“Nothing prepares you for seeing a premature baby for the first time.” Those were the words of my mother, Annette when I asked her to describe her reaction to seeing my identical twin sister Lucy and myself for the first time. We were born nine weeks early when my mum was 30 weeks and 6 days into her pregnancy and we weighed under 3-and-a-half pounds each. “It was the shock. Nothing prepared me for how tiny you were both going to be.” We came into the world on August 24th, 1987 at Whittington Hospital, North London.
My mother recalled the day we arrived and said the reason she was so shocked was because she didn’t physically get to see us until the next day; we were whipped away immediately by a team of doctors and all my parents were given was a photograph to look at – no skin-to-skin contact, nothing. They didn’t even get to hold us. So the sight of us tiny, in separate incubators and covered in tubes and wires, frightened my mother. When she went down to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) the following day, the nurse tried to stop her. “Don’t you think you should wait?” My mother refused to do so and despite my dad trying to warn her, she said she would never forget it. The other chubby, regular-sized babies looked three times the size of us in comparison.
As it was the late eighties and almost 30 years ago, twins were considerably rarer than they are today. So much so in fact, that the delivery room was “crowded with student doctors” eager to witness the birth (my poor mother). Up until that point, her pregnancy had gone okay. We were due in October, so when she went into the hospital feeling suddenly unwell with spotting in late August, she didn’t expect us to arrive so suddenly (although she told me she always knew what names we would be given). She was told to go home for the weekend, but came back in the next day and the hospital staff informed her that she would be staying there until we arrived. It wasn’t a long wait; the next morning, she went into labour and we arrived fairly soon after. My sister was born at 1.04am on the 24th and I was out at 1.18am.
Such were the times that she was given no steroids – particularly important for the lung development of premature babies – they simply didn’t have them. We were my parents’ first children and they were young, 21 and 23, and though they were worried about us arriving too early, there wasn’t much the doctors could tell them in advance in those days. They weren’t told if we would survive, or what the complications might be, they just had to wait and see. It was just two or three days later – “one of the worst days of my life,” according to my mother – when she arrived in to see us only to find my sister surrounded by a team of doctors. Her heart had stopped and they were trying to resuscitate her. The staff would not allow her in to see Lucy until much later, and my mother said that my dad gently took her aside and said: “You know, we might only be taking one of these babies home with us.” Her reaction, understandably, was that of hysteria.
Her fears were amplified later when one particular midwife who wasn’t happy with anyone touching the babies in the NICU (even the parents) opened a tiny slot in the incubator and said, “Here, you can touch her foot.” My mother thought she was going to lose Lucy there and then. She told me that afterwards she went to find a payphone, rang my grandmother and sobbed because she felt so worried and helpless to do anything. I was the stronger of the two; I could breathe unaided, Lucy couldn’t. She kept “forgetting” to, so every time she would stop, a machine would beep and the doctor would give her a tap to remind her to start again. My mum couldn’t praise the hospital staff enough and said they gave her incredible support while we were there though she said she vividly remembers being on the ward when all the other new mums had their babies beside them and she couldn’t even hold us.
It was extremely tough for both my parents; their lives revolved around the hospital and often they would take turns and sleep on the hospital floor beside us. My sister and I spent almost two months in hospital altogether and my parents got to know the NICU and its vast machines and wires well. We slowly but surely made steady progress until we were finally allowed home at just under three months – the size of newborns. My parents were told to bring their “healthy babies home” and we both continued to develop as we should until I was just under one.
There was an issue for me, though. It started simply enough – I couldn’t sit-up unaided, whereas Lucy could. I was light-heartedly termed a “lazy baby” and family members reassuringly said that in time, I would catch up. Only my mother said she “instinctively knew it was something more.” It turned out to be the onset of Cerebral Palsy (CP) that was so mild it went undetected by doctors at birth until I was fully diagnosed at 18 months. As it was my sister who was so ill initially, my parents remember the specialist asking them if they had “mixed us up” (my mum was insulted by the question).
There’s no way of knowing if the prematurity was connected to the CP – no one could ever say this was the cause, as it is so complex; it could have started developing at any point. I may well have had it either way. It remains one of life’s mysteries that broke the hearts of my parents, but now, my twin and I are both doing great.
And even with my CP and all the difficulties that came along with it, we were lucky. Lucky to have my parents who were devoted to ensuring that we were both happy and healthy and who made it so that when it came to me, I got the treatment to live the best life I possibly could, even with my challenges. We also had a fantastic team of specialists and doctors help us right from the start.
28 years later, my mother, in particular, views our Birthday as a huge milestone. And each year on August 24th, she’ll stand in our kitchen, smile at us and say: “Phew! I got you through another one.”