My son, Archie, was born in Policlinico Umberto Primo on 15th February 2012 weighing just 930g. I was just under 27 weeks pregnant and had come to Rome for a short break of 4 days with my mum and sister, having been told by my midwife that I was in perfect health and that this would be an excellent time to travel before baby arrived. But Archie clearly didn’t want to wait for his due date on 20th May!
I started experiencing stomach cramps at about 3am on 15th February whilst in my hotel room, so the receptionist at the hotel called us a taxi and told the driver to take us to Policlinico where we were seen initially by the nurse on duty in the ‘Pronto Soccorso’ and directed round to the obstetrics emergency entrance. The nurses soon discovered that the baby had the umbilcal cord wrapped tightly around his neck and that the ‘cramps’ I was experiencing were actually contractions. Each time I had a contraction, the cord tightened and baby’s heart beat dropped. I was monitored for several hours by the nurses on the maternity ward, and was then given two choices by the doctor on duty: I could either have a caesarean there and then to free the cord (though they told me that baby’s chances of survival were slim) or I could discharge myself and go home immediately to be monitored by my hospital at home. Naturally, the thought of a caesarean at 27 weeks horrified me, so I chose to return to England and get to my hospital as soon as I could. The nurse gave me an injection to stop the contractions and I left the hospital to return to the hotel.
Unfortunately, the injection to stop the contractions didn’t work and so having made it back to the hotel to arrange getting back to England, my waters broke and I knew that Archie was on his way. I immediately wanted to push and although the ambulance can only have taken 10 minutes, it felt like an eternity. The baby was already crowning by the time the ambulance arrived and they took me the short journey to the hospital. I was transferred from the ambulance stretcher on to the hospital bed and was just being wheeled into the delivery suite when the baby arrived. It all happened so fast and apart from trying to hold in the contractions, it was all relatively painless too.
I didn’t see Archie as he arrived; he was whisked away by the nurses and I was left in the room being comforted by another nurse. I was convinced the baby hadn’t survived – I didn’t even know it was a boy until one of the nurses returned to tell me that they were reviving him now. But he DID survive, and he was a little fighter right from the start. They brought him in to see me before he went down to the NICU and apart from being incredibly small, he looked perfect. My partner got the first available flight and was with me in Rome by the same evening, though he didn’t get to see Archie until the next day as it was late when he arrived.
I remained for the three days on the maternity ward and it was in that time that we learnt that Archie would have to remain in the hospital for at least 2 months, though he actually ended up staying just over 3 months in the end. We were naturally very traumatised by what had happened and on top of everything else, we had to find ourselves somewhere to live. The staff in the hotel we were in were fantastic. They let us extend our stay there for as long as we needed to, and we contacted our insurance company as well as the British Consulat to seek help in finding somewhere to stay. In the end, it was the staff in the NICU who helped us out the most by telling us about the hospital’s ‘Casa Amica’ charity for friends, relatives and patients of the hospital, which meant that we got given a twin room in a shared apartment right by Termini station, which was so convenient for our visits to Archie. My partner and my mum then took it in turns to fly back and forth whilst I stayed in Rome for the entire time. It wasn’t the easiest to manage, but we did it, and our insurance company were incredibly supportive.
And as for Archie, well he was incredibly small but incredibly strong. He was intubated at first, but this was removed after 8 hours and he was put on the CPAP ventilation, which he remained on for about 2 months. In the first few days, we learned that he had a small brain haemorrhage (grade one) as well as a PDA which would both need monitoring. His lungs were very underdeveloped and because we weren’t prepared for his early arrival, he hadn’t been given any steroids to help make his lungs stronger. We had to be very careful that he didn’t pick up any infection as his tiny immune system wouldn’t have coped with it. The chief of the NICU told us that the first two weeks would be crucial in Archie’s development, so we sat patiently by his incubator every day, praying that he would get bigger and stronger. And he did. We had a lot of ups and downs – it was a bit like a rollercoaster in that the highs were amazing, but the next day he could have a really bad day which would bring us crashing down. Sarah the psychologist told us to expect 2 steps forwards and 1 back and that was exactly what happened. It was hard to remember that we were making progress on the bad days because he just seemed so weak, but it was all moving forward. Archie got an infection after 4 weeks and then another one a few weeks later, which meant he needed to be intubated both times and he also had 2 blood transfusions, but he always bounced back. The PDA was the only lasting problem for Archie. He had a total of 3 lots of medication for it, but each time it closed, it reopened again shortly after. Now it is still there, but it is only open a fraction and the cardiologist thinks it’s too little to make any difference to his breathing, so he just needs to have it monitored.
Our 3 months in Rome were incredibly stressful and the biggest problem we found was the language barrier. We spoke no Italian at all and if it hadn’t been for the handful of doctors and nurses who spoke good English, we would have been lost. We tried to learn bits of Italian to help get us by; we bought a phrase book and a dictionary and by the end of the 3 months, I was able to have a 5 minute conversation with another mum about how old our babies were and how big they were when they were born, etc. I felt so proud! But it was especially difficult in the early days when we didn’t really understand what was going on and what all the machinery was for, etc. Quite often, we would go to the visit and Archie would have a new catheter or a new machine and if there were no English speaking doctors working, then we found ourselves trying to guess what they were for and more often than not, we would get worked up over something that was actually fairly insignificant. Our greatest lifeline was Archie’s doctor, Monica, who spoke really good English and who helped us with absolutely everything, including trying to get Archie’s passport organised ready for when he could come home. She gave us her mobile number and we were able to call and text her if we had any concerns at all which was amazing. We really don’t know what we would have done without her.
When we were in Rome, all we could think about was getting Archie home. I became very homesick, even though our friends and family were amazing and lots of them booked short breaks to come and visit us. But now we are home and Archie is growing, we can really appreciate just how amazing the doctors and nurses in the neonatal unit were. I have been told that because of the suddenness of Archie’s arrival and because I don’t live close to a hospital with an early baby unit, Archie probably wouldn’t have survived if he had been born here in England, which horrifies me. We saw babies much smaller and earlier than Archie pull through to become strong babies in the NICU in Rome, and we now fully appreciate what miracle workers they all are. We feel very blessed to have Archie in our lives and he is so lucky to have come through this whole experience with very few long term problems. His heart, brain, lungs, eyes and ears are all perfectly healthy and he is a beautiful little boy. We will make sure he always knows the story of how he came to be here and all the amazing people who helped make that happen.