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When I found out I was pregnant, Mike, my husband, had recently returned back to Afghanistan to complete a long tour of duty. We had spent a blissful 3 weeks travelling around Europe together prior to his return but now I knew I would not be seeing him again until significantly later in the pregnancy. I think I am reasonably good at putting on a brave face when needed, though I am sure my close friends would say otherwise, but inside I was terrified. I would be doing this alone with my best mate on the other side of the world having to be told news over an email or occasional phone call. Mike knew I had wanted children when we met but he was a little less enthusiastic so I was acutely aware that he was going through the pregnancy on his own too and was worried about his feelings and thoughts (yes, I am a worrier!). I need not have worried as, though he too was anxious, he was extremely supportive from thousands of miles away.

I bombarded him with a week by week guide of what was happening to Ethel-Doris (I have no idea where he got that nickname from but he called her this from the time he found out we were having a baby girl), how she was developing and all the other things that you sign up to as a first time mum. I was looked after by my dear friend Verona during the pregnancy and knew that I wanted a homebirth as this felt like the right place for me to be. I also booked with my local hospital as I would be having tests done there. The routine scans I had were normal.

At about 31 weeks I had a small bleed when I was at work. I told my colleague who advised me to go and be checked out. Verona met me at the hospital to be my support and I really didn’t think anything of the bleed so when the Doctor at the hospital said I needed to stay I was adamant that this was all a big fuss and wanted to go home. The doctor left and then returned with a more senior colleague to again persuade me to stay. At this point I became very tearful as I was desperately trying to be in control and keep my midwife’s hat on but instead I needed to remove that and allow myself to be vulnerable and scared which is what I was. Verona joked that they had brought in the big guns to persuade me to stay, which did work. I stayed overnight on the promise that I could go as soon as I had completed the steroid course that was going to be given to help develop the baby’s lungs in case she was born early.

From this point my plan for a homebirth dwindled away. Verona had the joy of breaking that to me, which I probably knew deep down but didn’t want to admit. I was bitterly disappointed that I would not be in the environment that I had always hoped and dreamed of when birthing. There were tears over that and then tears that Verona wasn’t going to be able to look after me during the labour as I was needing to go to the hospital for the birth. I was now having weekly scans as there was a concern with the growth of the baby. I felt like everything was spinning out of control and I didn’t have Mike as my support with me to reassure that all would be ok. I had discussions with the Consultant Midwife at the hospital to see if I could use the Alongside birth unit including the pool which she agreed to as long as the baby’s growth was normal and there were no other concerns. At last a small part of my birth plan was on track. I knew I wanted to use the pool for labour and hopefully have a waterbirth.

Mike returned to the UK when I was 33 weeks pregnant and was up and down to the hospital with me. Each scan I had (I was on weekly ones) we joked that she still had her arm in front of her face but though her growth was low she was growing, just on her own curve. I stopped working at 34 weeks which was good as I could relax (for those who know me will say that I do not know how to relax).

At 40 weeks I was advised to be induced due to the baby’s growth and I had a number of episodes of reduced movements. Again my plans to use the Birth Centre and the pool were disappearing. I also knew that induction could be more painful, longer (she still was not in my pelvis properly) and I was terrified of having an epidural (no idea why I was so frightened as I saw them being performed frequently and understood the benefits that women got from them). I reluctantly agreed and at 40+2 went in to be induced.

My friends Verona and Anna would be present as a support for both myself and Mike. I was really worried about how Mike would be at the time of the birth as originally we had agreed he would not be present at this part. His stepdad however had told him that he needed to “man up” (his words) and Mike did as he was told! Having both Anna and Verona there meant that both of us would be supported.

I went in for induction on the 20th December knowing that it was a long process, therefore had taken a book with me and some music. We had sorted a playlist out (I ended up finding this really annoying and asking Mike to turn it off), had the TENS machine and a pillow from home as I know pillows can be hard to come by in most maternity units. I also had a small teddy called Michael bear which had been given to me by Mike when we had first started going out and I had slept with him every night since Mike had been away.

I was given the first dose of gel to start the induction process during that morning and the plan was to reassessed 6 hours later and probably have some more. Over the next 6 hours I began to have mild period like pains but nothing significant. After 6 hours the midwife returned and although there was no change in the dilatation of my cervix, the monitoring was showing lots of contractions. We had a discussion as I wasn’t feeling more than period pains but due to the number of contractions reflected on the monitor she would not put any more gel in at the moment and review later in the day. I was reassessed just before the night staff came on and due to there being no change with the cervix was given a second dose of prostaglandin gel. I began to feel pains and lots of backache quite quickly after but I knew that the gel can cause “false” contractions which wouldn’t be doing anything to my cervix so kept telling myself not to get excited by this. I think it was around now I sent Mike home to get some rest as it as likely to be a long night and there was no reason for us both to be tired. Before he left he popped on the TENS machine as I was having a lot of back and bum ache.

Mike was not gone long before being back in the room as he said he could not rest as he was worrying about me. When he got back I was having a lot of pressure in my bum and the back ache was really unpleasant. The night shift midwife came to see me and I asked if I could get into the pool on the Birth Centre for pain relief. I knew that I would not be able to birth there but needed something to help with the contractions and the excruciating back pain. The midwife was lovely and spoke to the team on the Birth Centre who agreed that I could use the pool whilst I was in early labour. I walked down there with Mike and was taken to one of the birthing rooms. It was dimly lit with the pool run and I felt in a completely safe place. There was a double bed in the room and once Mike had helped me into the pool he lay down. The pool increased my contractions significantly but it was mainly in my back and bum where I felt them. I stayed in the pool for about an hour and can remember looking at the clock whilst Mike was asleep counting the frequency of the contractions. 3 minutes apart and they hurt like hell. I was in early labour and I felt I was just coping but I had hours of this to go. I was having urges to have a poo with each contraction which I was trying to breathe through. When the midwife came in to check how I was doing she said I would need to go back upstairs due to the frequency of the contractions. Out of the pool I got and things felt ten times worse. I was determined to walk up the stairs to get back to the labour ward. Mike and I walked slowly off to the stairs, moving in between the contractions. I climbed the flight of stairs like a crab to try to aid descent and I am sure Mike thought I had gone mad. He was rubbing my back like a Trojan which helped.

We go back to the room where I was initially induced and the midwife came in and said she needed to monitor the baby. I had to get onto the bed and this was unbearable. The pains in my back and pressure in my bum were so intense and being on my back hooked up to a machine made it unmanageable. Added to that, the monitoring showed big decelerations of our baby’s heart beat. The doctors were called, examined me and they broke my waters. I was 4cm dilated. The water around the baby was clear but my contractions were now more intense and I was pushing uncontrollably with contractions and apologising to everyone at the same time.

I realised I was not going to be able to do this now that I was going to have to be continuously monitored and stuck on a bed so I asked for an epidural. We were moved swiftly to labour ward so that I could be monitored more closely and the anaesthetist was called. Mike called Anna and Verona to come in as he could see I was very distressed. I can’t express the delight when I saw them as I felt totally out of control and scared. I immediately felt safe. I was using entonox whilst waiting for the anaesthetist to come but still uncontrollably pushing with the contractions. Anna was rubbing my back and I am sure must have rubbed her palms away by the end of the labour. Everyone was trying to get me to breathe through and not push but I could not stop. Although I knew about posterior labours I really had no appreciation of the impossibility to stop your body pushing.

The anaesthetist took what seemed like ages so Mike went to find out where they were. I remember him coming back furious as he had found out that she had gone into the wrong room but was doing the epidural there now. When she did arrive I was a bit short with her and told her she “would be getting the Epidural in first time wouldn’t she!” Luckily for us all she did and numbed me so well that I was unable to move my legs but the pressure in my bum decreased too. The Doctors were in and out due to the concerns with the heart beat. Thankfully I progressed quickly to 10cm as there was talk of doing a c/s and so the decision was made to do a forceps delivery. Our little (5lb 8oz) girl was born on the 21st December by forceps 3.5 hours after my waters were broken.

I don’t really remember when Bethan was born but Mike said she was the colour of a smurf. She was taken to the neonatal doctors but began to cry quite quickly. Mike noticed something was not right with Bethan’s left arm and asked if it had been broken on delivery as it was bent backwards. I was bleeding quite heavily and then began to vomit so everything is a blur after the birth. Bethan was brought to me so I could have skin to skin with her. She was so tiny with these big eyes.

I felt joy that she was here but anxiety in relation to her arm. Anna said that we needed to make sure that her other arm was checked too as she was not straightening it. I called my parents and telling them that they had a granddaughter but she was born with some limb problems and hearing them say that all would be ok brought me to floods of tears. Bethan had a head scan later that day which was normal but x-rays on other parts of her body showed that she was missing the radius bone on her left arm, which made it bow and short, and then her left arm was fused at the elbow joint. Her hips were not formed properly as she did not have sockets. Both thumbs were not fixed onto her hand and she had some malformation of her knees. She underwent a number of blood tests to check for a variety of disorders. We were referred to Great Ormond Street hospital. I had so many mixed emotions as we did not know what to expect and what the outcomes would be. I was determined to breastfeed her as I was blaming myself for the issues she was born with. I wanted to get one thing right and luckily she did latch on well after the birth and I fed her till she was 2 years old (mainly because she refused to take a bottle).

After the birth my Iron levels were checked and I was found to be severely anaemic and requiring a blood transfusion. There was no way that I was going to have one as I gave blood and knew that this would stop me being able to do this in the future I went home after 2 days promising bed rest and to take iron tablets. The day after I got home I was spoken to honestly but severely by Verona and realised that I was being stupid. I felt dreadful and needed to think about my daughter and not myself. We were going to be having lots of hospital appointments and I needed to be as healthy as possible for this. I called the hospital to say that I had changed my mind and would like a transfusion and returned with my tail between my legs. The hospital where great and no one said anything to my face (I’m sure there will have been some “I told you so’s” outside the room about the stubborn midwife who thought she knew best). Halfway through the first bag of blood and I was already feeling like a new woman. I had 2 units of blood which brought my levels up enough to be able to do the rest with tablets and diet. I returned home on Christmas day with Mike having made Christmas lunch for us.

Our gorgeous girl is doing well. We joke that during those scans the reason that her arm was over her face constantly was that she was trying to tell us to look at it. She is now 6 years old, has had 12 operations, the first being at 9 months old, and numerous appointments at various places but is remarkably resilient with them and deals with them far better than me. Mike is a wonderful dad who is completely besotted with his daughter. He is my rock, helping me get through the days that are hard. One good thing about going to Great Ormond Street is that it puts things in perspective, makes you realise that there are significantly more families who have children with bigger issues than Bethan has and therefore we are lucky.

I am so thankful for Anna and Verona to be there during my labour and birth not only to support me but also to support Mike through a stressful time and really don’t know what we would have done without their reassuring presence.

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