When you’ve spent over 9 months excitedly preparing for the arrival of your healthy baby and the beginning of your new life as a family, nothing prepares you for those words only moments after they’re born: “I’m so sorry but your daughter is going to die.”
With no understanding of what had happened to our perfect (8lbs 8!) baby, we were given a heart-breaking choice: either let her die naturally or turn off the machines keeping her alive. A decision no parent should ever be faced with. And a decision we had no idea how we’d got to.
It turns out that Cora took that decision out of our hands; only 24 hours on this earth and I held my daughter in my arms as she took her last breath.
But how did we get there? I’m still not really sure but I’ll start back at the beginning, when we were blissfully unaware of where our new path would take us.
I’d always known I wanted to have lots of children and although Joe had been ready for a baby for years, I was trying to be the sensible one (babies cost a lot of money!) and make sure the timing was perfect. After only two months of trying, we got our positive pregnancy test which we still remember as one of the happiest days of our lives.
My pregnancy was uneventful – or as uneventful as a first pregnancy can be during a global pandemic. As we headed into our first lockdown, I remember feeling so upset and angry that I wouldn’t get my much-imagined baby shower, and that my friends weren’t able to see my growing bump. Such huge things to me at the time which now, seem so trivial.
I was classed as low-risk and other than one trip to the hospital with concerns about baby’s movements (which the monitoring showed was fine), I made it to my due date with no problems or concerns. We decided to keep baby’s gender a surprise, which was shocking to all my friends and family. Not because I’m bad at keeping secrets, I’m just known as being extremely impatient when it comes to exciting events, and you can’t get much more exciting than the arrival of your first born! But it’s something I always knew I wanted to keep as a surprise. I was so excited for that moment I would hold my baby on my chest and Joe would tell me the gender; a moment we never got in the end.
Ten days overdue, during a heatwave in July, I finally went into labour. We’d planned for a home birth and I was genuinely more excited than nervous about the experience. I’d managed to get to 10cm (or so I was told) using just my Freya app (a must have for labour I think) and a tens machine. Labour at home had been everything I’d hoped for: calm, powerful and magical. After I’d been pushing for hours in the birth pool with some much-needed gas and air, my midwife discovered my cervix was swollen and I wasn’t actually fully dilated, so we headed to hospital.
When I got to hospital, we decided (or rather I demanded) to have an epidural and this is where it all seemed to very quickly go wrong. Something I hadn’t noticed at the time, but they’d taken the heart monitoring off Cora as they gave me the epidural and started the hormone drip. When it was put back on, her heart rate started to drop. With a change of position, it came back to a normal rate but after starting the hormone drip it dropped again. We tried different positions which made no difference so the midwife pushed a button and this is when the room filled with people and I was rushed to theatre for a c-section. Everyone still seemed fairly calm and a midwife excitedly turned to Joe and said, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be holding your baby in about 20 minutes time.”
They explained to me that as we were in such a rush, I’d have to be put to sleep. As they placed the mask over my face, I saw the concern on my midwife’s face as she frantically moved a Doppler over my bump and shouted to the other midwife, ‘Which side was baby facing?’. I knew they couldn’t find my baby’s heartbeat. Then everything went black.
When I woke, the first thing I was aware of was the silence in the room.
No crying baby. No excited faces giving me their congratulations and telling me everything was okay. Joe entered the room and I knew it was bad; he was pale, his lips looked blue and I could tell he’d been crying. My throat felt constricted and it was hard to breath as I uttered the first words no new mother should ever have to, “Is our baby dead?”.
He told me that we had a beautiful baby girl, Cora (a name we’d decided on months ago), but that she was very poorly. No more words were said between us for the next 10 minutes as we waited for someone to come and speak to us. I knew if I asked or said anything else, I would break down so I lay in silence with tears rolling down my face, praying to a God I didn’t believe in to save my baby girl. My throat was so tight I was struggling to breathe properly due to the anaesthetic and I remember being scared I was about to die. Not because I didn’t want to die but because I was so scared for Joe. I couldn’t leave him with no wife and a poorly baby to look after.
When the neonatal consultant came to see us, she didn’t beat around the bush or give us false hope which at the time felt cruel, but in hindsight, was exactly what we needed. One of her first sentences really was, “I’m so sorry but your daughter’s going to die.” This is when I finally broke down. Joe had used the word ‘poorly’ and I had tried to convince myself that babies get better from being poorly.
I remember that moment so vividly. It was an out of body experience. I imagine it’s what a near death experience is like, where your life flashes before your eyes. But for me, it was our life with Cora flashing before me, a life that we hadn’t yet lived and now, we never would. I could see her first smile, could hear her giggle, I held her hand on her first day at school, wiped away her tears when a boy made her cry, and watched Joe proudly walk her down the aisle. A lifetime of memories, gone in a flash.
I knew in that very moment that our lives had changed forever, and not in the exciting and beautiful way we’d thought they would only an hour before. Our hearts had been shattered and nothing and no one would be able to repair them to the moment before we knew our daughter was going to die.
The consultant told us that she’d never seen a baby come back to life after being starved of oxygen for such a long time. She said she was the strongest baby she’d met and she knew Cora had fought hard so she could meet her mummy and daddy.
We were then taken to see Cora. She was three hours old before I even met and touched my daughter. Everyone’s biased when it comes to their babies, but she really was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. She looked so out of place in the NICU. She was a chubby (8lbs 8), perfectly formed baby with a head full of hair and the most beautiful soft, rosy skin. We spent hours stroking every inch of her body and talking to her, letting her know we were there with her and how loved she was. Although visiting restrictions were strict due to Covid, both sets of grandparents were able to come and meet her which meant so much to us. We wanted the whole world to see how beautiful she was.
We had a meeting in the morning of 19th July where we were told that she’d taken a turn for the worse in the night and to get our family back to the hospital ASAP. We made the heart-breaking decision that today would be the day we turned off the machines keeping her alive. We didn’t want her to be suffering.
We rushed back to our room for a quick shower (having not slept properly, gone through labour and not cleaned for three days) but just as Joe was helping me out, our room filled with people telling us we had to rush. We knew we were about to lose her. With my hair dripping wet, I threw my bloodied hospital gown back on and we rushed back to the NICU.
As we came closer to her room, we could hear raised voices and the machines beeping loudly. I heard the neonatal consultant shouting instructions about adrenaline as she gave chest compressions to our baby girl. Cora was losing her battle and we arrived just in time for her to be placed in my arms. The weight of her warm, chubby body close to me is one of the most precious moments of my life.
Having been taken off the machines, in true Cora-style, she kept fighting and with each gasping breath she took, my heart broke a little more. I whispered to her that she could let go now, that she was safe in my arms and we told her how incredibly loved she was.
And then she was gone, and the silence fell on us once more.