Real-life Special: The Risky Pregnancy

This season we bring together the experiences of three couples, as we explore their inspirational journeys into parenthood.

There are few certainties when you decide to embark on the road to parenthood. Some couples are lucky enough to fall pregnant straight away, others spend years trying to conceive, and some haven’t planned to become parents at all – but they nevertheless embrace the challenge.

Our real life stories this season bring together the experiences of three couples: Holly and Darren Sassienie, who didn’t know when they decided to start a family, that becoming pregnant was a potentially fatal risk for Holly to take; Natalie and John Wackett, who, despite being young and healthy, spent six difficult years trying to conceive their first child, only to find that three came along within the space of eighteen months; and Marie-Louise Marten and Phil Holmberg, whose son, Oscar, was born three months before his due date, weighing just 865g. Happily, all three stories end well – with thriving babies, and parents who are relishing their new roles and responsibilities.

You may not know what lies ahead, but one thing’s for certain, the journey into parenthood is never dull.

After giving birth to her daughter, Gabriella, in May 2012, Hollie Sassienie is lucky to be alive – but when she and her husband, Darren, first decided to try for a family, they had no idea of the enormity of the risk that they were taking.

Hollie discovered that she was pregnant in autumn 2011, and she and Darren happily, though cautiously, anticipated becoming parents. “I’d had two previous miscarriages, so we were a little nervous,” says Hollie, “but we were so excited to be having a baby.”

The first trimester of Hollie’s pregnancy went smoothly, and there were no indications that anything was wrong. During the second trimester, however, Hollie began to experience a few problems, “I fainted at 16 weeks, and then, from about 20 weeks I started to get more breathless. It was quite gradual.” Initially Hollie didn’t realize that these symptoms were indicative of anything serious. Doctors attributed her symptoms to a combination of asthma, and the baby pressing against her lungs. However, by week 27 of the pregnancy, Hollie was struggling even to climb the stairs, and by 29 weeks she was almost bedridden.

At 31 weeks, Hollie’s condition became impossible to ignore any longer. “On the Saturday morning I passed out twice, and then on the Monday I passed out twice more.” Hollie went to see her obstetric gynaecologist on the Tuesday morning, and was given an appointment with a cardiogolist later the same day. The doctor performed an echocardiogram, and told Hollie that her condition was critical – she had either pulmonary hypertension, or a large blood clot on the lung.

Hollie was taken by ambulance to her local hospital, and then transferred to the critical care cardiology unit at Hammersmith Hospital.

It was confirmed that Hollie suffers from arterial pulmonary hypertension – a rare and incurable heart and lung condition which is particularly serious when combined with pregnancy. “Patients with pulmonary hypertension are advised never to fall pregnant,” says Hollie, “I was given a 50-50 chance of survival, and was told to prepare my friends and family for the worst.”

The rest of Hollie’s pregnancy was to be spent in hospital. She was given strong medication, and was told to prepare for Gabriella to be delivered at any time. “On my first day in hospital a line was inserted into my neck. It was put in by a trainee, and he hit an artery – I could hear the blood squirting onto the protective sheet! The drugs had a lot of side effects, and we were told by the hospital that the last woman that they had delivered with this condition had died five days post partum. It was a frightening time and I was terrified about leaving my husband and baby behind, but I tried to stay positive for my friends and family.”

At first the doctors had thought that Gabriella would need to be delivered within a few days, but Hollie wasn’t strong enough for this to happen. “My heart had doubled in size, and was under a huge amount of pressure.” As Hollie started to respond to the medication that she was being given, the doctors decided to delay Gabriella’s birth, and Hollie remained pregnant, in hospital, for a further four weeks.

In the end, Gabriella was born by caesarean, at 35 weeks. “Darren came to the hospital, as did my mum, sister, brother, mother-in-law and father-in-law. I didn’t see everyone, but they all sat in the café for the whole day waiting for news – they just wanted to be close. Darren came into the surgery with me, and my mum sat outside the operating theatre.”

An ordinary caesarean takes about an hour, but Hollie was in surgery for five hours. “They had to do everything very slowly and keep a close eye on me. I had relaxation music playing and my Lionel Ritchie CD. At one point, as they were trying to get Gabriella out, my heart rate became dangerously high. All the doctors started panicking, and Darren stood over me telling me to relax and imagine myself on a beach, and to do the relaxation exercises that we’d practised. It was very scary and the doctors all went silent – I thought I was going to die there and then.”

The doctors managed to control Hollie’s heart rate, and the delivery was able to continue. “Gabriella was born, and we were allowed a quick cuddle before she was taken to the special care unit at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital. It was all such a blur. I was just so glad she was okay.”

Hollie, meanwhile, was taken into intensive care. “The recovery was hard. I was in intensive care, surrounded by people on ventilators. Darren slept at the hospital with Gabriella, and then spent all day with me. The highlight of my day was the hour or so that I had with Gabriella.”

A week after her birth, Gabriella was able to go home, and after ten days in intensive care, Hollie was moved onto a ward, and was desperate to be reunited with her daughter. “I was on the ward for three days – they wanted me to stay in for at least five, but I was adamant that I wanted to go home. I had to learn how to administer my medication through a syringe in my neck – usually this takes a week’s training, but I practised continually.”

Though Hollie was allowed to go home, she wasn’t able to take on the normal responsibilities of a new parent. “It was very important for me to rest, which, with a newborn, wasn’t so easy, but Darren was amazing, as were all my family. My friends were also fantastic – I wasn’t allowed to lift her pram or car seat, so someone would always come, collect me and carry everything for me. Darren took a very hands on approach – much more so than he was expecting, but he’s never moaned about it.”

A year and a half on, and life has become as near to normal as possible for the Sassienie family. Though the pulmonary hypertension continues to be a very serious condition, and is one that will always affect Hollie’s life, she is managing to enjoy motherhood. “I love being a mummy. I’m still on a lot of medication, and there’s a chance that I’ll need a heart-lung transplant at some point in my life, but I just try and get on with things as normally as possible. Gabriella keeps me very busy.”

And Hollie and Darren have even found the time and energy to set up a business, Sassy Bloom, selling gift boxes for new parents. “The idea came about when some friends bought a box of goodies for Gabriella and me while I was in intensive care. It was so personal, and it made me feel really special – we came up with the idea soon after. I’m just glad that I’m well enough to work hard to make the business a success. A decade ago the life expectancy of my condition was 3-5 years, but with progress in treatments this is extending all the time. I’ve met people who’ve had the condition for over 20 years, which gives me hope that I can remain as well as I am for a long time to come.” ✿