*This is very long and personal post about my daughter’s birth. But I’m sick to death of only hearing the ‘good’ stories while mine goes untold*
February 1st is my daughter’s second birthday. A milestone that five or six years ago seemed completely impossible, yet it’s not a milestone I’m not yet able to embrace without still reeling from the trauma of her birth.
I should be delighted in the fact that my beautiful, intelligent, independent, happy and fearless little girl is growing up into an amazing child. Every day she does something that makes me think, “holy shit, this kid is awesome”. And while I do feel that, I still feel pain. I feel angry that I was cheated of the first few days of her life, I feel angry that after two years I still have yet to regain my abdominal strength, I’m angry that after two years nothing has been done to make sure what happened to me never happens to anyone else again, but the thing I’m probably most angry about now, is that I had to suffer all of this in silence, while nothing but happy, positive stories abounded in the media about other women while I was forgotten. I’m the horror story that people tell other women about, saying, “no matter what happens to you, it will never be as bad as what happened to her”.
Before I had my daughter I suffered multiple miscarriages and secondary infertility as a result. I had one miscarriage alone in Adelaide, in a hotel room on the other side of the country from my husband and any support. I ended up being hospitalised and requiring emergency surgery I was haemorrhaging so profusely. I know all about the hell women go through trying to have children. I’ve been the crazy person who gets emotional at an Elevit ad.
Twelve weeks after this incident I was again in Adelaide, on a midwifery placement for university. I was loving my placement, but I got very sick, tired and run down. I thought it was just the stress of trying to keep up with the demanding learning curve I was on until I started peeing a lot in the night. On a whim, not really expecting anything to come of it since I’d I can assure you there was only one very unlikely chance, I peed on a stick and to my absolute horror it was positive.
Why horror? I had just lived through the worst few years of my life. I had spent thousands of dollars for people to put things in places polite people don’t talk about to work out what was wrong with me. I had seen those lines on a pregnancy test far too many times to get my hopes up. Every time I’d been pregnant in the past I had a wonderful first scan, only to find out at the next that our baby had not survived. It was brutal, destructive agony. I had put my entire life on hold for years, giving up the sports I loved, the food I loved, the alcohol, everything and every glimmer of hope I had was destroyed a little more effectively each time. At this point in my life I was an empty shell, trying desperately not to give in to the despair that ate at me every day. I had just made the decision to give up on this dream and try and concentrate on finding some peace within myself. On seeing those lines again, so very close to the most traumatic experience of my life to date, I couldn’t hope. There was no point. It was all going to end soon, so why let myself feel anything?
I returned to Cairns and had a scan. I had no doubt in my mind that I would not be receiving good news and had already steeled myself for another round of soul crushing torment. But there was no bad news to be had. There was a perfectly health 8 week old baby swimming around in there. I was still not convinced, given my past history. In fact, at each point in my pregnancy I was in denial. I was prepared for bad news at every turn but never received it. In dramatic contrast to my other pregnancies I did everything wrong during this one. I sat on my arse eating pepperoni pizza up to five nights a week, chugging back cokes like they were going out of fashion.
But somehow, everything turned out alright. My due date came and went. Despite appearances, my baby was scanning small. I on the other hand was a raging fatty and couldn’t even put on my own underwear without help. My obstetrician wanted to let her cook as long as possible.
Unfortunately this was where we ran into the real problems. The day before I was finally to be induced, 10 days past my due date, a category 5 cyclone, Cyclone Yasi, decided to rear it’s ugly head and bear down on Cairns. As both of Cairns’ hospitals are right on the waterline, all surgeries were cancelled, including my induction.
Even more unfortunately, that Monday night at 10pm, the night before I was to be induced, I went into labour. And boy did I go into labour. There was no gradual lead-up, no contractions 10-20 minutes apart, it was happening there and then and it was excruciating. Several years prior I had been involved in a car accident and damaged my spine – this was where I was feeling everything.
We went up to the hospital anyway, although they were not exactly glad to see me as I’d ruined their plans for a peaceful evacuation. I laboured long and hard through the night and the morning, no amount of pethidine or hot water would quell the pain in my back and I was refused an epidural.
Eventually, after 9 hours my waters finally broke and I was assessed, only to be told that it was just the beginning and that I would not be able to have an epidural for at least another 4 hours. If you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie where a woman is trying to give birth and comes out with all of the four letter words and threatens to tear people limb from limb? That was me. They could not run the risk of the epidural slowing down labour when Cyclone Yasi was on her way. Bitch.
I’d been given an ultimatum that if this baby wasn’t born by 6pm at the latest, I had no option but to have a c-section as the hospital was closing and I would have to be evacuated. I never thought it would really come to that. I eventually got my epidural but it took three attempts to get it in right and things went swimmingly for me – except that the baby had rotated, gotten it’s head stuck, I wasn’t dilating properly and then they lost the baby’s heartbeat.
I was terrified. I was convinced that this was it. My ultimate punishment for being so lax looking after this pregnancy, that I was going to get to the end and have my baby die before it was born. I had so many people up my nether regions then that I should have been charging. They attached an electrode to her head and found her heartbeat once again.
I stopped dilating and my labour slowed. I was given syntocinon to speed things along but the baby had a bad reaction to it and the decision was made to give me an emergency c-section. By this point it was almost 5pm and I just wanted this hell to be over.
I was prepped for theatre and I was scared beyond belief. Not only do I not like surgery as a general rule (you should have seen the panic attack I had just getting my gallbladder out!), but only a few months prior it was me standing on the other side of that curtain watching my obstetrician perform them on other women. I knew exactly what would be happening and it made me sick. The only upside was that I had no doubts about the ability of my obstetrician to perform the surgery competently. That’s generally my biggest concern with surgeries, I have serious trust issues.
I felt nothing. Just some tugging and pulling and the noises that I knew were associated with different things. James was a little green around the gills, but otherwise fine. Then all of a sudden I was empty. It was the most surreal feeling and I don’t think I could ever adequately describe it to someone who hasn’t felt it, but it was like I was forcibly hollowed out with no pain. I was handed an almost blood free, but very cheesy baby girl. I had no idea what I was having, so this was at least one nice surprise.
Then they topped up my epidural and I went numb from the shoulders down andI freaked out because I couldn’t feel myself breathing and thought I was dying.
The paediatrician came over to me and told me that my little girl was not doing so well. “She has breathing difficulties”. I was asked what I wanted to do – I could leave it an hour and see if she settled on her own as most do, or I could transfer her to the public hospital to be evacuated to a neonatal unit in Brisbane, but I only had a half an hour window to make those arrangements before the hospitals closed. There wasn’t a choice, she had to go. So they took her away and that was the last I saw of her in Cairns. I was stitched up and sent to recovery while the obstetrician made arrangements for our evacuation.
She came back to tell me that she had arranged for us to be sent to the same hospital in Brisbane, but that there was a strong possibility we would have to be transported separately. And my husband was not allowed to go with either of us. She also told me that there was zero possibility that my uterus would stand up to another labour. If I chose to have another child, I would have to wait a minimum of two years before it would be strong enough to have overcome the damage that was caused trying to excavate her.
James opted to stay with me until we were both at the public hospital. When I arrived, the ambulance staff brought me in through emergency and asked what to do with me. None of them knew I was coming so they just told them to take me to maternity. They took me up to maternity which was completely deserted – no patients, no beeping monitors, no crying babies, no staff and most of the lights were off as they too were in the middle of evacuating. It was like being in a horror movie. The nurse on staff at the time was really unimpressed as she also had no idea I was coming or what to do with me. They shoved me in a room and left me there to wait for the evacuation order.
I sent James down to SCBU to check on our little girl. I’d seen her for all of 30 seconds and we hadn’t named her yet. We decided on Cailee, as James was fond of Kaylee from Firefly and I’d always liked the name Ceilidh, but with a surname like Margach we decided Cailee would be kinder as then people would at least be able to pronounce half her name without tripping over some superfluous letters. We didn’t even know the normal things, like how big or how long she was, all the stuff parents proudly prattle off as they notify friends and family.
I was panicked about her breathing and James wasn’t asking the SCBU nurses the right questions for me. It wasn’t his fault, he hadn’t spent the last 10 years in the medical field like I had. But he must have impressed the fact on the nurses there that I was very much not OK with the whole situation because they took a photo of her for me, which they then printed out for James to give to me. That photo was the only proof I had during the whole evacuation that I’d even had a child and this wasn’t some crazy nightmare. I clutched it in my hands desperately until she was safely back with me. I still have it. I guard it jealously even though it reminds me of the hell I went though. They were also able to ascertain that we were to be sent to Mater Mother’s hospital.
James was on the phone with his sister by this point (it was almost 10pm now) and her husband worked for Qantas. Very, very, luckily, he was able to get James a seat on the absolute last flight out of Cairns before the airport was shut down. But it left at 2am and he had to be at the airport by midnight. He arranged for his parents to drop him off and I had to say goodbye to him then and trust that we would all meet up again in Brisbane. I was then left alone in the room, scared, hurt and frightened for my baby girl who I’d barely seen.
In the meantime, nobody had come to check on me. I had been out of surgery for 4 hours and had one post-op check. I was starving as I hadn’t eaten since the night before and I’d thrown it all up when my contractions started not long after that anyway. I was alone, starving and totally overwhelmed with exhaustion and hormones.
Eventually someone came and wheeled me down to emergency to begin the evacuation. It was the first of many bed transfers and many looks of disbelief. The majority of other patients to be evacuated with me were either mental health patients or the elderly. Nobody could understand why a 27 year old who looked relatively robust wasn’t able to get out of bed. I had to explain over and over, to emergency staff, to ambulance staff, to SES staff, to Air Force staff, that I had just had a c-section and then I had to say no, I did not know where my baby was, or if she was OK. Then I would start to cry and make things awkward for everyone. Everyone wants to congratulate you and ask you all those questions like “how big” only I wasn’t able to answer them, I was just able to weakly proffer the above photograph before crying again.
It was a colossal clusterfuck (only appropriate word, I swear) of disorganisation. When I arrived at the airport I was wheeled (still in a bed, mind you) and left to the side while they decided how to load the patients onto the plane and who was on which plane. They wheeled me onto the tarmac about midnight and under the wing of a Hercules C130. It was raining, so lucky I was under the wing, I was relatively safe, but I was now in a huge amount of pain after my multitude of bed transfers and the fact that I now had no pain relief. I’d just had my guts ripped open and no painkillers!
When I was still in the hospital, I was told I would likely be airlifted out on the floor of a helicopter and I didn’t give it much more thought than that. When they were ready to load me into the Hercules, I had to have another bed transfer onto one of their patient stretchers. Holy crap. Those stretchers were barely wider than I was and some arsehole slung a strap around my waist, hitting me nicely in the middle of my fresh wound. I screamed to high heaven from the pain but I got another round of “sorry, didn’t realise you had a c-section” and “it’s the only way to secure you in these stretchers”. I was then carried jarringly into the plane and placed on the floor. That much I expected.
What I did not expect to happen next was to be pulled forcefully off the ground and go hurtling towards the ceiling at a great pace. I screamed again, sure that I was going to hit the stretcher above me and that my guts, which were in agony, was going to get knocked again. I didn’t but I was very, very close to it and being somewhat claustrophobic, something I didn’t realise I was until this very second, I freaked right out. I had a full blown meltdown and wasn’t able to be calmed down for a very long time.
One of the Air Force nurses came and had a talk with me when she was handing out earplugs. It was going to be very noisy inside the plane and there was also no air conditioning unless the plane was in motion. She calmed me somewhat, but I was still freaked. All I could think about at this point was that my hospital bag was 5 feet away, my mobile was running out of batteries and how the hell was I going to find my kid and my husband if things went south?
The plane trip was agony. Once the plane started it was freezing cold and all I had on was a sheet protecting me from the whole world seeing all of my rude bits. The woman in the stretcher above me had a bladder problem and kept urinating. Eventually all of the bedpans were used and so they shoved a towel underneath her to catch it. It didn’t. Her pee dripped all over me, it was disgusting, I was revolted and there was nothing anyone could do about it. The bitch in the stretcher below me kept using my waist strap as a support for herself and would pull it down tight every few minutes – the waist strap which was the only thing securing us in these stretchers which was wrapped right around my freshly opened abdomen. She couldn’t hear me yell at her above the noise of the plane so I tried to hit her whenever she did it, but my arms weren’t long enough. I’d long since run out of drugs by this stage so the pain was beyond imagining.
Eventually, at 7am, we landed in Brisbane. It took them an enormous amount of time to load us off the plane and since the plane was off, there was no air conditioning. I was packed inside a tin can on a blistering hot tarmac with 20cm separating me from the women above and below me. I sweated everywhere. My neck, my hands, my legs, my feet, my groin, my hair, my wound, everything was dripping. I was on the verge of passing out from heat exhaustion and pain when they lifted me out of the plane and put me in the back of a truck with some other people and some of our bags.
I begged someone to hand me my bag where I clutched my phone (less than 10% battery) and texted James. He was here in Brisbane, but Cailee wasn’t. He’d been to the hospital and told that we were both expected but neither of us had showed up yet. More full blown panic ensues.
Where the fuck was my baby???? How was it possible she wasn’t there? Had the hospital collapsed? Had her plane crashed? Did she die from her breathing complications and nobody could find us to tell us? I nearly died of fright when he sent me that.
I got another text not long after saying that her plane wasn’t due to arrive until 10am, they had to wait for a special flying doctors NICU airplane and NICU specialist to fly with the rest of the sick babies. But I had no way of knowing what had happened to her in the meantime, and neiher did he.
I was eventually taken off that godawful stretcher and placed onto a bed inside a makeshift tent on the tarmac. It must have been a zillion degrees that day and the tent had no air conditioning either. It was supposed to, but I got the defective tent. Naturally. I was desperate for pain medication but nobody was able to give me anything. I also wanted to sit up. I’d been lying on my back since 5pm the night before by this point but the bed I was transferred on did not have a raisable head, so I was stuck. I couldn’t move of my own accord as the pain was beyond describable.
They handed us out bottles of water and cold compresses as best as they could. I was eternally grateful that I still had my catheter in as I drank most of their water supply and I didn’t have to get up to use the toilet. But I was still sweaty under that disgusting sheet soaked with someone else’s urine. I had a big pad wedged between my legs as well to stop the post-partum bleeding which was coming on rather heavily. Not the prettiest thing when you’re sitting in the hot sun for hours on end. The stench of me would have made me vomit, if I’d had the food inside me to throw up. As it was I was so dehydrated from boiling in the sun I couldn’t even puke up the water I was drinking.
Doctors and nurses of all shapes and sizes kept coming in and out trying to categorise us and work out where to send us. A woman came in and put a tag on my arm saying I was to be sent to the Royal Womens. I told her I was supposed to go to Mater. She said I was going to RBWH. I argued with her. She said she’d check but no promises as everyone was just going where they were going. I told her my baby was going to Mater Mothers and there was no force on this Earth that would stop me going to her.
I messaged James, despaired once more. He double checked with Mater and they were definitely expecting me. I felt lost, like nobody cared about me or my baby or getting us back together. They were just there to do a job under the hot sun and they didn’t really want to be bothered with making an effort for me. James got the Mater staff to call the emergency team at the airport and insist on my being transferred there. In the meantime, Cailee arrived in Brisbane and was taken to the NICU. James was with her and he said she was OK. I was finally able to relax a small bit knowing she was alright, but then knowing she was so close and I wasn’t there with her made me incredibly furious.
I asked everyone who came past me to send me to the Mater and then to give me drugs for the pain. The answers were all “I’ll see what I can do”. I begged, I pleaded, I swore every curse I could think of and promised bloody retribution if they didn’t listen to me. Come 3pm I was starving, exhausted, hot, stinking and angry and I was having mad thoughts about getting a taxi to the hospital myself if they weren’t going to send me. I didn’t care if I was naked and bleeding and unable to even roll onto my side, let alone walk, I needed to get there to see my baby. Not long afterwards I was bundled into the back of an ambulance headed to Mater, finally. I guess if you kick and scream loudly enough someone will listen, eventually.
The ambulance ride was pure hell. Every single stone, bump and pothole felt like it was tearing my flesh apart and I could have sworn it went on for hours before I was finally inside the Mater.
Once I was there, I was taken to a room to get admitted properly, where a lovely nurse actually asked me how I was feeling and if there was anything she could do for me while she waited for the paperwork to be processed. I cried all over her and said I’d really like something to eat, I haven’t eaten for two days. Horrified, she rushed off and brought me back two trays of dinner. Then I asked for pain meds and she was appalled that I’d had no pain relief since my c-section 24 hours previous.
I had some very strong painkillers, she helped me wash myself and transferred me to a wheelchair. It was very slow going as I was weak as a kitten and still in huge amounts of pain. I was wheeled up to my room first to drop my bags off where my friends Penny and James were waiting for me. Penny had very kindly picked James up from the airport at 4am and James (yes, two James’s very confusing I know) was there for moral support. Only two of us were able to visit her in NICU at a time, so friend-James wheeled me in to see her.
She was in a humidicrib and had a nasogastric tube in. She was perfectly normal according to the monitors but I wasn’t allowed to hold her or touch her. I just sort of sat there in a daze with friend-James who was also a bit dazed “dude, that’s your baby”. She was blonde, which I wasn’t expecting. I was sure that she would have dark hair or be a ginger. She had big beautiful eyes and with the blonde hair, I remember thinking to myself that I’d picked her middle name (Paige) well as I had a fleeting image of a Paige I knew when I was a kid.
She was over 24 hours old by this point so I asked the nurse what they’d been feeding her, assuming thats what the nasogastric tube was there for. I was told they hadn’t fed her anything, but had just been giving her glucose. I lost my shit at them. How dare they not feed her? They were taken aback saying “but we only have formula”. I said I didn’t give a shit what they were feeding her, just bloody well feed her! Apparently they needed my permission, but James had been there all day. She was his child too! What if I’d never made it?
Later that night, at around 9pm, I was finally able to hold her. My husband and been able to hold her all day before I got there, but this was the first time I was able to fully relax since everything started three days earlier.
Over the course of that night I developed a raging fever and a severe respiratory infection. My wound was also showing signs of infection and I was placed on IV antibiotics every few hours. It was torture. I couldn’t lie down as my lungs would fill with garbage and I would have to cough which hurt my tummy. and I couldn’t lie on my side. I had to try and sleep sitting up so I didn’t cough, but my bum started to hurt and I got an awesome pressure sore by the end of the week.
The next day my cannula came out of my arm. As I was on IV antibiotics for such a serious infection they tried to resite it. Because of the not eating (and I still hadn’t really, I just couldn’t keep it down) and the dehydration, it took four doctors NINE attempts to get a new one in. The registrar, a paediatrician, an emergency doctor and an anaesthetist. The anaesthetist finally got it inserted into the underside of my wrist. Really not a fun place when you’ve got a newborn.
Then a very unlovely midwife came in to tell me I was being sent home the next day. I’d been there less than a day myself, my child was in NICU, my home was in Cairns being ravaged by a goddamn cyclone and I had no idea if my house was even still standing and this bitch wanted to send me home? I cried and wailed until the Nurse Unit Manager came to see me to assure me they wouldn’t send me home until I was ready. The only reason she said that was because I insisted that they call my obstetrician. She had told me that I wasn’t to come back for at least a week, I was to try and rest as best as I was able.
My cannula came out again in the middle of putting some antibiotics through that afternoon. My entire left arm became angry, red and inflamed and it burned to the touch. The bitch midwife tried to tell me that it was ok and wanted to run some more antibiotics through. I told her no way in hell was that going to happen, the cannula had clearly tissued and I was showing signs of phlebitis. Don’t argue with a woman in pain who knows your job. A different registrar came in to assess me and decided to just switch me to oral meds instead as my fever had gone down somewhat
That day Cailee came out of NICU. We were sent home on the Sunday (a few days earlier than I would have liked, but later than they wanted). James still had to arrange his own flights but managed to get a ticket on the same plane, thank God. I could barely hold her I was still so sick, there was no way I could have flown on a commercial flight with a 5 day old baby when I could barely hold my own head up. The staff at Virgin were incredibly accommodating, clearing out the first row for us, giving me a wheelchair because I couldn’t stand and coming to check on us regularly. Cailee slept the whole way home in James’s arms.
Once we were home I was still incredibly sick. I couldn’t eat, I busted my wound open once, I had no energy and Cailee would scream constantly. Three weeks in I made the decision to supplement breastfeeding. Not long after, James accidentally fed her formula one night after she’d already had a feed and she slept for twelve hours. We ‘overfed’ her again the next night and she did it again. We finally worked out she was hungry as she wasn’t getting enough from me, what with me being so sick I wasn’t making enough milk for her. I stopped breastfeeding entirely, she stopped crying and started sleeping and I finally started to heal.
The agony of being separated from the people you love, from your child who is only hours hold who you haven’t even really met yet, during a natural disaster is beyond imagining. The pain, both physical and mental, still lingers with me to this day. I am still limited in a lot of physical activities because of my injuries which frustrates me.
The thought of having another child made me so violently ill that I refused to even touch my husband for 18 months after she was born. If I touched him, I would get pregnant immediately, my uterus would rupture and I would die. It was a fact. The ease at which you get pregnant is inversely proportional to how much you want to get pregnant and I really did not want to get pregnant. I had to beg several doctors to get a Mirena inserted, because despite my trauma “I was young and would change my mind about wanting more”. Bollocks.
It’s been two years and the thought of going through that again makes me want to scream. Why doesn’t anyone understand how traumatised I was by the whole thing? The only person who seemingly got the extent of my trauma was my therapist who diagnosed me with mild PTSD. If I had my way I’d get a tubal ligation so there is never any chance of getting pregnant again, but as we are both under 30 nobody wants to even consider it.
Two other women gave birth in Cairns during Cyclone Yasi. One in a hospital safe in Innisfail, the other in an evacuation shelter. Both were very lucky to have uncomplicated births and happy stories you can laugh about in hindsight. They get featured in the paper each year and yet my story is always forgotten. This is the real story. I don’t laugh about it. It was, if you will excuse my crassness, fucking traumatic, terrifying and grossly mishandled. We live in the tropics and are no stranger to cyclones. I can list the names of several in my lifetime alone, there was absolutely no excuse for the evacuation to be so last minute, disorganised, ineffective, terrifying for those of us involved, and having the potential to be catastrophically negligent through miscommunication and inadequate planning. Cyclones are not new, the potential for disaster has been real for as long as both hospitals have been on the waterline (as in, since they were constructed well before I was born) so how was it that there was no real plan in place?
Since then, the only time I’ve discussed this publicly is with people I know, and a lady at the Cairns Base Hospital who was interviewing patients affected by the evacuation. I even have some doubts about posting this now, even though I know that it’s the right thing to do, even if it just makes a few people I know stop asking me when I’m going to stop being so selfish and give my daughter a sibling (go and take a long walk off a short cliff, bitches).
The upside to all of this is that Cailee is one of the happiest, healthiest (seriously, kid eats like a horse and can run a kilometre almost as fast as I can), fearless and generous children out there. I hate everything about her birth, but then I realise that if I’d been a day later there’s a strong possibility that she wouldn’t be celebrating her 2nd birthday. I don’t have to have liked it, but I can live with it.