Helen Matthies never thought of herself as a resilient woman, but when she was tested with the preterm birth of her son at 27 weeks, she discovered how truly deep her well of strength was.
WARNING: This article includes reference to infant loss. If this is triggering for you, please contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
Like most mothers, Helen Matthies never imagined how her baby could take over her life and her heart, nor did she expect the road to motherhood to be fraught with complications.
A previous pregnancy made the first 12 weeks the most anxious. “I had to have a termination of my first pregnancy after the 12-week scan… a neural tube defect [meant] the baby wouldn’t have survived outside the womb,” Helen explained. Naturally, she worried that something would go wrong early as it had before, but after an all-clear at 12 weeks she turned her focus to enjoying her pregnancy. “Preterm birth wasn’t really on my radar, it is a whole other world that you don’t think about too much until it happens,” said Helen.
At the end of her second trimester, Helen experienced a bit of bleeding and was instructed to go to the hospital by her obstetrician for tests and monitoring. She had no idea that at 27 weeks, she was going into labour.
“My husband took me [to the hospital] in his suit assuming he would head to work straight after I’d been checked out,” said Helen. When they arrived it became clear that something wasn’t right. Her obstetrician explained that at best, she would need to stay in hospital and rest for a few weeks, and at worst, the baby would come early. Helen was immediately hooked up to several machines and multiple nurses helped her obstetrician try to prevent and prepare for the worst-case scenario.
The nurses tried to keep things positive by telling Helen that the contractions could stop, but the next thing she remembers was her water breaking and her obstetrician explaining that there was nothing they could do to stop the baby from coming – and it was coming straight away. The baby was in breech position meaning it had to be delivered by C-section, and with no time to get to a hospital with a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), a whole team of specialists had to rush over for the birth from another hospital.
Suddenly, Helen and her husband were thrown into one of the most distressing situations an expectant couple can face, and understandably, this brought on a whole new level of fear. For Helen, the thought of losing her child was overwhelming, “I remember begging them to put me to sleep for the birth as I wasn’t sure my baby would survive and I would’ve preferred not to be awake for it if he died,” she said. The doctors explained that it was important for her to stay conscious and so, despite her anxiety, she remained awake for the procedure and witnessed the birth of her baby boy. “He looked blue and I wasn’t sure if he would make it, no-one was! It was seriously the scariest moment of my life, not the happy birth moment that most people get,” said Helen.
For many women, including Helen, the hardest aspect of extreme preterm delivery is being away from the baby. Most mothers can connect with their baby immediately, but as a preterm mother, all Helen could do was watch, wonder and worry about what was happening.
“They took him straight away from me in a plastic bag (to keep the heat in), put him into a Humidicrib and me to a recovery room… there were paediatricians working on him for the first few minutes not sure if he would survive and breathe on his own,” said Helen.
When she did finally see her son, it wasn’t what she expected. “They brought him [into my recovery room] in the Humidicrib so I could see him before he was transferred to the other hospital. He was hooked up to so many tubes… it was surreal,” Helen described.
Shortly after, her husband accompanied their son in an ambulance to a hospital with NICU, but a shortage of beds meant that Helen had to stay behind. She spent three night away from her baby, and despite the physical and mental pain of the experience, continued to express every three hours to keep up with crucial milk supply.
A baby born at 27 weeks can come into so many complications – infections are life-threatening; and heart problems, cerebral palsy, blindness, or deafness are all very real outcomes. Each day is a blessing and paediatricians, nurses and social workers in NICU stress that health, and even survival are not promised.
The stress and uncertainty bore so heavily on Helen that when she was transferred to his hospital, she wasn’t sure she if she could see him. “I remember I was scared he wouldn’t make it so I didn’t want to go and see him once I was transferred to the other hospital. I was petrified to get to know him and then have him taken away from me.”
Finally, after days of separation, Helen touched her son who they named William. “Of course I did go and see him and got to have kangaroo cuddles, where you hold your baby on your chest skin to skin and that was incredible. I just felt instantly relaxed and didn’t want to give him back.”
But their journey had only just begun. William spent eight weeks in NICU and more time in special care fighting for his life. The threat of infection weighed heavily on their minds as another preterm baby in William’s room was tragically lost to complications from infection. “There are meetings with specialists every day to monitor their condition, weight, oxygen levels etc, and they can never tell you things are going to be ok,” explains Helen.
“The hardest part was the constant anxiety you feel, as it’s unnatural not to be with your baby once they are born… all the time I wasn’t at the hospital I felt unbelievably anxious and couldn’t relax until I was holding him,” she said.
Some days, Helen arrived at the hospital and couldn’t hold William as lifting him out of the crib would disturb sleep that was crucial for growth. William weighed just 1.07kg when he was born and even dipped down to 890 grams a few days after – he was small enough to be held in just one of her husband’s hands.
It was her husband that helped Helen get through it all. “He was my rock and I stayed strong by focusing on what I was grateful for, which was him. The experience made us closer as a couple. I felt so lucky to have him and you see a different side of your partner going through a traumatic experience together, after going through that I feel like we can go through anything,” said Helen. Her support system also included her sister and best friend who both flew from Darwin and Sydney respectively.
A stronger marriage is just one of the unexpected positives that William’s preterm birth had given Helen. It’s also a reminder not to take any moment for granted. “I think every parent feels lucky… being born early made him more precious as there was an uncertainty about what the future held and every moment with him is like a blessing because we were never sure we would get them,” she said.
Helen remembers being told by her obstetrician at the very beginning that her preterm birth would be a long, hard road. But her support system and resolve helped her to persevere. “I look back and think it has definitely made me more resilient, I drew on strength I didn’t know I had,” she said. Almost three years later, Helen thinks of William as her strong little fighter. In that time, she also gave birth to a healthy daughter six weeks early, who she affectionately describes as ‘determined’.
Her chosen Powerpants affirmation is ‘I am strong’, words that she chose as a reminder that she can get through anything. And if the first few years of the young Matthies’ lives are anything to go by, it’s clear that strength is a trait that runs in the family.