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Trainee Abby Ewing has recently returned from maternity leave. She shares her story and highlights what she has learnt from her extremely challenging experience.

My maternity leave started unexpectedly on 1 June 2020 when my daughter was born almost two months early by emergency caesarean section. The surgeon held up our beautiful, tiny baby so my husband and I could see her, and then she was taken to the side of the operating theatre for help with breathing. Once she was stable, she was taken to neonatal intensive care (NICU).

Over the next few weeks, my husband and I operated as an emotional and inexperienced relay team, swapping the baton several times a day to sit with our daughter in the neonatal unit, as Covid rules meant we could only visit her one at a time. We each spent seven or eight hours a day with our daughter, whilst the other walked around outside or just waited outside the hospital – a challenge for me just a couple of days after major surgery. We ate our meals together on a bench by the river, updating each other about the best and worst moments of our days.

We were often joined (at a distance) by friends and family members who came to sit with us outside the hospital and wave enthusiastically at the window on the sixth floor which our daughter was behind. We were amazed by the selflessness and generosity of the people around us. They joined us in all weathers, sometimes travelling for hours, bringing coffee, home cooked meals, tiny baby clothes and news of the outside world. None of our friends or family were allowed into the hospital to visit our daughter, but they showed up nonetheless, and never complained.

Due to the strict limits on visiting the neonatal unit, the neonatal nurses suddenly had the role of being the biggest emotional support for parents. Many of them were staying in local hotels, not seeing their own family and friends in order to reduce risk to their tiny patients. The dedication they showed to their work was extraordinary, and very inspiring. In extremely challenging conditions, they showed constant empathy and compassion, and looked after the parents as well as the babies. The nurses ensured that significant moments that could not be shared in person were caught on camera so the other parent and wider family could enjoy them. They made sure that victories were marked and celebrated so there was a story to tell to all the people missing out. For example, the nurses described our daughter’s move from intensive care to high dependency as ‘her graduation’ and several of the intensive care nurses came to find us in the new ward and tell us how proud they were of her progress.

A year on from my experience of birth, I still feel a bit sad that I was unable to share so much of my daughter’s first few weeks with my husband and that we were unable to share her first year with our wider family. But, as part of my processing, I have tried to reflect on what I have learnt from that challenging time.

I learnt about the incredible resilience of human beings through what I witnessed during those weeks. I learnt that the tiniest humans can be the most extraordinary. My daughter overcame so much in her first few weeks and I am incredibly proud of her.

I learnt about the importance of community. My husband and I were carried through those weeks by the support and prayers of our friends and family. It wasn’t just the distanced visits, as wonderful as they were, it was also the smaller gestures. We were sent tiny, hand knitted cardigans from a friend’s grandparents who had felt touched by our daughter’s story. We received messages from work colleagues who had also had premature babies and wanted to reach out with words of encouragement and empathy. Every card and message we received lifted our spirits and helped us to feel that we weren’t on our own, even on our loneliest days.

And finally, I’ve learnt that a lot can change in a short space of time. My daughter turned one last month and, looking at her now, you would have no idea that she had a bit of a tricky start to life. I don’t think I’ll ever forget those long, difficult days in NICU. But, over time, those memories have begun to feel like the beginning of a long, exciting story, rather than the whole focus of the plotline.