Touching Lives - April 2015
Saving baby Samuel, born too soon
When Jo was admitted to hospital for emergency surgery 29 weeks into her pregnancy, nobody knew what the outcome would be for mother or baby. Thankfully, Jo and husband Will are now the proud parents of Samuel, who survived being born at just 30 weeks. At three months old, Samuel is still quite small but is doing well.
For Jo and Will, visiting family in Devon rather than going on holiday abroad is a decision for which they will always be thankful. Jo, who was 29 weeks pregnant when they went to stay with her parents, explains: “I had been really well throughout my pregnancy. I had previously suffered a bowel condition, so my midwife referred me to a consultant who said there was no need to worry.”
But Jo started to experience terrible pain and was admitted to hospital, where she was told that she needed major bowel surgery. To give Samuel’s tiny lungs the best possible chance to develop, doctors injected Jo with steroids for two days ahead of the operation.
“For my family it was a hugely stressful time,” Jo says. “No-one knew what would happen to the baby. I was in a lot of pain so they were very concerned for me, too.”
For Will, who already had two children, the trauma was heightened by the need to be ready to make potentially agonising decisions.
“Hospital staff were very frank about the possible implications of my surgery, both for me and our baby. There were lots of red eyes that week,” says Jo.
Samuel was born by caesarean section, with three surgeons present. “He weighed just 3lbs 6oz, and was not much bigger than my hand,” Jo says. “I remember coming out of anaesthetic and being told that we had a little baby boy. We didn’t know beforehand if we were having a boy or a girl, and had not even thought about names!”
While Jo stayed in hospital for 10 days, little Samuel spent his first five weeks in hospital. “It was actually a relief that he was in intensive care,” Jo says. “I knew he was in the best possible hands, being cared for when I was recovering from surgery.”
Jo recalls how the kindness of the nurses made a huge difference during this difficult time. “They wheeled me in my hospital bed up to the incubator so I could see my baby. I was too unwell to hold him for the first 48 hours. But the first time they laid Samuel on my chest was wonderful. I could feel his breathing and heart rate calm.” Jo and Will were aware that the earlier a baby is born, the higher the chance of serious health complications and lifelong disabilities, but doctors could give no predictions. “We were simply told that, at 30 weeks, you never quite know what the future is going to hold,” says Jo.
Now three months old, Samuel is doing well. At 8lbs 6oz he is still small for his age, but is putting on weight and growing well. “When people stop me in the street, they think he is a newborn,” Jo says. “And in some ways, he is. But he has been out in the world for three whole months.” Samuel will be monitored closely throughout his first year and it is hoped that, by two to five years of age, he will have caught up with other children the same age in terms of his growth and development.
“We will never know if my pregnancy brought on the bowel problem or not,” says Jo. “If I go on to have another baby, I will be very closely monitored.”
Now settling into family life back at home in Kent, Jo is able to reflect on the shock of Samuel’s arrival. “I am just so thankful that we were with my family, relatively close to home, rather than on holiday abroad which we so easily could have been, and grateful that both Samuel and I received specialist care when we needed it most.”
Premaure birth research
Dr Joanna Cook, who is based at Imperial College London, was awarded an Action Research Training Fellowship in 2014 to develop a blood test for all expectant mothers. The aim is to predict which women might go into labour too soon, so that extra monitoring and care can be taken to protect babies.
Sadly, premature birth is the biggest killer of babies in the UK. Babies who survive are at risk of developing lifelong conditions such as cerebral palsy, blindness and learning difficulties. They are also more vulnerable to high blood pressure and diabetes during adulthood.
“During my work as a doctor I have cared for many women who have gone into labour early and witnessed the distress, and sometimes tragedy, this can cause,” says Dr Cook.
“Frustratingly, we don’t fully understand why some women go into labour too early and are therefore often unable to stop this happening.”
Expectant mothers found to be at risk following this simple test could then be invited to visit antenatal clinics more regularly, with intervention such as hormone treatment offered if appropriate to try and stop babies from being born too soon.
Ultimately, says Dr Cook, “It is about preventing prematurity by testing all women, and not just those already known to be at risk.”
With her own traumatic experiences just a few months behind her, Jo is only too aware of the importance of research into why so many babies are born too soon, and the hope that Dr Cook’s work offers other families.