‘Death of my child marked me more than any event in my life’ - Northern Ireland mum on trauma of losing premature baby
A Northern Ireland woman has described the horror of watching her premature baby cling to life for a week before making the devastating decision to withdraw treatment.
Laura Kelly held Cormac in her arms as he slipped away after suffering a series of catastrophic brain bleeds, as well as kidney, lung and heart failure.
Despite enduring a number of heartbreaking traumas in her life, including the tragic deaths of her dad and younger sister, she has described the loss of her baby as the most harrowing ordeal she has faced.
Her nightmare began in May last year when she was only 23 weeks pregnant.
Up to that point, Laura, who lives in Ardoyne in north Belfast with her partner of six years, Paul Copeland (37), had enjoyed a straightforward pregnancy.
"We had tried to get pregnant for two years without any success," said 31-year-old Laura, who works as a cabin crew member.
"We'd been referred to the fertility clinic to look at why we were struggling, but by the time the appointment came around we'd found out we were pregnant.
"It was actually the day before New Year's Eve when we found out and it was brilliant.
"It was a perfectly normal pregnancy, we had our 12-week scan and Cormac never stopped moving and the midwife said she had never seen a more active baby.
"But then I started having pains that I put down to ligament pain.
"It felt like period pain, I had no idea what contractions felt like because I had never been pregnant before and no-one tells you.
"It wasn't unbearable, I was actually sitting watching television with Paul and some friends but then I was up and down all night and when I passed blood, we called an ambulance at 7.30am."
By the time Laura arrived at the Royal Maternity Hospital, she was 10cm dilated and nothing could be done to stop the labour.
A doctor warned Laura that, because she was in labour before 24 weeks when a baby is considered viable, they wouldn't intervene if he wasn't breathing.
"I've never hated anyone as much in my life as I did in that moment," said Laura.
"She was just being honest though and preparing us for the worst."
However, as he arrived into the world on May 14 weighing a tiny 1lb 7oz, Cormac let out a cry that let everyone in the room know that he was ready to fight for survival.
"My waters went at 9.02am and he was born at 9.03am and as soon as we heard him we felt like we had a chance," said Laura.
Dangerously ill, doctors stabilised Cormac before he was moved to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Laura added: "The first few days he did really, really well and he managed 20 minutes off the vent on May 17.
"They wanted to see how he would do on his own with his breathing and he did his best, but he just couldn't do it and then things started to go wrong."
Over the next couple of days, Cormac suffered a series of bleeds on his brain. At the same time, his desperately immature organs began to shut down.
"I remember saying to Paul on the Friday that Cormac was tired, that you could see it," said Laura.
"You could see the way he was holding his wee side and he wasn't moving where maybe the day before he would have been very wriggly and responding when you talked to him."
After maintaining an almost week-long bedside vigil, Laura and Paul went home to get some food but received a telephone call telling them to return to the hospital.
"The consultant gave us our options," said Laura.
"He said we could keep trying but Cormac wasn't going to have any quality of life, and that we could actually be making him suffer unnecessarily and we would be having the same conversation in another couple of days.
"We made the decision to let him go.
"At the start of the week we knew we were going to have a child with a disability and that was fine and then we were going to have a child with a severe disability and that was fine.
"Then we were going to have a child who was going to be so disabled that he wouldn't know what was happening around him and then we were faced with the reality that he had fought has hard as he could, that he just didn't have the strength to carry on.
"We were then allowed to hold him for the first time after making the decision to stop treatment.
"We were allowed as much time with him as we wanted and then they took out the vent and he died in my arms."
Unsurprisingly, Laura was diagnosed with postnatal depression soon afterwards and is still seeing a psychologist.
Yet, she struggled to get the support she needed to help her navigate her overwhelming grief.
Mental health care is frequently referred to as the 'Cinderella' service of the NHS and Laura is determined that more support should be provided to parents whose children spend time in NICU.
Her call comes as premature and sick baby charity Bliss has revealed that almost a quarter of parents whose babies are admitted to neonatal care are diagnosed with anxiety after the experience.
Research by the organisation has also found that 16% of parents are diagnosed with PTSD, while almost two-thirds of parents are provided with no formal support while their baby was in NICU.
"My sister Martha was 16 when she died by suicide, it came totally out of the blue, and that has made me so aware of my own mental health," continued Laura.
"That's why I fought so hard to get help but it shouldn't have to be like that.
"The staff in NICU are incredible but they're there for your baby, they aren't there to worry about the parents.
"There needs to be more in place to support parents because it is such a traumatic experience.
"That week put me and Paul through the ringer, I couldn't sleep, I struggled to eat and I was mentally drained.
"It may only have been a week but speaking as someone who has lost a sister to suicide and a dad to cancer, I can honestly say my time spent on NICU and the death of my child has marked me more than any other event in my life.
"The bargaining you do each time you get bad news, going from 'it's okay, he's alive' to 'okay, so he will need extra help at school' to the point that he's going to be severely disabled before realising that there is nothing more they can do.
"Knowing other NICU babies are going home is torture and then you feel guilty for being jealous.
"I'm pregnant again and I have nightmares about this baby being in NICU.
"For me NICU isn't a good, positive place, it's the place where my son died."