Vanessa Abernethy tells Sara about the preemie births of both her children, Alex and Claire.
Everything in life is timing. It really is, I believe that. My favourite speech ever is Al Pacino’s team talk about inches in Any Given Sunday. YouTube it if you want to well up. Mommyhood so often feels like that, doesn’t it? We fight inch by inch to get through our days. But sometimes those inches and minutes are about averting tragedy. It can come down to taking action not one minute too late. That’s what Vanessa Abernethy’s hiccup is about.
Vanessa is already at the cafe when I walk in, and she doesn’t look like the mama who’s ever had a hiccup—she could be a member of Hilary Clinton’s staff. Her electric blue skirt suit and purse match her eyes and her blonde hair has that corporate shine. I can’t picture her dissolving into messy sobs during our interview. We’ll probably work out bullet points and an infographic. Totally my style.
Vanessa’s hiccup was her firstborn’s premature entry into life. And that literally his entry—alive—was down to minutes and hours.
Into her second and third trimester, she was still vomiting 6 or 7 times a day. “I got so used to vomiting I got really good at it.” She started being monitored with increased number of scans. Then pre-eclampsia kicked in and she was dealing with blindness in her left eye, water retention, protein in urine, and low blood pressure.
“In every scan we would see that he wasn’t growing as he should, that he hadn’t put on enough weight, but I really thought it was a temporary blip.”
At 35 weeks’ pregnant, Vanessa went for a routine scan at her doctor’s office, Dr Farnaz Ahmed from Family First Medical Centre. She called Vanessa at work 2 hours later to say she wasn’t comfortable about the lack of weight gain and had scheduled a growth scan for a second opinion.
“I went to the growth scan one week later, and they discovered the issue and its magnitude. I consulted with Dr Farnaz about 30 minutes after the growth scan and was in the hospital three hours later for an emergency C-Section.”
The growth scan diagnosed placental insufficiency where the baby no longer receives enough blood from the placenta. “I basically had 24 hours maximum before no foetal movement. With no blood flow, the placenta shrinks to the size of a tennis ball.”
“It was amazing my doctor requested the growth scan because her gut was telling her all was not well.” Imagine, that her gut.
Vanessa is a typical Gemini who tries to not worry until there’s something concrete to worry about. Originally from New Zealand, she was banking on her mom being there, but there was no time to give her mama a head’s up to hop on that 17-hour flight.
She was still working and handing over work on her blackberry in the hospital bed before they wheeled her into theatre for the emergency C-section. As a corporate wonder woman, Vanessa went into battle mode, as if she was thinking, saying (and oozing), “‘Get me in there, he’s coming out now’ with every cell in my body.” With the double-edged sword of being very underweight plus premature in terms of organ development, Vanessa had to arm herself with a feeling of “we’re not going to lose him.”
They told her, “Don’t be alarmed when he comes out.”
Alex was born 1.8kilos (under 4 pounds) in the 0.4th percentile—not 40th or 4th. His skin hung off him, he was so wrinkly. But miraculously he took his first breath on his own.
“My doctor had timed it beautifully” this near catastrophe had been dramatically averted by her female doctor’s instincts. That’s those inches and minutes. Alex still had a fight ahead, but breathing on his own was not expected and his fighter instincts were all there.
No one prepares expectant mothers to deal with the realities of a baby let alone the unexpected reality of NICU.
“I kept saying, ‘Excuse me, I want to see my baby.’ They kept telling me to wait because there was a shift change, so I didn’t end up seeing him for 13 hours.” She had a meltdown as she puts it and understandably so. “Someone finally took me down to NICU bawling and all.” It was either some weird hospital rule or because she needed a wheelchair. Either way, it really didn’t start off well. “So, they wheeled me down and I saw him. He was in a huge incubator. His height wasn’t bad but he was skinny.”
Vanessa believes conditions like placental insufficiency are becoming more common with busy mamas having babies a little older—“I was only 36 when my son was born and since then I have heard of other women having similar issues.” It’s a dangerous condition that causes starvation to the placenta where the baby can’t survive to full term or may experience long-term health effects.
Vanessa believes that discussion on how to parent a premature newborn would have been helpful and perhaps this is something that should be added to antenatal classes as the normal rules of parenting certainly go out the window. “We need more support systems for preemies after they’re delivered. I struggled to find any sort of comfort.”
Wouldn’t it be great to have someone visit who could discuss not just the tubes and risks and importance of steady weight gain, but also the emotional side because there is nothing emotional—no coaching or listening or handholding out there. NICU is a very sterile place.
So there he was, this tiny baby with 4 other babies who were huge compared to Alex. The others had physical reasons for being in NICU and she had other moms looking at her with sympathy. “It was all quite surreal, really. They were looking at me with sympathy and I kept thinking, I have a skinny but otherwise healthy baby versus your baby with a heart defect.” It built camaraderie—as did the nursing—at first she wasn’t allowed to breast feed—but she was so committed she breastfed for 2.5 years. She would express the colostrum to add into the formula the nurses fed him hourly. “They would pick it up in a dropper.”
In New Zealand the campaign for “breast is best” polarises it to be “all or it’s worth nothing.” But Vanessa in sharing her story wants to say no, it’s actually not all or nothing. For her, she breastfed but there is always a middle ground. Feeds would take an hour and a half because his mouth was so tiny.
With the memories of how close they came to losing him, she breaks down in the most composed way—so much so that I’m unsure if she’s crying or not. But the memory of it is too real. I can’t help but cry along with her.
Every mama feels guilty. We all know that. It comes with the job and the territory. “I feel guilty everyday. Like maybe in some way I changed his destiny or potential because I couldn’t keep him in any longer.”
With her second child, Claire, it wasn’t plain sailing either. “With Claire I had some pre-eclampsia symptoms at 16 weeks but not the full-blown condition yet. I was definitely worried we would not get to 23 weeks (viability age).” But with the same female doctor at her side she reached 38.
It was, ‘every week we’ll see.’ Touch and go because the placenta wasn’t great but not as bad as with Alex. When baby Claire was born she had drank amniotic fluid, was presenting posterior, and didn’t breathe, but they pumped the amniotic fluid out.
“Brand new moms struggle with the lack of sleep but that was the easy part because I had bigger obstacles to overcome. I guess that’s why I took Claire’s issues in stride.”
Like going to a really tough high school only to go to a so-so college you think, ‘Hey this isn’t so bad.’
At 43 Vanessa looks 35 and it’s not so much the lack of wrinkles as the still-idealistic vibe she radiates. She’s been married 19 years now, 12 years then. At the end of the interview she confesses that today is Alex’s 7th birthday.
As if that weren’t enough, Vanessa is also writing a book. She ended up doing some extensive research and wrote a how-to book during maternity leave. It’s for real people and not written by a doctor, but by a woman who’s done it, backed up with science.
“You really just have to take it one day at a time because you wake up and you really don’t know if it’s going to be a good day or a bad day.” It’s those inches all around us that we fight for to get through. We ended our conversation in the bottom floor of the Vida hotel, almost four hours after it had begun.
“I just felt really lucky. We felt so lucky that he was here and focused on what could’ve happened instead of what happened.” That’s how she got through it. She would definitely tell mamas of preemies to buy scales. Reaching 3 kilos was a milestone. Born at 0.4th percentile I tracked it for ages until it was at the 5th.” That was a monumental milestone.
There are many stories like this and I’m sure Vanessa’s book will resonate with mamas around the world. Here in Dubai, the support group Vanessa sought has started. Following the birth of her son George ten weeks early, Joanne Hanson Halliwell founded Small and Mighty Babies which has reached many families over the last few years providing information, strength, love and support during the most difficult days www.smallandmightybabies.com. You know, inch by inch.
Featured image via Pexels