I don’t think enough people understand what goes on in a neonatal unit, and what it’s actually like. It is a world of its own; no, a parallel universe; no, a paradigm shift. It is one of the most emotionally highly charged places on earth. You know that uneasy feeling you get when you go into a hospital even when nothing’s actually wrong; the slight sadness when you see a patient hooked up to an IV in the lift? It’s that feeling times a million. The people who work there deal daily in extremes of pain, life and death. The skill of what they do is almost beyond imagination. The technology, too.
Many people who find themselves in a neonatal unit have never encountered serious illness head-on in their lives until their pregnancy suddenly goes crazy and the baby arrives sick. Many – like Mr A Mother Knows – barely even know what a neonatologist is or does. When you first go into the unit, you’re in complete shock. I can hardly even remember the first time we were shown into the unit at UCH, a couple of hours after I’d given birth.
First of all, no one is easily allowed in or out. Everyone has to be buzzed through the door in either direction. There are a lot of terrifying signs warning any visitors to stay away if they have been ill. Children are not allowed to visit – when H was born, because it was flu season, visitors were limited to parents and grandparents only. My sister flew in to meet her nephew but she wasn’t allowed to see him.
The second thing I became aware of was the importance of hygiene. There is a demarcated line on the floor and no one is allowed to cross it before they have first washed and then sanitised their hands. There is an illustration which shows you how to use the hand sanitiser: it is a six step process a bit like a hand massage you give yourself which ensures the sanitiser covers every bit of the hand and forearm. The reason for the hygiene is that sick and premature babies are extremely vulnerable to infection. This makes you immediately completely paranoid about going near them in that awful mid-winter season where you’ve just stepped off a tube filled with sneezing, coughing people. Suddenly you’re facing dilemmas – is your nose sniffly enough to be a cold? Should you go into the unit at all? It is a nightmare.
The third thing: the others. Actually, I don’t think I noticed the other mothers and fathers for about a week when H was first in the unit. I was too focused on him. I assumed, if anything, that everyone else’s baby was doing much better than him, because we were being told by the doctors that they rarely had to treat a case of hydrops, it being so uncommon (and even more uncommon to survive to birth with it).
The fourth thing: the layout. There is a waiting area randomly filled with people from every kind of community, from huge Hasidic Jewish families praying, to East End gangsters with tattoos all over them. To one side is the expressing room. Then you cross the line and you’re heading to the nurseries, which is what they call the wards. There are three levels of nursery: intensive care; high dependency and special care (in descending order of seriousness).
Just thinking about that walk from the waiting area to nursery 3 in intensive care still sends chills through me and makes me gulp for breath. There is a machine along the corridor which makes a sound which I will forever associate with the peculiar heart-stopping terror of that walk. The sound is a repeated electronic ‘da-da’. It is the sound of a computer monitoring something, somewhere – I never found out what. The closer you came to the sound, the closer you came to your baby, who was behind a closed door in a sealed shell of an incubator.