From crash-landing in the alien world of NICU, to the feisty bundle of personality and noise that wee Ethan is now as he nears his 5th birthday, Mum Nicky shares the incredible journey with us.
It was October 2012 and we were so excited about our 20-week scan; would we be having a boy or a girl? The scan was booked for Friday morning then we were off for a weekend break together in Taupo. However, things did not go quite how I had planned, you are having a boy she said and then in an instant all the euphoria was taken away.
All the right parts were there and he looked good but he was very small so we were to be referred to the specialist. The lovely lady tried to reassure us and told us not to worry, which was much easier said than done. We were left feeling deflated, worried and a little unsettled. Then it began, scans and appointments and each time he’s small but he’s growing we will keep an eye on him. But I knew, I knew something was wrong and the nagging feeling would not go away, I couldn’t relax and I couldn’t stop worrying. Google became my nemesis.
Then at 25 weeks the bombshell I felt was coming, came. I had IUGR (intrauterine growth restriction) an insufficient placenta and umbilical cord, which meant he wasn’t growing or getting all the nutrients he needed and he was small, 380 grams small to be precise. Too small to be delivered yet and so all we could do was wait and try to get him to a viable weight (500 grams was what we were told is really the minimum) and hope that he kept on fighting.
What was supposed to be a quick lunchtime scan turned into me being signed off work and not knowing if our baby boy was going to survive, it was devastating and heart wrenching and utterly terrifying. Every morning for 10 days we went to the hospital for a scan, I would hold my breath until I heard his heartbeat then I could breathe again for another 24 hours before we did it again. It was agonising.
Then the news came that things were getting worse and they needed to deliver him by caesarean section in the next couple of days – but in a situation that was totally out of our control there was some control, there was a plan – a plan that would hopefully give our wee man the best possible chance of survival – two rounds of steroids, a dose of mag sulphate, the best possible things to help him – a quick tour around NICU and we were as ready as we were ever going to be.
It felt like an eternity as they worked to stabilise him and as I lay there helpless, then Brad and Ethan were off, it would be 5 hours before I got to see him. When Brad came to see me in recovery to give me an update and show me a photo, he told me our little bundle weighed a whopping great 500 grams – the magic number and I knew then we had a tough little fighter on our hands.
And just like that, we crash-landed into this alien world of NICU. Words like CPAP, apnoea’s and de-sats were to become part of our everyday language. Where was the baby shower, newborn cuddles, photographer booked in for cute photos of a blissful sleeping babe in a wicker basket? Instead here was my wee man looking like a skinned possum, under a blue light, in an incubator, with tubes and needles stuck all over him, I couldn’t even see his face properly, I could only touch him through the port hole of his new home a stroke of the finger. He was so little and fragile the size of a block of butter. But in the midst of all this he was here, he was alive, he was our baby boy and he was already making little milestones. 24 hours later off the ventilator and on to CPAP, 1ml of breast milk then 2, defying the odds and fighting for his life. One-day old already a feisty tough guy making his place in the world.
The days turned into weeks, into months this was our world now our home away from home. I quickly settled into a daily routine, Brad would drop me off in the morning and I would spend my days in this little world (the NICU bubble), he would come in the evening after work and we would do what we could to help, changing the teeniest tiniest nappies you have ever seen, feeding him milk through a syringe and just sitting and talking to him, reading to him.
It was such a roller coaster ride – just when things seemed to be going well something would happen and we would take a few steps back, an infection and our wee man would be incredibly sick again, reactions to vaccinations would send him on a downward spiral for a few days. I lost count of how many blood transfusions he had, along with several lumbar punctures – it was so hard to watch. He bears the scars of these now, little white dots on his hands, feet and spine – his battle scars I call them, they are a part of him and his story.
Then came the 1st March 2013, such an auspicious date – this was Ethan’s due date – and so to celebrate he got to have double hernia surgery and interview for Seven Sharp. He didn’t cope so well with the surgery and ended up back on the ventilator and keeping everyone on their toes for the next 48 hours.
But as always, he came back fighting and stronger than ever. And we muddled along making more milestones every day, moving to an open cot, wearing clothes for the first time, attempting to breastfeed, all everyday things that were such huge achievements. In the midst of all this we thought as things are not crazy enough let’s move house too. So with that came a move for Ethan too – and a week after we moved to Lower Hutt and after 108 days in Wellington NICU, he was transferred to Hutt Hospital Special Care Baby Unit.
I found it tough in the beginning, leaving behind the security of NICU, the friends we had made, the nurses who had looked after Ethan since the beginning, I cried and cried and asked to stay but they all said this was the best thing. And after a few days I realised they were right – we settled into life in the SCBU and the more relaxed atmosphere (as babies are not as critical in SCBU, as compared to NICU) was such a welcome change.
It was less intense than NICU, less beeping, fewer rules, I could bring my coffee in, and my family could visit when they wanted – simple things but things that made a huge difference to our every-day routine. We still had a few challenges to get through on our stay at the Hutt – but after a couple of weeks, they started talking about going home and so we started to plan. If we could get Ethan feeding okay then we could go so that’s what we did, I was determined.
I was so ready to take him home and be a Mum outside the confines of the hospital walls, I was starting to feel stifled and I wanted to just be a regular first time Mum finding my feet and learning the ropes in my own space without all these people around me – I didn’t have time to feel scared – I was excited and nervous and very ready! He came home on oxygen – so things still were a little surreal but I didn’t care – he was home.
We had oxygen tanks and cords around the house, I had a little backpack with a small travel oxygen bottle in it so I could get out of the house – in no time at all Brad and I were experts and it was just our normal.
After 2 months of being on oxygen at home and slowly dialling it down he was doing so well that we got the news it might be time to try and take him off. Off we went to spend a night in hospital and that was that – he did awesome – 7am in the morning we got given the all clear to go home – and he’s never looked back, we have not needed it since which was fantastic.
And now here we on the 4th anniversary of his homecoming – it’s incredible to reflect on this journey, since coming home Ethan has had 3 further surgeries for his hypospadias (look it up if you don’t know what it is) and finally he has been given the all clear from his surgeon. We have recently done his before school check which he passed with flying colours – it’s hard to believe he turns five at the end of year and will be off to school. He is still pretty small, but people learn quickly not to be fooled by this, what he lacks in size he certainly makes up for in personality and noise.
I have been looking back through the scrapbooks I made to document his journey and it’s bought the memories back so vividly. There are so many things you do not know until you are there in this world, this group – this amazing special group that you suddenly become part of. Other families with prem babies, sick babies, all with their own unique amazing story. Everyone going through this crazy thing together. I met people whom I would never have met otherwise, heard and saw so many inspiring stories and saw the pain of the sad ones too. I have made life-long friends through this experience and what a privilege it is to see our kids grow and flourish. This journey showed me such an insight to the strength and compassion of people. We were so lucky to have such supportive family and friends, people who cooked for us, dropped baking off in the letterbox, gave hugs when needed and made cups of tea the list goes on. And to those awesome support groups like The Neonatal Trust – who provided assistance and the chance to talk to other families who had been through this and come out the other side, and Bellyful – who provided much needed meals for the freezer, so we had one less thing to worry about. These little acts of kindness and generosity which truly helped when we were having a rough day, or were tired and stressed.
People often say to me ‘gosh you are so strong’ or ‘you are so brave’, ‘I couldn’t be that strong’ and that old saying always jumps to mind – you never know how strong you are until you have to be. You just get on with it as you don’t have a choice, you do what needs to be done and you just have to have faith. People also often ask me – would you change it if you could. This is an interesting one for me – because of course no parent wants to see their child in pain, and yes. I would have loved to experience a full term pregnancy and all the joy that comes with that but on the other hand this is Ethan’s story and I couldn’t actually imagine it any other way, this is such a part of who he is and this will be his story to tell one day.
It's such an honour to have had a part in supporting Nicky, Ethan and Brad as both The Neonatal Trust and Bellyful are proud One Percent Collective partner charities – meaning as a 1% donor you can easily share one regular donation between them both to help awesome families like this along their journey.
How One Percent Collective works.
Check out the visuals below to learn more. In the example we've shown a wonderful person sharing their donation between The Neonatal Trust and Bellyful.