Daddy's Little Legend
UPDATE: Christmas came early for Neonatal Unit - A two year fundraising initiative by the Flinders Medical Centre (FMC) Foundation has raised $165,253 for a state-of-the-art digital camera that will test the eyesight of premature infants in the FMC Neonatal Unit.
My name is Rob van Driel.
Thirty-one weeks into my wife Georgia’s pregnancy, we were looking forward to the birth of our first child — a little girl. I was imagining making the excited phone calls to our parents to say, ‘It’s a girl!’, but, instead, excitement was replaced with disbelief when I called them to say, ‘Georgia is OK and, so far, the baby is OK’. The trouble-free pregnancy was suddenly an emergency and our little girl Charlie was born nine weeks premature.
One Monday morning Georgia noticed a small bleed, so off we went to our hospital — South Australia’s Flinders Medical Centre (FMC). We expected there’d be nothing to worry about — we were wrong. For the next 36 hours, Georgia was hooked up to a foetal heart rate monitor that showed the baby was experiencing increasingly severe heart rate decelerations. I’ll never forget the moment on the Tuesday night when the obstetrician stood in front of us, fearing a catastrophic bleed that could risk Georgia’s and the baby’s lives, and said, ‘It’s time to meet your little girl.’
Then it all became a blur.
The obstetrician, anaesthetist and neonatal nurse practitioner rushed in one after the other to explain to us what could and would happen. Then the rush became serious when the baby experienced a more severe deceleration and I was told to get into scrubs — now!
We were in the operating theatre surrounded by doctors and nurses and I sat next to Georgia and just held her hand. It felt like an eternity but it was only minutes later, at 9.57pm, when we heard our little girl Charlie’s first cry. Georgia held Charlie for a minute before she was rushed to the neonatal unit’s intensive care and a waiting incubator.
I’d seen the inside of an ‘adult’ intensive care unit but that didn’t prepare me for what I’d see as I walked into the neonatal unit for the first time. Everywhere I looked there were premature or sick babies in incubators or cots. I’d driven past the FMC so many times but never had I imagined that somewhere in that building was a place where babies, born so early and tiny or sick, were fighting for their lives. It was surreal, confronting and overwhelming.
Then there was the feeling of helplessness, when all I could do was stand back and watch as leads were being stuck to Charlie’s chest for monitoring, intravenous drips inserted into her arms and a feeding tube put down her throat. She was a skinny 3 lbs 12oz (1,715g) and looked so vulnerable. The only sound she made was a soft whimper that just broke my heart. I could not believe this was happening.
Our life as parents begins
I was in shock, I didn’t know how to feel or think. But worst of all, I knew Charlie was my little girl but I didn’t feel how I imagined a new dad should — happy, excited and full of love for his newborn baby. Instead, I was worrying about Georgia, her recovery from the operation and how she’d manage coming home without her baby; I was worrying about Charlie and if and when she’d come home, too. Now, I know I was blocking my emotions and my ‘new dad’ moment was still six weeks away.
After five days, Charlie was strong, feisty and out of danger and was moved to the special care nursery. Charlie’s home was now in one of its four bays, each one the size of an average bedroom, with two nurses caring for her and five other babies 24 hours a day. Now our life became one repetitive routine: it felt like Groundhog Day.
Every morning, we’d visit Charlie and Georgia would stay with her until I visited after work. Every night, I’d go back to ‘tuck her in’ for the night and it was during those times I began realise how special the FMC Neonatal Unit is, and its doctors and nurses. It was a quiet time when I’d just sit back and hold Charlie and I’d see babies born weeks younger than her, some born a fraction of Charlie’s weight and size; I’d see the incubators and monitors that were helping to keep them all alive; and I’d see the doctors and nurses who were working around the clock, doing everything in their power to care for Charlie and her little mates. That’s when it hit me that if it wasn’t for the FMC Neonatal Unit and its doctors and nurses, Charlie probably wouldn’t be on the way to coming home.
Now for my ‘new dad’ moment
Charlie was six weeks old and she had to have an eye test to check for signs of Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), a condition that can affect premature babies born under 32 weeks gestation, like Charlie, when the blood vessels in their eyes stop growing or grow abnormally. Not treated, it can cause blindness.
We were warned by nurses, and a mum — an ambulance officer, who was in the neonatal unit with her premature twins — that the test was horrible to see and we should consider not being there. But this was my little girl and I wasn’t going to leave her on her own.
The day came, the nurses dropped an anaesthetic into Charlie’s eyes and then the neonatal ophthalmologist arrived. They told me she wouldn’t feel any pain, just discomfort. I stood behind the nurse holding Charlie’s head while the ophthalmologist used crowbar-like claws, called a lid speculum, to hold her eyelids open. Charlie let out a scream and, at that very moment, I fell apart. I put my face in my hands and couldn’t control the tears as six weeks of emotions were released. Within a minute the test was done and the nurse swiftly passed Charlie to me. I put her against my chest, tears rolling down my face and held her tight.
That was my ‘new dad’ moment — it was just me and my little girl, nothing else mattered, and all I felt was love for my little girl and so proud of her for being so brave. In that moment, she became my hero, my little legend.
My mission: Retcam to the rescue
For everything the FMC Neonatal Unit and its doctors and nurses did for Charlie to come home after 46 days, and nearly 1,300 other premature and critically ill babies they care for from across South Australia every year, I had to do something to give back.
So, when I heard a Retcam was top of their wish list, a special digital camera that would help doctors detect the early signs of ROP and make that eye test easier and non-stressful for babies and their families, I became a daddy on a mission to make their wish come true.
I launched the Daddy’s Little Legend Neonatal Appeal to raise funds on behalf of the Flinders Medical Centre Foundation to provide the neonatal unit with a Retcam which costs $177,000.
$47,000 had already been raised through the Modra Family Retcam Appeal and, since December 2013, the Daddy’s Little Legend Neonatal Appeal has now raised over $20,000. This means that $110,000 is still needed.
So, please share so everyone can get an insight into the emotional roller-coaster of having a premature baby, to appreciate the impact the FMC Neonatal Unit and its doctors and nurses have on the lives of the tiniest, most courageous Aussie battlers and their families.”
How you can help
If you would like to help save the eyesight of the FMC Neonatal Unit’s premature babies/little legends, please donate here or call the FMC Foundation on 08 8204 5216. You can also follow me on Facebook at Daddy’s Little Legend Neonatal Appeal.
Rob van Driel
A daddy on a mission