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In today’s episode I interview singer songwriter Alana Wilkinson about her pregnancy, birth and NICU experience. Her baby boy, Rafferty, was born at 24 weeks and surprised the neonatal staff with his strength despite his size (704 grams). Alana talks at length about her birth trauma, her NICU experience and the way music helped carry them through the long days and nights. Rafferty was discharged from hospital still reliant on oxygen and after three weeks at their home in the northern rivers, they had to be airlifted out because landslides had compromised their home and threatened their safety. Despite the upheaval of the past six months, Alana is so buoyant and optimistic and has the most beautiful plans to make music for other NICU parents and their babies. What a gift that would be.
“I looked into homebirth and everything to do with hospitals. The more research I did, the more I didn’t want to go down the hospital path so I started looking at homebirthing with a midwife and a doula and even looking at the idea of a freebirth so if it came to that, we’d have the power, knowledge and know-how. Melbourne didn’t feel like the best place for us to live once we were pregnant so we made plans to move to the northern rivers and we locked in a midwife and doula.
“At my 20 weeks scan everything was looking great but soon after I started bleeding so I went into emergency and so began the path that was ultimately the beginning of the end. They had no idea where the blood was coming from, there’s never been a definitive answer, but it continued and some days it would stop and then it would start again and I couldn’t work out if anything I was doing was causing it.”
Alana and Angus moved to the northern rivers and stayed with friends while they looked for somewhere to live. They were eventually offered a cabin in the woods – perfect for their homebirth – but then the bleeding started again and Alanna went straight to Lismore hospital. After an initial miscommunication, she was wheeled into maternity to be assessed.
“I left the hospital that day with period pain, which was a new symptom. They told me to rest but I was having contractions all night and I went to the toilet and thought that my waters had broken. We made the plan that if I felt worse I’d go back to hospital and to be honest at that stage I didn’t think I was having contractions. I was just trying to decipher new sensations and I just didn’t believe that a baby could come that early. The next night we were making pizzas and I couldn’t hold a conversation and I had to lay down so we went back to hospital.
“I was told that I’d gone into early labour at 24 weeks and they told me I couldn’t birth there because they didn’t have the facilities to help my baby survive the birth. First they were going to try and stop the labour and this was when they gave me the steroids. I just remember this midwife who sat down next to me and told me I was going to be airlifted to Brisbane hospital and I would stay there till my baby was born. But then they were worried about me birthing in the helicopter so they put me in an ambulance instead and Angus went home to pack me a bag which he did in absolute survival mode.”
Alana was transferred to Mater Mothers in Brisbane and was met with a calm and confident team who reassured her that her baby had a good chance of survival. By this stage her labour had stopped but they also confirmed that her waters had broken. She had a second shot of steroids and while she was in hospital Angus was sleeping in the van two streets away. Two days later she was stable, her cannulas were taken out and she was allowed to go out for a walk.
“On my third night at Mater Mothers the neonatal doctor took us through the statistics which were full on. She told us that if we had a baby now, it would be in the extreme prematurity category and have a 60 percent chance of survival. As we were having this conversation my period pain was coming back and I felt like I knew he was coming that night. At that stage I was in complete surrender.
“I called the nurse later that night and told her I could feel contractions and my beautiful roommate kept talking to me to distract me from the pain. At 1:15am I had a huge contraction and they checked me and I was 4cm. They made the call to take me to birthing suite and I was still bleeding, getting big clots, they put all my cannulas back in and all of a sudden my baby’s heart rate dropped and the calm room turned into panic. They made the decision to give me an emergency caesarean and there were about 20 people in theatre and I had the mask on my face in preparation for a general anesthetic and yet I was pushing…I pushed and Rafferty was born, and that was 2:04am. He was 704 grams, he was a little marsupial baby, red and so small and they put him in a bag to maintain his temperature and take him to the resus room and then Angus went with him into the NICU. Rafferty was the size of Angus’ two fists, he was tiny.
“I had a huge oxytocin rush but I didn’t have my baby to throw all this love at, so I just told the nurses they were so lovely. I was on a whole other planet. He let out a cry and was the only 24weeker not intubated at the hospital. The staff were really surprised at how well he was doing. I was discharged the day after birth and we found an airbnb up the road. It was financially stressful and we didn’t get any government assistance at the time but thankfully a friend started a gofundme for us and that literally saved us, it gave us the means to pay for the airbnb and we ended up staying there for three months.
“My milk came in straight away and I had heaps of it and I was so grateful. I had inverted nipples so I used breast shields so once he got the hang of feeding he just went for it.
“When your baby is in the NICU you become an expert on your child’s condition overnight. It was hugely traumatic but one of the most amazing things for me was the mother baby magic that I didn’t know about beforehand, like when you think of your baby your boobs leak, all these beautiful synchronicities that you have with your baby. But leaving the NICU everyday and not having him with me, it’s like an elastic band pulling you back to your baby, I could feel it on the inside of my body, a primal emptiness. Throughout all of it, that was an every day challenge, not having him with me all the time. You just have to picture the invisible string between you and your baby because nothing will distract you from it.
“I have still not processed the birth and I had counselling sessions booked in but then the floods started. I can’t wait to have counselling and talk through all of my experiences.
“Rafferty has neonatal chronic lung disease which is an extended requirement for oxygen. With respiratory issues I was really worried about covid but we got it and he didn’t sprout a symptom. Moving forward we always have to monitor his breathing and watch him all the time. We landed in NSW and there’s been two times when he’s pulled the tubes out and we are very aware that he can’t go twenty to thirty minutes without oxygen. He’s a good little sleeper but it’s definitely a worry, because he doesn’t make a noise, we just have to watch, we can’t be distracted. I’m looking forward to the day that he doesn’t require oxygen; for me but mostly for him because he really doesn’t like it.
“We were home three weeks before the floods started. Our home was compromised by landslides, there was a huge crack in the earth outside our front door. I could understand flooding but it never occurred to me that the earth would carry our house away. It’s still there but we can’t return to it. We ended up being airlifted out with limited oxygen supplies which was, well it went from zero to one hundred very quickly. My mother instincts kicked in and the amount of tension that was in Rafferty was intense, it was chaotic. He was crying and as soon as I picked him up he just fell asleep and dissociated. I feel for Raff, he has been here for five months and he’s been a pincushion, he’s been full of medicine and antibiotics, he’s been on a breathing machine, he’s constantly had something to deal with and now all of a sudden we’re evacuating. It’s so much for his first few months. We’ve started the process of helping him release his tension, he has big cries and we hold him through it
“It’s given me the most incredible understanding of babies. I was in the hospital every day playing my ukulele and witnessing the power of music on him; the way music changed him, relaxed him,made him calmer. It’s altered my life path because I want to do music therapy now, I know the power of it. I wrote a song for all of the things that Raff needed to do, whether it was sending oxygen around the body or getting his hemoglobin levels up. I’d love to create music for NICU parents and babies, that’s on the cards.”
One baby, Bleeding in pregnancy, Vaginal birth, Music therapy, Micro-preemie, NICU
If you would like to connect with Alana, you can head over to @alana.wilkinson
Today’s episode of the show is brought to you by BabyLove. The BabyLove nappies rage are super soft, silky light material specially designed for a premature baby’s delicate skin. They have a ‘breathable cover’ that is designed to reduce dampness to help prevent nappy rash. BabyLove Premmie nappies have been certified against a list of over 350 harmful substances, and have been allergy tested to ensure your bub is in the safest & most trusted care. They even have an ‘umbilical cord notch’ so there is no discomfort to your baby’s navel area. Babylove truly care for bubs of all sizes, including premature and low birth weight newborns and are the trusted brand for Premmie babies. The Babylove Premmie range is a 2021 award-winning nappy, as rated by over 60,000 reviews from Australian parents.
27,000 babies are born prematurely year in Australia and BabyLove are proud to be in a long-term partnership with the Miracle Babies Foundation, Australia’s leading organisation supporting premature and sick newborns. To find out more about BabyLove and the rest of their nappy ranges, head to babylovenappies.com.au
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