When her son suffered a devastating stroke at birth, parenthood as she knew it changed for Natasha Wood
I remember being in hospital after having my first son, Henry. I was attempting to walk under strict orders of the nurses. I had just experienced an emergency c-section after Henry had decided he had no intention of making an appearance.
It took me five minutes just to straighten my body into a semi-upright position, as I shuffled along the hospital corridor looking remarkably like my elderly nana who had acute arthritis.
It was on my second lap that I passed a room with two women in it. One of the women was in deep conversation with a doctor and a nurse, nodding with silent tears streaming down her face. The other was walking towards me holding on to a man who reflected her tired eyes. I stopped as I watched them head towards the neonatal unit, and took a minute to remind myself that despite the pain I was in, I had a beautiful, healthy boy and I should count myself lucky.
Fast-forward four years and I found myself in that same room with those same tired eyes and silent tears. I had experienced another emergency c-section but this time things hadn’t gone quite so well. My partner, Matt, had gone home to look after Henry and get some rest. It was 3am, and I was woken by a nurse who explained that our baby boy was having seizures and they were taking him for an MRI. Later, we were taken into a room and told that Laurence had suffered a massive Grade 4 bleed on his brain. In other words, he had suffered a stroke and was about to be transferred to King’s College Hospital for surgery. Consent wasn’t needed as this was a matter of life and death.
The outcome was poor. If he did make it through the surgery, his ability to lead a normal life would be seriously compromised. He wouldn’t be able to walk or, in fact, move his right side at all. Speech and eating would also be affected and he would most likely have severe learning and behavioural difficulties.
Life inside a neonatal unit is surreal. Amongst the beeps and flashing lights, and the hustle and bustle of the incredible doctors and nurses, lie teeny-tiny beings, many no bigger than your hand, hanging on to life with the help of machines and drugs, and the overwhelming love of their families.
Weeks went by, and tubes were gradually removed, oxygen was decreased and visitors appeared. Laurence was moved out of NICU and into a less-dependent room but still under 24-hour care. He was defying the odds and doing well enough for us to be given a date to take him home, six weeks after he had arrived into our world.
The doctors decided to do another MRI, to make sure everything was good to go – this was when they found further swelling. They decided to keep him in for more vital surgery and to fit him with a shunt, a clever contraption that relieves fluid pressure on the brain. We left the hospital without our son to get more clothes, and for the first time, I cried solidly throughout the night and into the morning.
After the surgery and recovery time, we were finally able to take Laurence home after almost two months of being in the hospital. Before we left, we had one last visit from one of the surgeons who had saved Laurence’s life. It was during this conversation that I feel the future changed for our son.
She explained that, of course, we would want to find out why this had happened, but there was a strong chance we would never know. And, of course, we would want to find out what we could expect in terms of what his abilities might be but, again, there was a chance we would never know. But what she could tell us was that all babies are born with brain plasticity, which means that although the brain begins to form just three weeks after conception, brain development is a life-long journey. The brain forms pathways as babies grow, learn and experience new things. Many of Laurence’s pathways had been damaged as a result of the stroke but he could still form new ones. For example, he may have been right-handed but because his right side was damaged, his brain would form a new pathway leading him to be left-handed, instead.
We clung to this information like barnacles to a vessel. We decided that what had happened, had happened and there was nothing we could do to change it. Instead, we would do everything we could to help Laurence be the best that he could be. If we were told he wouldn’t be able to talk, we would find a way to help him communicate. If we were told he couldn’t walk, we would find a way for him to get from A to B. We got ourselves referred to any type of early intervention we could knowing that the first three years of his life would be key to helping him develop to the best of his ability.
Laurence is now two years old and his story is far from over. He has worked harder in the last 24 months than anyone I have ever known. It’s not been easy – we’ve taken lots of punches. Our parents had to fork out £2,000 to have a cranial helmet fitted to correct his severe flat head from being in NICU for so long; we discovered he was only partially sighted; he began having absent seizures, and he doesn’t have any use of his right arm.
But for every hit there came a hug, like when he started to feed himself, or laugh in delight at his older brother’s presence; being weaned off his medication as a result of him being seizure-free for a year; handing me a biscuit and saying his first word, “there”, and taking his first wobbly steps unaided – this I discovered on my way home from a work night out, slightly wobbly myself, when I opened a video emailed to me from my mum. I subsequently burst into tears and was stopped by a man who was concerned that something terrible had happened to me. After explaining and showing him the video, the man began to cry, too!
Developmentally, Laurence is clearly behind. He is not talking properly but is about to start speech therapy. He has cerebral palsy but is having block therapy. He’s had more hospital visits than I’ve had in my lifetime.
Matt and I have had amazing support from our parents, close friends and Laurence’s nursery, and I hope they know how much we appreciate everything they do. There are no words or actions that could possibly match our feelings towards them.
Our eldest son, Henry, goes to a Church of England school. Matt and I are both atheists but my mother’s side of the family are Hindu. We try to give our boys a balanced and impartial view on different beliefs, as well as all the necessary tools to decide for themselves what they believe. It’s not an easy thing to do, most of the time I feel like I’m overthinking the subject and we should just stick to reading them books about dinosaurs, space and Greek mythology.
However, we were walking past the church attached to Henry’s school one day, when I overheard him talking to his dad about where we came from. “Did me and Laurence come from God?” he asked. “No, you came from mummy and me,” said Matt.
“But don’t we all come from God?”
“Well, some people believe that, other people believe we came from other gods, but what actually happened is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, even more amazing is that the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand.”
Henry turned to Laurence and beamed, “Did you hear that Laurence, we are made from stardust, isn’t that cool?”
I often look at Laurence and think about what he has been through. I try not to dwell on what his future may or may not hold but ultimately my thoughts end with this: Laurence is happy, he is loved and he is a fighter. He and his brother continue to amaze us with their humour, compassion for each other and their ability to try their best in all they do.
They are mine and Matt’s true loves, our world. Our very own pinches of stardust.