From a little girl I always knew I wanted to be a mum.  After two COVID cancelled wedding dates, we decided to start trying for a baby in 2021 and found out we were expecting in April.  The next few months went by smoothly; no sickness, baby growing well, normal blood pressure and we had a gender reveal party in mum’s garden.

I love to be organised, so by the time we were about 24 weeks we had almost everything we needed, even all the little bits like bath toys and baby wash. I look back now and can’t believe how naive I was. The only things we hadn’t bought were the big things, but they were all picked out ready to order. We were booked into NCT classes and a baby first aid course.

On 27/08/21 at 25 weeks + 1 day gestation, I worked from home – a ‘normal’ day. The night before I done an online baby sleep course, taking lots of notes.  Around 5pm I felt a bit “funny” – our cats had a checkup at the vets, so we headed over. When we got there, I felt sick and desperate for a wee. They were running late and as we waited my instincts were telling me something wasn’t right. We cancelled and headed home. I called the maternity unit at our local hospital who agreed I should come in, but it “probably wouldn’t be anything to worry about”. Those words still haunt me.

As we got in the car around 6.30pm, I knew I was in labour. I didn’t want to panic Lee so as contractions came, I pulled my knees up on the seat, as I was pouring with sweat and willed him to go faster.  As we walked into the labour ward, I rushed to their toilet pulled my leggings down and as I did so, a huge gush of waters came too.

We were very quickly taken into a delivery suite and the room filled up. The consultant calmly explained we were in labour, and there wasn’t anything at this stage that could be done to stop it. I was 6cm dilated and my body went into shock, shaking uncontrollably.  Lee called my mum who headed straight over, I often think what that drive must have been like for her.

Kelsey and I have been best friends for 23 years, and we always joke that we have in built sensors to know when something is wrong with the other. Her sensors were flashing, and she was 34 weeks pregnant herself. She drove straight to the hospital after I text her saying we were on the way, and she sat outside the ward for hours.

I had more contractions on and off but they were manageable, whilst our midwife Holly, briefly explained our baby would need to go straight to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) when he was born. My only question I can remember was about his development: what would this mean with him being born so early? Never did I think in that moment he wouldn’t be coming home.

Ralph was born at 10.12pm and Holly placed him straight onto my tummy, as she pulled the emergency cord. Our tiny but perfect boy was born weighing 810g (around 1 pound 7 ounces). He was swiftly taken away placed inside a plastic bag for warmth. We were then allowed another very quick cuddle and family photo before he was whisked off in a little tank (incubator) to the NICU.

Being a micro preemie, Ralph needed a lot of extra support so when he was just a few hours old we were transferred from Frimley to St. Peter’s NICU in Chertsey as they care for younger gestations.  NICUs are a very strange world, they are the most traumatic, stressful experience you can imagine but at the same time, so incredibly grounding – full of care and compassion.

Premature babies need to be kept in an environment as similar to the womb as possible for their development, so Ralph was in his incubator set at the perfect temperature, in a little nest and covered in darkness as much as possible, but we could hold his hand through the doors.

When Ralph was just over 24 hours old, we were woken around 1am (we were staying in a family room down the corridor) and told he was very poorly and that we should come in. We sat next to his incubator for hours, whilst the doctors battled to keep him alive. He’d had a severe brain bleed.

The next few weeks were a complete rollercoaster with Ralph fighting against sepsis and other infections, needing multiple blood transfusions and trouble with his bowels to name a few. The consultants explained due to his brain bleed it was possible Ralph would have cerebral palsy and limited communication.

We were so lucky to have some precious cuddles when he was 1-2 weeks old, taking it in turns and not wanting it to end. We also got to change his nappy and feed him via an NG tube. I really felt like his mum in those moments.

When Ralph was just over a week old another set of parents from further away needed the room we were in, so we had to go home. Not being down the corridor, but instead a 25-minute car journey was heartbreaking. We stayed as late as possible, physically and emotionally exhausted – but nothing compared to what Ralph was going through.

When Ralph was two weeks and two days old, we called during the night to check how he was as we always did. He’d had a good day so we were surprised to hear they thought we should come straight in, as it was likely we’d need to be transferred to St. George’s neonatal unit in London via ambulance. The Doctor briefly explained he had become very poorly very quickly; they suspected NEC and St George’s had surgeons on site to operate.  NEC stands for necrotising enterocolitis and is where tissue in the bowel becomes inflamed, and unfortunately it is fairly common in babies under 1500g birth weight.

We set off in the ambulance and it was the scariest, saddest journey of my life. I had to sit in the front as there was no room for me in the back with the doctors and Ralph, nor any room for Lee. We sped past Lee on the motorway with the flashing lights and siren on.  Whilst at St. George’s, Ralph was monitored very closely but the surgeons didn’t believe Ralph had NEC, although he was treated for it anyway.

Being further away from home, Lee and I were living out of plastic bags and had no idea where we were sleeping each night; sometimes we slept in beds available at the hospital, sometimes in a nearby hotel or some nights next to Ralph’s incubator – swapping between a nursing chair and a stool.

We were told three times that Ralph would likely pass away, but he continued to fight and we spent almost all day every day by his side. On one particularly scary night, the consultant approved for extra visitors essentially to “say goodbye” so Ralph got to meet my brother, Luke; Kelsey and Lee’s sister, Lauren. Plus my mum and Lee’s parents who had already been able to visit as grandparents were approved. I kept saying to everyone, this isn’t goodbye, Ralph is just tricking everyone to get extra visitors. And I was right, he picked up a little the next day!

A few days later at four weeks and two days old, the consultants decided to operate to investigate a bowel obstruction. He had a dangerously high potassium level which would be impacting his heart function, so it was a very risky operation.  Waving him off to the operating theatre was heartbreaking, we didn’t know whether his tiny body would cope. A few hours later we came back to the NICU to find Ralph was back earlier than planned and we were quickly ushered into the parents room. At this point I knew it wasn’t good.

The consultant and surgeons came in with tears in their eyes, held my hand and told us to be strong. They explained they were very surprised to find Ralph did have NEC, severe NEC with just 6cm of bowel alive – making him incompatible with life.  My mum and brother were at the hospital too, as they came up to keep us distracted whilst he was in surgery. Lee went to get them, and we had to share the devastating diagnosis.

The consultant was with us as his pager and the alarms went – he told us to come with him, it was Ralph. Our beautiful boy. His heart rate was dropping rapidly, he couldn’t fight any longer. It was just too much for his tiny little body. He was taken out of the incubator and placed in our arms. We spoke to him and sung to him as his heart stopped beating, and peacefully slipped away on Sunday 26th September 2021 at 6.45pm.

No words can ever explain the pain of losing your child, leaving the hospital without them (also helpfully in the week of petrol shortages) then planning and attending your child’s funeral.  We later attended follow-up meetings and found out Ralph was born early due to a placenta abruption. There were no warning signs and nothing we could have done to prevent it, which gave some comfort.

Now, almost one year on with lots of tears, support from family/friends, counselling and lots of self-care, we are starting to find our feet again. We got married the day after Ralph’s original due date, and he was included in the day in so many ways.

We are passionate about raising money for charities in Ralph’s memory including NEC UK. NEC is such a complicated and devastating illness, and there isn’t much that doctors can do to treat it other than rest the babies tummy and give antibiotics;  then in some instances surgery to insert a stoma if their bowel perforates.  Sadly our ‘bad luck’ has continued, and we also experienced a miscarriage in April 2022 – but we are keeping our fingers and toes crossed that Ralph will have an earth sibling that we can bring home soon.

We will miss Ralph every minute of every day, for the rest of our lives.  But we hope we are making him proud. We still parent him in our own little ways, lighting his candle every Sunday and I also read him a bedtime story every night.  He will forever be our tiny Ralph; our first-born, beautiful boy and we will always remember him with immense pride and endless love.

For any mums or dads reading this blog that have recently experienced baby loss, I am so sorry. I promise you will smile again. Maybe not for a little while, but you will. My biggest piece of advice is to connect with other parents that have also lost children, you will feel so much less alone.

Laura x

Instagram ~ @RememberingRalph