I've spent many a moment wondering how to tell Ella's story (and the stories following her journey) in this quiet place, deep within cyberspace. Where do you start and of course how do you do it justice? On the evening of the 25th September 2008 I managed to type it out. I sat with a glass of white wine that tasted like vinegar, played music that eased my hands and unleashed the words that screamed from my skull.
It's the same story now, just told rather differently. And it's long, but there's little I can do to change that. I've realised there is no mother in the world who can ever forget the experience of how she brought her most precious gift into this world, be that naturally or with the passing of gentle hands. Absolutely every mother's story is exceptional and absolutely every child's story deserves to be told.
Sunday 24th August 2008 - Jinja, Uganda - 24 weeks
Second day of slight stomach cramping. Ignorance is bliss. Chris back from an 8 week safari. We spent the day at the Hairy Lemon Island. I swam to cushion the pain. Returned home with the safety belt wrapped around my raised knees. I remember speaking on the phone to my mum and mentioning that I had waves of cramping, was this something she could recall my younger sister experiencing when she was recently pregnant with Grace? Chris cooked roast chicken which I ate despite myself. I read some pages in my maternity book and glanced away from the premature labour paragraph. Pain progressing through the night.
Monday 25th August 2008 - Jinja, Uganda
Lay in the foetal position on a pink sheepskin rug at the end of our bed. Text our Australian doctor to make an appointment. 10am. Sat in her office and she asked how often I was feeling the pain? I clutched the side of her desk in agony and manged to whisper, 'about every 30 minutes'. She said the words, 'it seems that you've gone into premature labour' and the barrel of a fearsome but loaded gun was pressed firmly against my head. She pulled the trigger. The weapon landed at my feet and my ears were stuffed with cotton wool and nails. White noise followed. Frantic phone calls were made to the Surgery in the city. My English midwife (S) appeared, an internal examination followed. Threat of infection, mucus plug dislodged, blood. The pain was comparable to a tractor dragging a plough behind it, but instead of a plough it was a wheeless cannon with a hook attached that was ripping through my stomach and dragging out my baby. Chris in town on the vespa searching for drugs at the chemists. Drugs and more drugs. Chris was the voice of reason and we stayed at home on bed rest to give the drugs a chance to work.
Tuesday 26th August 2008 - Jinja, Uganda
Drugs throughout the night, drugs throughout the day. Our daughter's heart beat was strong, so was mine. The pain was lessening. Midwife S asked if she could pray for me.
Wednesday 27th August 2008 - Jinja, Uganda
Slight wave of cramping. Sun shone outside. Took drugs. Midwife S visited and we spoke of our baby. She asked if we'd given her a name? Yes, we'd considered two, Ella or Lola. I spoke her name aloud, it was Ella. Chris fed me fairy buns from the deli in town. Bed rest, hips raised on pillows. Ella's heartbeat identified as strong. My blood pressure fine. Friends visited, both of whom pregnant. Another slight wave of cramping.
Thursday 28th August 2008 - Jinja, Uganda
Midwife S returning to Kampala. Left us with baby heart monitor. Couldn't get it to work. Watched a movie. Did some work emails from bed. Phone call from Midwife S, 'you need to come through to Kampala for a scan tomorrow, Dr B isn't happy that you're still suffering with occasional cramps'. Vaguely remember her saying I may have to fly home, or was it over to Kenya. No matter, I'd need a medical person to travel with us. She put herself forward for the role and we were humbled to our knees. I called to make a scan appointment for the following morning and was overcome with emotion. Put the phone down and cried into my hands. Sheer fear crept through my body. Hope streamed through my veins. Ella was kicking. Ironically we watched the Madness of King George and ate jacket potatoes in bed.
Friday 29th August 2008 - Jinja, Uganda
Slight wetness between my legs. Climbed into the car, Chris drove, it was 6am. Received text from friend to say she'd had a cesarean that morning, they had a baby girl. Happiness coupled with sadness. The sonographer gave me an internal scan. We watched the grainy monitor screen and were reminded that our baby was still in the breech position.
'are you leaking fluid right now as I carry out this procedure'?
'I need to make a phone call'.
'Dr B wants you to prepare for leaving the country. He's making an evacuation plan. Your waters have broken, you are leaking liquor, you may have your baby shortly.'
YOU MAY HAVE YOUR BABY SHORTLY. Nothing can prepare you for those words, that sentence, that moment. We may have died a little that day. Collected scan printout, headed to car. We were in shock and ignored the traffic police as Chris drove to the backpackers in town. Chris had spoken with the managers who are friends and they gave us a room. Dr B visited shortly after, well suited and well spoken. He sat at the end of the bed and outlined his reasons for us leaving the country - they didn’t have the facilities in Uganda to care for a premature baby.
Chris discussed us being medivaced to South Africa and made the necessary call. We'd need a US$65,000 deposit. Completely out of the question so we rang a flight agent. They could get us on a plane first thing Monday morning with British.Airways, the only direct airline. Three seats were available and they were in business class. He reserved them regardless of the staggering cost. Continued loss of fluid. Before now we hadn't alerted anyone to what was happening, not in Uganda or England - we didn't want anyone to panic. That evening my parents rang, as did two of my closest girlfriends. Chris went for a drink with a friend at the bar, I slept with the mosquito net tucked in and my arm cradling Ella.
Saturday 30th August - Kampala, Uganda
Chris drove blindly to Jinja to pack bags, collect passports and to try and organise the looking after of our house, our business. Midwife S visited to give me a steroid injection to encourage the baby's lungs to develop. She spoke about accompanying us on the flight and urged us to look at flying today. She rang Chris to rearrange it all, but he wouldn't have us flying via Nairobi or Dubai with the prospect of long stop-offs. If we were to fly on Monday, she wanted God to give her a sign. I gave her a bloody sign, ' Monday's flight only has 3 seats left on the entire aircraft'. That was the sign she was looking for. Chris booked 3 tickets with a combination of US$, GBP£ and credit cards. Midwife S suggested we take an ambulance to the airport. I argued my point that if we did that, then not only would we draw attention to our situation, but no commercial airline would take us - I was a potential liability, a walking time bomb. She finally agreed that we would drive ourselves. The bed was raised on bricks to elevate my hips and Chris returned with our great friend Nat. More steroids. Later we ate pizza and I had a Jim Beam. Sleep beckoned.
Sunday 31st August 2008 - Kampala, Uganda
Another steroid jab. We spoke about how I would be able to arrive and check in without anyone suspecting there was a problem. My pregnancy wasn't obvious at 24 weeks so I suggested wrapping a bandage around my ankle and we'd pretend it was sprained. In Uganda where customer service is wonderfully polite this would get me wheelchair access. Agreed. We watched movies. Spoke with my mum and they would collect us from the airport. I asked if she could notify my doctor in the UK and in turn ask him to inform the hospital of our impending arrival. In the afternoon Chris and Nat shopped for bits and returned with pumpkin for soup and sponges for bathing. They gave me a bed bath - Nat washed my hair and Chris rubbed me with a rough sponge most likely used for cleaning cars! Ella kicked. I felt tired but prepared. That night I leaked more fluid.
Monday 1st September 2008 - Kampala, Uganda
Woke in darkness. Chris and Nat prepared the back of the cruiser for me and pushed the seats down and placed a mattress inside. Bags were stowed and I was lifted in. Chris smoked a cigarette as we drove through the busy streets of the city towards the airport. Collected Midwife S but had to challenge her. She wanted to bring her medical bag, including scissors and needles, onto the aircraft and was truly oblivious that anyone would stop her. Finally convinced her otherwise and the bag was left with her husband who waved back at us from his car. Midwife S placed a bandage around my right ankle. Arrived at the departure hall and Nat collected a wheel chair and we said goodbye. It felt like the beginning of a film. Passed seamlessly through check in and immigration. Drank tea in the lounge. Taken by Catherine from Soroti in an elevator to the ground floor. Noticed a man in a wheelchair who was a double amputee. Felt immense guilt. Assisted up the steps and I hobbled to my seat. Chris arrived 10 minutes later. Flight trouble free and I managed just two toilet stops. Felt a wave of relief as we were now en-route to England. Landed at 4pm. Midwife S held our hands. She told us that Dr B had said the night before there was a 70% chance of me giving birth on the flight. Had I ever known those odds I would never have dared board, never. I was given wheelchair access to the arrival hall and we were met by my parents. We circled the M25 and arrived at hospital, it was 7:45pm. They were expecting us and everyone seemed so kind. Taken to a room, name band placed on my wrist and hospital tights were fitted. Gave a urine sample and had an internal examination. Ella still kicking.
Tuesday 2nd September 2008 - Suffolk, England
'darlin', would you like a cup of tea from the canteen trolly'? asked the West Indian lady
'yes please. Could I also trouble you for a glass of orange'?
What do you think this is, the Ritz'!
Mr L visited my room and I was to fall under his care. I disliked him immediately and his awful bedside manner.
'It's possible an infection started the premature labour, or it's a weak cervix that gave way to an infection. We wont know the full extent due to the drugs you've been on for the past week. Good job you're expecting a girl, her chances of surviving are higher than those of a boy. I remember telling my ex-wife when she was pregnant with our 1st child that if she were to go into premature labour between 25-30 weeks she'd have to drive herself to hospital as there was very little likelihood of the baby surviving.
'No wonder she's your ex-wife' I directed back furiously.
I was told I may have to have a cesarean section but there were dangers involved because she was in the breech position. I'd need a vertical, not a horizontal, cut. It would be incredibly difficult to remove a baby as tiny as Ella, plus there were potential complications for future pregnancies. I listened but chose not to identify it as being a possibility - I was safe, I was home, I felt hopeful. Taken downstairs for a scan. Chris and Midwife S arrived. We were told that from my Uganda notes Ella was no longer in a swimming pool of liqua, it had reduced to a paddling pool. Midwife S who had been a beacon of support was leaving us to visit her sister. Later I was moved to a ward downstairs. Chris took me to shower. The moaning of women in labour passed through the walls into the tiny cubicle. Back in the ward I chose a bed by the window and pulled the curtain around us. I ate a sandwich, Chris drove back to my parents.
Wednesday 3rd September - Suffolk, England
Doctors checked on me. Lovely nurses took bloods and heart beats were monitored. Pulse and blood pressure ok. Advised I should be able to go home in next few days, and was reminded that I needed to get to 26 weeks before the hospital was able to take a premature baby. Hospital policy. Ella would be 26 weeks on Saturday. Baby you hang in there tightly, safely. Chris visited with a dvd player and headphones. From under the sheets I watched movies.
Thursday 4th September - Suffolk, England
Visited the toilet twice during the night. Passed fluid. Something in my heart told me things weren't right. Ella and I were monitored, everything was ok. For lunch Chris came in with sandwiches and newspaper. I went to the toilet. Green fluid in my knickers. I fell forward against a wall. I told the midwife who was on duty and she asked to see the evidence. I lurched back to the ward and into bed. Chris spoke softly. Midwife appeared, 'your baby is distressed and has opened her bowls. Please wait for the doctor'. We were completely still, suspended in time. My younger sister Abby arrived full of smiles and love and with stories of my niece, Grace, who was 2 months old. Stomach pain suddenly hit me like a freight train and I curled up into a ball on the bed. Back ache, like that from a branding iron, burned into my spine. Labour pain. I asked for painkillers and was given 2 paracetamol. The Dr eventually came and I was given an internal. Words were spoken between medics, 'we must move her to Norwich or Cambridge hospital, find out who has a free bed'. Moments before I was taken to the lift I was checked internally again, 'she's dilated, she can't be moved, she's going to have to have the baby here.'
I was moved to one room and then on to another, it was around 9pm. My vitals were checked, Ella's heart was checked. I clutched my stomach and stared at the ceiling. Chris held my hand. Finally I was wheeled through the doors into a delivery room. From outside the windows dark clouds loomed on the horizon. I gave up pretending it wasn't happening to me and instead froze with terror. Staff shift change. We were told that midwife Ali G was going to be with us for Ella's birth. Chris and I were gobsmacked, why would be given a woman who sounded as bad as the celebrity television star?!? Minutes later a small red haired woman burst through the doors wearing a pink shirt and jeans and announced herself as Ali G. She smiled and immediately we felt relieved. 'Your baby is in the breech position and is moving fast so you're going to have a natural delivery rather than a cesarean. I'm going to use the, 'hands off ' approach. I wont touch you and I wont touch your baby, but I will be here throughout to support and to help. What's your daughter's name'? 'Ella'.
Suddenly the pain was intense. Ella was wearing spiky stilettos that were scraping down my spine. Pain relief was given and I sucked on foul tasting gas. I asked Chris to remove my glasses to stop the razor sharp image of that night being burnt into my line of vision. I pushed, I screamed, I blacked out suddenly. Ella was stuck in the birthing canal. I was frantic, bright lights, muffled voices, Chris brushed my forehead. I remember a room of people, women holding back my legs and pushing my chin into my chest. Someone shouted for the paediatrics to be called in and they lined the far wall. Scissors, needle, Ella's foot, pushing, anesthetic injection, cutting, episotomy, cutting 'She's here, push harder, push now....here's your baby.' It was 10:45pm when Ella entered our world.
Ali immediately passed her to the pediatrics. I was frightened, there was no crying coming from her tiny mouth. I asked Chris if she looked like a baby? He said of course she did, just tiny and he passed me my glasses. Ali said she was a good size. I breathed slowly and listened for a noise, a sound, a whimper. The head pediatrician came over to say they couldn't find a heartbeat, but would continue to try. 'Please can you try for at least another 5 minutes. Please.' PLEASE. PLEASE GIVE OUR DAUGHTER HER LIFE. Time ticked, nothing. We were told there was still no heart beat and I asked that they stop. Her body was so tiny, so fragile and so damaged. She was stillborn. It was then that I screamed, a keening that roared from my lungs and filled the room. Chris and I clutched at each other as our baby lay in a small cot on the other side of the room. Ali wrapped her in a white blanket and brought her to us before leaving the room along with everyone else.
No one prepares you for holding your dead baby, your dead child. She was perfect. Her rosebud mouth slightly opened and her features delicate and true. Purple bruising was beginning to form around her small skull. I held her gently and kissed her deeply before handing her to Chris. His face was filled with love before turning to anguish as he held his daughter closely to his chest. We said our goodbyes before Ali came and carefully took her from us.
Friday 5th September 2008 - Suffolk, England
That night crashed from one nightmare to the next. Chris rang my family and Abby was coming in. Ali asked if she would like to meet Ella, but I didn't know, she'd only just had a baby herself. Ali gently suggested she would, after all she was Ella's aunt and to this day I'm honoured she did that for us. Abby arrived to find me sucking on gas, the placenta hadn't detached itself, and I was hooked up to a drip full of steroids which they hoped would get it moving. Abby stroked my brow, she'd met Ella. We cried into each others arms. I felt bereft and exhausted. Minutes later I was being moved to theatre to have an operation to remove the placenta. It was well past 2am when the anesthetic was pushed into my spine. I woke sluggishly to feel a movement within my womb - hands were pulling, my body was dead meat, my placenta was being picked out. Afterwards I was wheeled into a room where the shadows moved. A soft light was on. Chris had returned home to collect some things for Ella, a blanket and a small toy rabbit. My mum had joined him and Abby and they moved to the bed and embraced me. We cried and through the tears mum said she'd spent time with Ella, her granddaughter. And here it was, as stark as the breaking dawn. I should have been holding my baby, but instead my mum was holding her daughter and from either side I was flanked by my husband and my sister. Into the abyss of darkness I slid.