A hospital intensive care unit is not a place you'd choose to spend time in. But if you do need expert medical care, I'm sure you'd be hard pressed to beat the City Hospital in Dubai.
Their NICU, for tiny newborn babies needing help, is as you would expect: state of the art, modern, with amazingly supportive staff who exhibit patience, kindness and control in equal measure, just when you need them. As our baby rushed into the world a month early, we knew she would need a bit of help. She arrived perfect in every way, but a lot tinier than your average bear. After cuddles she was whisked away to NICU to be monitored. I was wheeled off to my room.
It's a very strange sensation having a baby, then having it taken away from you. Throw in the huge amount of morphine and hormones coursing through your veins and it makes for quite the experience. I spent the next few hours in my calm, quiet private room in a daze..wondering: "did that really happen?" The agony that kicked in when the spinal block wore off told me that something definitely had happened. But did I really have a baby or had I just been hit by a truck?
DH popped down to see Baby Britney every few hours and reported back with photos and videos. They were the only proof I had that she was real, that she actually existed. I waited eagerly for them every time he disappeared and made him play the videos over and over again.
The next day I was cleared to visit her. I've never been in a NICU before, and I hope I never need to go again. As I was wheeled in past the other babies needing help, I held my breath. They were all undoubtedly in the best place, getting great care, and hopefully looking forward to a happy life after their initial stumbling blocks were overcome. But it was one of the most overwhelmingly emotional places I have ever experienced.
Although there's lots of noise - machines beeping and buzzing, it's also a very still place. Parents sit quietly next to incubators, touching tiny babies. They hang onto the medical staff's every word. I felt I had to whisper in case I disturbed anything, intruded into anyone's time with their precious, tiny babies.
Most were smaller than our girl. One, surrounded by UV light, was a 24 weeker weighing just 500 grams. He was the exact cut off weight for resuscitation. Any smaller than 500 grams and the hospital lets them slip away. This 500 gram mite looked like a tiny, helpless mouse. His skin transparent, his little arms up by his head, his eyes shielded with the tiniest eye mask I've ever seen. He took my breath away with his size, with his sheer vulnerability.His mother stood over him. Helpless yet stoic. I tried to smile at her. I tried to look relaxed, not terrified, as I was wheeled past. I didn't want her to see my terror. That was the hardest poker face I've ever had to hold.I felt like a fraud visiting my healthy, if tiny, baby from just steps away. The baby on the other side of us was being diagnosed with leukaemia as I held Baby Britney for the first time.
The enormity of what we'd narrowly escaped, how poorly our tiny baby could have been, crept over me and squeezed my chest like a vice. I couldn't breathe. I could barely squeak out the words:" Get me out of here. Fast." I cried silently all the way back to my room: sadness, relief, guilt washing over me.
We were lucky. So very, very lucky. Some parents and babies face the NICU for days, weeks and months.
14 months on, I still think about that tiny mouse baby. What happened to him? At bedtime each night when I'm cuddling my peachy-headed, healthy baby, I say a tiny prayer for him. And for all the babies born too soon. Some of us get lucky. But some don't make it.
Footnote: If you have a baby born too soon, Bliss is the most amazing UK charity who offer support and help. I recommend them wholeheartedly.