In February 2014, just a week before my 28th birthday, I was on cloud nine to get that positive pregnancy test result, totally elated, and also slightly wondering how I would be able to hide my non-drinking from friends at my birthday drinks that weekend. A few weeks later I started to experience the overwhelming nausea, closely followed by physical sickness that seemed to last from the moment I woke up from the moment I collapsed at night. When I eventually got to the 12 week point, with everyone telling me the sickness would soon settle down, never did I ever consider I’d hear the words at the scan…”here’s the first baby”. We were completely blown away. They could tell from the scan I was carrying identical twins, sharing a single placenta. This meant our pregnancy was classed as “high risk”, and from that point on we were under consultant care, and would be receiving fortnightly scans, tests and consultations.
The care from our incredible NHS was second to none. The fortnightly process of an ultrasound, having the femur length, abdominal circumference and head circumference of each twin measured, followed by a midwife check-up, urine, blood pressure test etc, and consultant appointment soon became second nature to us. As we knew the twins were identical we knew we’d either be welcoming two boys or two girls. Being scanned fortnightly there was no way we could’ve resisted finding out the sex. And around 16-18 weeks they confirmed we were pregnant with identical girls. The sickness continued until at least about 24 weeks, but aside from that, and the repeated questions of whether there were twins in the family or if I had IVF (the answer to both is no), it was the healthiest of pregnancies.
The girls were growing at an almost identical rate, I had no blood pressure issues, no sign of gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia (which apparently I was much more susceptible to), and nothing to indicate this pregnancy wouldn’t go exactly as planned. As I became larger and ultimately more uncomfortable during the summer months, I kept asking my consultant whether there was any sign of getting the girls out any time soon…please?! To which I was always told, “doesn’t look like it!” I even had the steroid injections at 32 weeks, to help with the development of the girls’ lungs should they arrive early, a distinct possibility with identical twins.
Because we would be having our first and second children at the same time, our starter home which would’ve been perfect for one baby, was no longer suitable for two. We started house hunting and soon found a beautiful three bedroom house, with a bedroom big enough for two cots, a kitchen that could take two highchairs, a driveway for the bigger car we had bought, and a path that would accommodate our double buggy.
Our due date was mid-October. We knew the girls’ were likely to arrive early, but we were on track to move house in early September. On the same day that we completed, we had our 34 week fortnightly check up in the morning, which was due to be a quick one hour trip to the hospital before going on to the new house.
That Wednesday started off like every other appointment day. Driving the familiar route to the maternity unit, taking the parking ticket, walking into the ultrasound unit and waiting to be called. Being pregnant with twins is like having an octopus inside you, with eight limbs punching and kicking you from all angles. You’re never quite sure what position they’re in or where they’re laying. And in 2014 as a first time mum, the concept of “counting the kicks” was completely unknown to me. Even when the sonographer had to go and get a senior colleague to scan me, I wasn’t instantly alarmed. I still remember being asked to come through to the consultant’s office, and watching her flick through my extensive pregnancy notes before eventually looking up and saying the words, “One of the twins has died”.
From that moment, everything went into slow motion, and anything that happened for the next few days still remains a blur. Family started arriving, as the reality of what had happened slowly started to dawn. There is a blurry vision of so many people being around, coming and going into whatever room I was in, asking questions about when I’d last eaten, whether I knew my blood type, did I have my hospital bag with me. I didn’t. I hadn’t even packed it. Everything I needed for it was packed in boxes in my old house, ready to be moved to our new home which we had planned on doing later that day. I can vaguely recall being escorted into the labour ward, being strapped to a foetal monitor, signing the necessary paperwork for an emergency caesarean and being wheeled into the operating theatre.
Lea, Twin 1, was born at 14:38. I still remember seeing that time written on the white board in the theatre. She came out bright red and screaming, making her entrance into the world well known. I remember she was briefly shown to me, before being whisked away to the special care baby unit (SCBU) – a place I’d never even heard of before but would soon become so familiar with. Her sister Cerys, Twin 2, was stillborn about ten minutes later. No screaming that time.
After being wheeled out of theatre and back to the labour ward, I was faced with the unenviable questions of what to do next – Did I want to see the baby? Did I want to hold her? Did I want photos taken of her? Did she have a name? What did I want to do with her body? Did I want a burial or a cremation? Did I want a post mortem carried out? Was I planning on having a private funeral?
All of these questions had to be answered and paperwork completed, for legal reasons I presume, and looking back my heart goes out to the midwives that have to carry out these tasks. For people that go into work to deliver babies, having to support a family through a stillbirth must be the worst part of the job. They were so kind and gentle, but I know now looking back the consequences of the decisions I made at that moment will live with me forever.
I chose not to have any photos of Cerys, it was too painful a concept to even consider at the time, but it’s a decision I now regret, and would give anything to have something of her to hold on to from that day. We opted for a private funeral, a burial, and to proceed with a post mortem. All snap decisions, made at a time when you can’t think straight or have any awareness of the implications of what you are saying. Being able to look back now with a clear(er) head I feel very strongly about raising awareness among midwives to support families in situations they are totally unprepared for, and have worked with a number of charities since Lea was born.
At the same time of starting to process our loss, we were getting regular updates on Lea from the neonatal team. It soon became apparent that Lea’s condition was deteriorating quickly, and whilst she was born being able to breathe independently, she quickly required oxygen support, and within an hour had to be fully ventilated. She was put on morphine, intubated, had a catheter fitted and put under UV light. The first time I saw her was much later that evening when I was able to be wheeled into the SCBU.
The reality of being unable to physically hold my baby soon dawned. I had had one baby taken from me so suddenly and unexpectedly, and against all my mothering urges and instincts I couldn’t scoop my other new-born up and hold her close. At a time when I most needed the comfort and reassurance of a new-born snuggle, whilst trying to navigate the normal hormonal and physical rollercoaster of childbirth, I had to settle with being able to put my fingers through Lea’s incubator, and stroke her wired up body.
I’d never before experienced the manifestation of an emotional pain, into a physical, gut wrenching agony. The heartache was so enormous it hurt. For the first few days Lea remained in a serious condition, and I’ll never forget hearing the words from the consultant on day three that she “wasn’t out of the woods yet”.
Even after she stabilised, I remember being unable to get past the fear that she would be taken from me as well. As dramatic a statement as it seems, the 17 days Lea spent in SCBU seemed to last longer than the last eight years I’ve spent with her. Each agonising second spent being unable to hold her or feed her myself seemed to last an eternity. It seemed like a twisted form of torture to have a baby taken from you, and then to be forced to sit and watch one fight for life from behind a plastic screen.
I remember at five days old she was able to be put onto nasal ventilation only, meaning I was allowed about my first precious moments of skin to skin contact. I will never forget or be able to put into words the gratitude I owe to the incredible NHS staff that supported me, and so many families like mine, through similar situations, navigating the start of a parenthood that was never planned or prepared for. Those that have experienced the surreal world of a Special Care Baby Unit will know that the staff there are absolute superheroes, and never made me feel as though my frequent 2am and 5am phone calls for an update on how Lea was once I had been discharged but she was still in hospital, were ever unusual or too much trouble.
I have always told Lea about her twin sister, and to be honest I can’t remember exactly from when. As a toddler she knew she had a sister who was sleeping, and as her understanding has developed with age, so has my explanation. I will always question so many things; whether it was right to tell her, whether I should’ve kept it secret, whether she will always feel a connection to a part of her that is no longer around. But it seemed fundamentally right that she should know. It is, and always will be, a part of her story and who she is.
I know I’m incredibly lucky to have my Lea, and sometimes feel an uneasy guilt when I compare my experience to other stillbirth mums. I still got to take home a beautiful baby, when I know so many in a similar situation didn’t, and would give anything to be in my position. But the presence of one child will never eradicate the pain of loss of another. Having one baby to hold is not an antidote for the grief associated with having to bury one; an emotion I know that so many in the baby loss community battle with on a daily basis. The love I have for both my twin girls will never be diminished, whether they are here or not.
My motherhood journey has been a constant conflict between gratitude and pain, and I have never found anyone in a similar situation who has lost a twin to stillbirth so late on, and how they handled the consequences, particularly with the surviving twin. It’s been a very isolated journey. But for anyone who is, please know you are not alone, and that all your emotions, whatever they may be, are valid. However you decide to navigate a situation you should never have to be in is right, and you are doing an incredible job.
I know I will always look back on the 3rd September 2014 as being both the best, and worst day of my life.