s like I’ve spilt a full jug of water. I use my towel, making a mental note to ask my husband to bring me a new one in the morning.
Thankfully I’m reassured by the midwife on duty that this abundant loss of water is not a concern – as long as there’s no blood and no pain, stick to the plan of keeping baby inside. I say I’m reassured, but frankly I’m worried. Very worried. This does not seem normal. Can losing your waters at 32 odd weeks be little cause for concern? Doesn’t that mean they’ll need to deliver? But I’m putting my trust in the professionals and trying to abstain from consulting with Dr Google.
In the midst of all this, I am prescribed an anti-histamine – doctor’s orders to relieve the rash, though I have to say that now seems the least of my worries. A crisis message to my husband ‘one pair of dry pants left. Bring more,’ and a final wipe of the floor before retiring, feeling my little one kick and daring to wonder if we might meet sooner than expected.
3am and true to the midwife’s warnings, the sound of a labouring woman reverberates around the ward. Even the earplugs aren’t going to drown out this one. I listen as the husband helplessly tries to recall the ante-natal class teachings and fulfil his role as per the birth plan. Suddenly it’s my turn to scream. I’m hit with a searing pain, so alien and unexpected that I can barely breathe. It takes me about five minutes to manoeuvre myself out of bed, and when I do I can’t straighten up. Hunched over, moving carefully and slowly, I shuffle to the loo expecting to see blood. Relief comes when there is none. But the acute pain in my lower abdomen and pelvis is relentless. I call the midwife.
Something is wrong. I’m short of breath. I’m sweating yet cold. My lower half is shaking uncontrollably. I’ve never known pain like it. I try to stop the wild convulsion of my legs but can’t. I’m hooked up to a CTG monitor. The doctor performs an internal examination while I apologise for my involuntary shaking. Through the pain I have comfort that my baby girl is fine, and that doctor and ‘computer says’ I’m not in labour.
This is key. The birth of my first-born resulted in a T-section (no, not a typo). Similar to a C-section, but it looks like an inverted ‘T’ - a rare procedure but necessary as she was trapped transverse and the surgical staff battled to get her out. A traumatic delivery, she was born with an APGAR of 0 – meaning no signs of life. A far cry from the homebirth I had planned but thankfully she lives to tell the tale. However, this vertical scarring has meant that I’ve been strongly advised to have a C-section for this pregnancy. A decision that I’ve wholly accepted – whatever is safest for me and my baby.
The pain is ebbing and flowing from severe to very severe. Eventually I’m prescribed a painkiller – nothing major – one paracetamol. It does little to alleviate the pain and, not long after, I’m prescribed something considerably stronger. I’m not one for drugs and am worried that taking Tramadol, a narcotic-like form of pain relief, will harm my daughter but I’m assured it’s safe. My mind is racing with what can be causing this pain, and numerous suggestions are put forward from the team of medics around me. Pressure on your unusual scar, increased pressure in your abdomen because of a lack of fluid, the baby could be on a nerve. I accept their seemingly plausible explanations and, despite the pain and lack of fluid, I’m assured that the safest and best place for my little one is still inside me.
I text my husband a quick update. Intolerable pain. No idea what it is. Not contraction related. Been given strong painkillers. Need you to come in the morning after nursery drop off. Baby seems fine.
It’s 4:30am. The exertion of the pain has exhausted me. The painkillers are starting to dull the pain, taking it from acute to a persistent ache, and I fall into a broken sleep.
I’m awake yet dreary when the midwife comes to my bedside at 6am to administer my next steroid dose. Nothing quite like an injection in the derriere to fully rouse oneself in the morning. My vitals are checked and, other than low blood pressure, the machines say I’m ok. Only I’m not. My pain is still present, albeit made just about bearable from the painkillers. It rises and falls in regular waves, though I’m not able to decipher what, if anything, causes each surge. They keep monitoring for infection. I’m torn; part of me wants them to find one as I know that will trigger delivery, but on the other hand if they do deliver, the words of the triage doctor keep playing on my mind – underdeveloped lungs, premature, best aim for 34 weeks.
Thinking practically, I text my husband again asking him to retrieve the newborn clothes, swaddles and muslins out of the store cupboard. With the pain and broken waters, either she’s going to come soon of her own accord, or they’re going to want to deliver her. I also request another smoothie.
Shortly after breakfast I’m visited by yet another nurse. It’s beginning to occur to me just how many members of staff there are, each filling a specific role. She arrives wheeling a machine informing me she’s to perform an ECG. I vaguely recall from my early years of watching Casualty or perhaps ER (incidentally I never did get into Scrubs, Gray’s Anatomy or House), that this was something to do with the heart. An electrocardiogram to check my heart’s rhythm. Apparently my inflated heart rate from the previous night has triggered a need to monitor my heart. How very thorough of them I found myself thinking, as wires and sticky sensors were placed and subsequently re-positioned on various parts of my body. After several attempts and some unreadable results, which we both agreed was down to the machine, not my heart nor human error (technology these days…), I was given the all clear as a satisfactory pattern was printed on the rolls of paper. Great, and just in time for my next dose of antibiotics.
It’s getting closer to 10:30am on Monday 24th February. We’d had this time in our diary for several weeks. It was to be the scan to check that my placenta had moved up (a low lying placenta doesn’t do anyone any favours), and also to monitor that our little girl was still proportionately growing. I’d been told that I grow small babies, which is hardly surprising given mine and my husband’s build. But, it doesn’t half concern the sonographers when the baby falls short of what’s ‘normal’.
We walk, albeit rather gingerly, along the various corridors to the appointment. We’re met by not one, but two sonographers. Given everything that had been going on, one had felt it prudent to have the other one along for a second opinion. Excellent, we thought. Two pairs of eyes are almost certainly better than one. I lay next to the monitor, eyes focused on the screen ahead, protruding belly covered in gel, anxious to see what the scan would reveal. Relief. One healthy baby. Just the glaring emission of any water – just enough fluid in her lungs, bladder and stomach, they informed me. She’s petite, about 1.75kg they estimated. And her head is down, very far down in fact. You’ll also be happy to know that your placenta is in the right place. Excellent.
Nobody seems worried and we start to relax as we shimmy back to the ward, blissfully unaware that that was to be the last time we’d see our precious baby alive. I hop on a work call for our weekly kick off meeting and inform my team, between bouts of pain, that from now on it’s likely they’ll be running the show. The rest of the day is relatively uneventful. I bid my husband goodbye as he goes to pick up our daughter and I continue to work from my hospital bed, trying to tie up as much as I can, while regularly being topped up with codeine and paracetamol, which seemed to be doing the job of keeping the pain at bay. Never had I been so reliant on pain relief.
At 9pm yet another midwife comes in to perform a doppler check. One last listen to my baby before I bed down for the night. Once again, I’m given the nod that all is fine. I relay the information to my husband and whatsapp him goodnight. It’s been a long day and sleep is beckoning as I feel her kicking intermittently inside me. Hang on in there, I’ll see you soon little one, I tell her.
Around five o’clock I’m listening to a woman, or if I were to hazard a guess - a girl, enduring the onset of labour. She’s been in for a while and they’ve induced her. Things are moving quickly. I get up to go the loo and notice that my rash has reappeared. I walk through the dimly lit corridor to a group of midwives to inform them, not because I’m worried but because I thought they might want to know ‘for the record’. We have a brief chat, agree that it was indeed not a cause for concern at this stage, and I potter back to my cubicle clutching my bump still with a persistent but manageable ache.
Just as I’m settling down, I’m suddenly hit by a searing pain. I’m trying to breathe through it, recalling the hypnobirthing techniques that I’d diligently studied for the birth of my first daughter. I’m trying to suppress screams and involuntary outbursts, but I can’t bear it any longer. I hit the call button and a midwife comes to my side. She’s even more surprised than I am at my change in circumstance, having only witnessed me moments before walking and talking relatively unperturbed.
She fetches a doppler and tries to ‘listen to baby’ but I can barely tolerate her touching me. Nevertheless, she’s satisfied she heard a heartbeat. I’m not so sure, but am certainly in no state to question. What's happening to me, I ask. She fetches a Tramadol to dull my pain and quell my cries. I reach for her hand, needing something to squeeze to counteract the pain, but am sternly told that this is not an option. She begins to search in vain for a way to make me comfortable. I’ll get you another pillow, followed by, let’s remove your pyjama bottoms… This in itself takes minutes as I can barely move for the pain. Or perhaps a birthing ball to rest your legs? She returns with a plethora of different shapes and sizes before settling on the ‘the peanut’. The change in pain level is minute, but she’s satisfied that she’s helped and turns to leave. Please don’t leave me, I plead. The words come out before I even realise what I’ve said. I’m petrified, but helpless. She has to go on her rounds she tells me. And with that walks away.
I’m left alone. Scared. In pain. Unable to move, unsure of what to do.
It’s 6:30am when my husband messages to see how I am. I recount what’s happened. I’m still awake and in significant pain, despite the pain relief taking effect. I put in a request for him to bring a new t-shirt; I’ve sweated through my current one. I tell him I’m desperate for him to come now, not wanting to go through this alone, but he’s got to do nursery drop off. I lie still, carefully waiting to feel her next kick so that I can be reassured that our baby is ok.
Not long after I feel her turn. The pain is excruciating. It feels like she’s moved to a transverse position. I know this position all too well as it’s how my first daughter spent the latter part of my pregnancy. As I lie waiting for the pain to subside, at least I am comforted that I’ve felt her move. I’m exhausted and I try to get some sleep.
It’s 8:30 when my husband arrives. The pain remains intense and it takes a Herculean effort by both of us to get me out of bed. It’s a slow shuffle to the loo as I lean on him, hunched over, unable to straighten up. I need his help every step of the way. Yes, you’ll need to come in with me and help me sit down, I say. I’d half expected to see blood given my pain, but nothing.
Upon returning, we see a new midwife. You have sciatica, she says. My husband and I look at her questioningly, and she mentions something about a nerve. This is news to us, and I mentally add it to the list of explanations that we’ve already been given. As my Shreddies arrive, I ask the midwife to monitor me and my little one. Between all that’s happened, I can’t tell if I’ve felt a movement or not since she turned, so better to be safe than sorry.
I take a couple of mouthfuls of breakfast but find I can’t eat. The pain, the stress, the worry. After what seems like a very long time, yet another midwife appears at the blue curtain with another machine on wheels; a CTG monitor. She wraps the belts around me and places the sensors on my bump. I grit my teeth through the pain of her moving and touching me, and lie back to listen to my baby’s heartbeat. I can’t hear it. She adjusts the sensors. Then looks at me. Adjusts them again. Nothing. Panic as I ask her what’s going on. She goes to get another machine.
We’re left alone. I take the monitor, desperately trying to move the sensors to different parts of my bump, willing to hear the familiar thumping sound. I find something, though my untrained ear can’t tell if it’s the placenta or heartbeat. The midwife returns and I show her what I’ve found. Her reaction says it all. It’s not a heartbeat.
Someone else appears with the other scanner. And one of the doctors too who’s treated me before. There’s mounting concern but no one is ready to admit what might have happened. There’s still hope. My heart is beating hard. Where’s my baby? I ask them. What’s happening? Why can’t we hear her? They fumble with the scanner but can’t make anything out. They blame the equipment and within seconds I’m being rushed past the other pregnant women in the adjacent cubicles, through to the ultrasound department, taking a shortcut to where just yesterday we’d seen our little girl on screen.
I’m struck by the power of adrenaline. Moments ago I’d barely been able to stand, but now my pain is blinded by the panic that has overtaken me. There’s a herd of medical staff surrounding us. Everyone’s tense. There’s hushed dread. Each of us fearing the worst, but hoping for the best. I lie down on the bed, heart pounding, barely feeling. The screen flicks on as gel covers my belly and the probe moves across me. Ears and eyes straining for any sign of life.
My brain can’t compute what’s happened. Everyone is looking at me, with pity and apology. I don’t believe it. It’s not real. I can’t breathe. This isn’t happening. She was just here. I felt her. Everyone said she was fine. What happened?
We’re escorted back. The haste of the past few minutes replaced by a sombre slowness as we move back to the ward. I notice a midwife has already moved most of my belongings to a private room. They don’t mess about I thought, and then find myself thinking about the pregnant women who’d been lying in the cubicles next to me, and what they must be thinking. The midwife passes me my phone and offers us some water along with her sympathies. She leaves us alone and I look at my husband. He’s crying. I don't know if I’m crying or not. I have an urge to phone people. I need to tell them what happened. I can’t sit with my thoughts. I don’t want to acknowledge what has just happened, what is happening to me.
Again and again I try to ring my mother. No answer. I call my aunt. Perhaps she’s with her. I tell her what’s happened. Saying it out loud makes it feel real. I call my other aunt, repeating myself. In the midst of this, my father calls. I pick up. He’s just calling for a chat. Your mother is walking the dog, he tells me. I break it to him that his granddaughter has died. I watch my husband call his parents. They’re in Australia so I don’t know what time it is, but it’s heart-breaking to see. Eventually I speak to my mother. Like everyone else, she asks me what happened. I have no answer.
We’re moved into another room - the bereavement suite. We’re told we can stay here as long as we need. I don’t know what to do. But I have to do something. To do nothing means to risk my mind thinking about what’s happened. I’m given more painkillers as the rush of adrenalin and the effects of the narcotic-like pain relief begin to subside. I keep clutching my bump in disbelief that I’ll never feel my little girl kick again. That’s she’s lying motionless inside me. Months of her relentless kicking and wriggling, and now complete stillness.
Different people come in and out of the room. I’m on autopilot. I’m going through the list of people I should call: work, close friends, my doula - anything that means I don’t have to stop, be still and absorb what has really happened. It’s the only thing I can do; to stop me from losing control, from screaming out loud, from crying uncontrollably. I’m in shock, and this is my coping mechanism.
Because of my mouthful or two of Shreddies, I’m told we have to wait until 3:30pm before they can perform a c-section to deliver her. There’s a tv. We switch it on, but I can’t take anything in. At some point I give into exhaustion and drift into a fitful sleep. The midwife is still regularly checking my vitals. The surgeon stops by to explain the impending c-section procedure. We nod, numbly. Another midwife gives us some leaflets about stillbirth and funerals, and mentions something about counselling. Are you leaning towards cremation or burial? Everyone tells us they’re sorry. Carrying my dead baby is too much for me to bear.
They’re nearly ready for you, we’re told. Preparation begins. I’m wheelchaired to theatre and sit on the operating table. I’ve been here before, just a little under three years ago for the birth of my first daughter. The double gown, curling my back and relaxing my shoulders so they can prepare me for the anaesthetic. It all comes back to me as I brace myself for the prick of the needle. Suddenly we’re told there’s an emergency c-section coming in. Before we know it, I’m being wheelchaired back to the bereavement suite. More apologies. It’ll be your turn next, they promise.
Word spreads as we’re contacted by friends of friends who’ve experienced stillbirths. Do hold her, they tell us. You’ll regret it if you don’t. But we’re not sure whether we want to. Is it weird, we ask ourselves, to hold and swaddle and cuddle our dead baby? Will it make it harder? Or will we be glad we did it? Will we regret it if we don’t? We are thrown into unimaginable conversations that we’d never even contemplated, questions that we can’t possibly know the right answer to, all too aware of the surrealness of our situation. My mind is swimming. I’m here, but I’m not. It all feels too soon, too unreal. She’s still inside me.
Finally it’s time. Once again I adorn the hospital gowns before gently easing myself into the awaiting wheelchair. I can feel the eyes of the nurses fall upon me as I am slowly wheeled past them, clutching my pregnant belly, full of stillness. It’s nearing 7pm as I lie on the operating table and begin to lose feeling in my lower body as the anaesthetic works its way through my nervous system. The numbness of my body catching up with that of my mind. There must be 6 or 7 medics, but there’s barely a sound other than the bleeping of the equipment and the low murmur of medical speak. Sombreness envelops the room, a feeling of sorrow hanging heavily in the air. I watch a tear fall from my husband’s cheek as he sits close to me, clothed in hospital issued scrubs. This wasn’t how we were meant to meet our daughter.
There’s a tree with pink flowers painted on the ceiling which I stare at intently. I follow its branches as they reach out towards little butterflies that surround it. I somehow know at that moment that I will always think of my little girl when I see a butterfly. The surgeon interrupts the silence. He needs to tell us something. It’s your womb, he says, almost in disbelief. It’s ruptured. Your previous T section scar has completely torn... the uterus has ripped open. A uterine rupture - to give it its more medically appropriate name. My husband and I look at each other. Suddenly it all makes sense. The overwhelming pain that had debilitated me, that had the doctors and nurses guessing. It was my womb tearing open, millimetre by millimetre, inch by inch, before finally giving way. I close my eyes as this vital piece of the puzzle sinks in. At this unexpected discovery, the surgeon calls for the senior consultant. It’s no longer a straightforward caesarean procedure.
They take her out. The silence is deafening as she’s weighed, measured and swaddled. We’ve decided to meet our little girl. It’s the least we can do for her. We owe it to her. Do you have a name, the midwife asks as she hands our daughter to my husband. As the surgeons work away behind the blue screen, quietly conferring on the best way to repair the rupture, I watch him cradle our baby. She’s beautiful, he sobs. She’s perfect. He places her in my arms, the cannula jutting awkwardly out of my wrist. He’s right. She’s perfect. And so, so beautiful. My heart swells with love and pain and sorrow all at once.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t such a beautiful being. So perfectly formed. So peaceful. So precious. She’s not even that little, I think to myself, or perhaps I say aloud. All the talk of under-development and premature birth had drummed up visions of her being tiny. Almost not fully formed. But she’s not much smaller than our first daughter at birth. I hold her close, clutching her carefully, kissing her gently. Willing her to be alive. I’m so sorry, I whisper to her softly. I’m so sorry I couldn’t keep you safe my darling little girl.
We come back to the midwife’s question. We had chosen a name for her. But now we’ve met her, it doesn’t seem to fit. We look at each other, wondering what to call her. Isabelle, my husband says. I smile. It’s the name our daughter had wanted to give her baby sister. Yes, I say, holding her tight. Isabelle.
Isabelle Harris. Born to the stars on 25 February 2020.