This season’s Real Life Special delves into the stories of three truly inspirational families all exploring parenthood in three very different ways.
We love to share different people’s experiences of parenthood – from the ordinary to the extraordinary. And we often hear first time parents talk about the transformation that happens when they move from being from a couple, to being a family. If there’s one thing that almost everyone seems to agree on it’s that, as much as they love being parents, nothing could have prepared them for the challenges that having a child has introduced to their lives.
These challenges come in different shapes and sizes – from run-of-the-mill (though no less testing for that) sleep deprivation to the more exceptional difficulties that have to be faced when a pregnancy is not straightforward, or a child has a medical condition which requires special care.
James Cash chose to prepare for the trials and tribulations of fatherhood in a truly exceptional way – by rowing in a two-man boat, across the Atlantic. The task took him over two months, and time will tell whether it has stood him in good stead for a lifetime of being a parent – he certainly demonstrated admirable composure when his baby son decided to make an unexpectedly speedy entrance into the world.
The Astur family have been faced with a challenge of a different nature – their son, Abe, has a form of cerebral palsy, and the specialist treatment that he needed was only available in America. Over the past year, Leigh and Gavin Astur have embarked on an impressive journey of fundraising in order to enable Abe to have the operation that they hope will change his life.
But first, the story of Sharon Todd, who battled through a pregnancy that was difficult from the start, and spent six weeks in hospital, separated from her family, in order to deliver her second daughter, Rebecca, safely into the world.
haron and her husband, Andy, had been through several rounds of IVF to conceive their first child, Meredith, so they were delighted when they conceived Rebecca naturally. “We had a couple of embryos in storage from the last IVF, but having been told that unexplained infertility often resolves spontaneously after a pregnancy, we decided to try naturally for a while first.”
The pregnancy, however, was problematic from the start. “I’d had elevated blood pressure from about 30 weeks with Merry, but this time, when I saw my doctor for my booking-in appointment at five weeks, the blood pressure was already as high as the worst it had ever been with Merry.” Sharon was prescribed medication for her blood pressure, and, when her first scan showed that she also had placenta previa, the pregnancy was classified as high risk, and Sharon was put under the care of a pre-eclampsia specialist consultant, and a high risk midwife team.
Nevertheless, Sharon remained calm. “I was fairly relaxed about it all – I was being checked weekly, I had extra scans, and other than being very tired and nauseous for the first trimester, I felt pretty well. In retrospect, though, I think I was probably too blasé, and I didn’t rest enough.”
Sharon’s blood pressure remained unpredictable, and she was asked to monitor it herself at home. One day, during the 29th week of the pregnancy, she was feeling unwell. “I was lightheaded and headachy, and when I checked my pressure it seemed to be a little on the high side. I decided that I’d check it again a couple of hours later, after I’d put Merry to bed and had some tea. When I tried to check it again the machine showed an error, and I couldn’t get a reading.”
Concerned, Sharon called the hospital, and was asked to come in. “It was about 9pm. We bundled a sleeping Merry into the back of the car, and, although I normally do the driving, I asked Andy to drive, as I was having some pains in my chest and feeling a bit spaced out.”
On arrival, the severity of the situation became clear. “All hell broke loose. My blood pressure was 220/156 – absolutely off the chart! I had one midwife holding my hand and urging me to stay still, while another ran down to the labour ward for the doctor.”
“The midwife told me later that they had no idea how I was walking around looking relatively normal, at that pressure – they would have expected a stroke or heart attack.”
The following morning Sharon was told that she had severe pre-eclampsia, and that she would have to stay in hospital for the remainder of the pregnancy. The aim was to prolong the pregnancy for as long as possible – ideally until 37 weeks – when Sharon’s baby could be safely delivered. However, Sharon was also given steroids to develop the baby’s lungs, in case an earlier delivery became necessary.
With Sharon in hospital, Andy had to step into the breach. “Andy was amazing. He had to look after a very confused and upset Merry, whilst also worrying about me and trying to keep me calm! His work were really supportive and flexible, so he was able to drop Merry at school in the morning, and leave early to pick her up in the afternoons. Family and friends also helped with some of the pick-ups, but Andy really did shoulder a huge burden of care for us both, and he did a fantastic job.”
Although Andy took three year old Merry in to see her mother every day, and even took dinner in for Sharon, as she wasn’t particularly enjoying the hospital food, Sharon still found the time that she spent in hospital extremely tough. “The next four weeks were upsetting, painful, boring, frustrating and exhausting. It was incredibly hard for all of us, being separated. I had to be in a ward rather than a private room, so that I could be monitored more easily, but it meant I was constantly surrounded by women in early labour, who could be quite loud. I spent a couple of nights sleeping on chairs in the kitchen, just to get a bit of quiet.”
By 33 weeks, it was becoming clear that the time to deliver Sharon’s baby was approaching faster than had been hoped. “I was physically and emotionally battered. I was on the maximum level of oral medications, and I’d run out of good veins to use – my hands and arms were swollen and tissued, and I was covered in bruises. I was also getting very low, emotionally – I was utterly exhausted and I missed Andy and Merry terribly.”
Around this time the head of the hospital’s special care unit came to talk to Sharon about what she could expect during and after a special care birth. “She said one thing which really stuck with me, and which I thought about often in the days afterwards: the outlook is far better for a healthy early baby than a sick full-term one.”
Three days later, blood tests showed that Sharon was developing HELLP syndrome – a complication of pre-eclampsia which damages the liver and can cause severe blood loss. A caesarean was scheduled for the following day. The birth itself went smoothly, and Rebecca was taken to special care. Sharon, however, was still not well. “I felt awful. I had a reaction to the anaesthetic and I couldn’t stop shaking. I was also clenching my jaw, and felt as though I couldn’t open it.”
Sharon’s blood pressure continued to be erratic, and doctors remained concerned. “The next 48 hours were the worst of my life! I was weak, in pain, and uncomfortable; and aware that everyone was still very worried about me. They used my epidural to help lower the blood pressure, and I still had cannulas, my arterial line, and a catheter. I had pressure sores from being stuck in bed, and I was having aural hallucinations.”
“I felt completely helpless and, of course, I was bereft of my baby – she couldn’t come to me and I couldn’t go to her. The midwife was wonderful – she took my phone up to the SCBU and took photos of Becca so that I could see her, and when I couldn’t express colostrum because my hands were so swollen, she did that for me, and took the tiny syringe up so that Becca wouldn’t miss out on it.”
Eventually, after two more days, Sharon was well enough to be taken in a wheelchair to meet her newest daughter. “By that time most of our close family had been in to visit, and Merry very proudly showed Becca off to me in the incubator. She’d done remarkably well – she’d had a little breathing assistance on the first night, but otherwise she’d been breathing on her own.”
From that point on, both Sharon and Rebecca improved, and, 42 days after her initial admission, Sharon was able to go home, to be followed, a few days later, by Rebecca. “It was very strange to be coming back without Becca, but since I’d been admitted before we had a chance to get the baby things set up and ready, at least I had a few days to sort out all the boxes I’d ordered while I was in hospital – it’s dangerous being bored with an iPad and a credit card!”
“Becca seemed incredibly tiny when we brought her home. She’d regained her birth weight, but she was still under 4lbs. Her car seat looked far too big and, in the first weeks, people were amazed by the sight of her – she looked like a little doll in the buggy.”
A year and a half on, though, the whole family is thriving. “Becca’s doing brilliantly – she’s petite, but developmentally she’s pretty much on track. I’ve been advised not to have any more children – the likelihood of an early recurrence of the HELLP syndrome, and an even more premature delivery, makes it just too risky. But I love seeing how the girls are together, and our family really feels complete.”