Parents relive the day their premature twin babies arrived at 29 weeks as Leeds Children's Hospital launches neonatal podcast
“I remember going back to my room on the ward and all I could hear was new mums and their babies. I was in bed crying on my own knowing I had just given birth but didn't have my babies by my side.”
When Katie and Mark Gregory found out they were expecting twins, the couple were overjoyed - but when Katie’s waters broke just 29 weeks into her pregnancy, the first-time-parents experienced a “rollercoaster” of emotions.
Their baby girls, Lily and Sophie, were born on October 10 2020, weighing just over three pounds each.
Rather than the birth they had pictured, the couple found themselves facing the unknown with the newborns being rushed to neonatal care before the couple had even had a chance to see them, let alone hold them.
As the Neonatal Unit at Leeds Children’s Hospital launches its new podcast to mark World Prematurity Day on November 17, the new parents shared their story with the Yorkshire Evening Post.
“The pregnancy was absolutely fine, I actually quite enjoyed being pregnant," Katie said. "There were no issues and no signs of anything happening.
“On Friday morning, completely spontaneously, my waters broke and the first thought was, ‘This cannot happen. I'm only 29 weeks pregnant and have a whole trimester to go’”.
The couple rushed to their local hospital but because the babies were premature and would need to be placed in incubators, they were quickly transferred to the neonatal ward at Calderdale Royal Hospital.
Katie, 31, from Wetherby, said: “Because of Covid, I had to go on my own, which was incredibly scary, not knowing what was going to happen.
“The contractions started and reality kicked in that the birth was going to happen, so Mark drove over as soon as he could. Everything then just happened incredibly quickly.
“Sophie was born first but due to the gestation that she was born at and the conditions at birth, we didn't hear or see her when she was born. They just kind of whisked her to the neonatal doctors and obviously had to start treating her instantly.
“Literally one minute later, Lily was born and although we didn't see her, we did hear a tiny, little cry which in that moment when you're incredibly fearful, that was just everything I needed to hear."
Husband Mark, 33, said: “It was quite hard not seeing them and for them to be taken away so quickly.
“You see all these stories about people who get to hold their babies instantly and they were whisked off.”
Katie added: “It was hard not knowing what condition they were in. We obviously knew it was poor because we couldn't even have that split second to have a quick peek at them, but it was the unknown was just horrible.
“It was about five hours before we actually heard that they'd survived.”
The twins were both placed on breathing support and looked after by the neonatal staff.
Later, the doctor came to update the couple on their progress and showed them a photograph of the girls.
Katie, who works in marketing for estate agent Carter Jonas, said: “Technically we met our babies through a photograph, which I don't think I'll ever get over, but at the same time to hear that they were stabilised and to see them was just the most incredible feeling."
Due to the pandemic, the couple had to make the difficult decision and choose who would be the first to meet the twins, as only one parent was allowed onto the neonatal ward.
Mark, a project manager, said it was “quite daunting” to see them hooked up to all the tubes. Later, a nurse allowed Katie to head down and meet them.
Sophie experienced further issues with her lung and went into cardiac arrest twice, but she made a full recovery with the support of the medical team and soon the girls were moved to Leeds Children’s Hospital.
Katie said: "I think in total Sophie had about 21 minutes of no oxygen. Luckily she's a little miracle.
“The only way I can describe the neonatal experience is a complete rollercoaster. It's up and down, good then bad.
“I think the main thing for me in terms of having two premature babies was how incredibly strong they are for such tiny little people."
The couple are just one of many families in Leeds who have shared their story as part of Leeds Children's Hospital’s Unexpected Beginnings - The Neonatal Unit podcast.
Hosted by broadcasters Caroline Verdon and Kerry Bickerdike, each episode focuses on a different element of the neonatal journey and features the real life experiences of parents whose children were treated there.
Katie said: “I was afraid of seeing how tiny and fragile the girls would be. I think I put a lot of guilt on myself for a while.
“It's only when you start talking to other people on the ward that you realise that actually that's so normal and you shouldn't feel guilty for it, because you've been thrown into this very bizarre situation.”
Describing the podcast as the "most amazing tool", she said: “I just know it will make people feel so much less alone because you're hearing other people's experiences and therefore taking comfort that your thoughts and feelings are normal.
“Even now a year later, I'm going to listen to it because it does take time to kind of heal. I just think it is invaluable to the families going through this.”
Consultant neonatologist Liz McKechnie said: “We really wanted to seek new ways of engaging with and supporting not only our new families in Leeds, but any family with a premature baby, which is why we brought together a team of specialists to create this series.
“We hope that it will help parents navigate their often rocky neonatal journey.”
As for the Gregory family, the first-time-parents were able to take Lily and Sophie home in December 2020, just in time for Christmas.
Now 13 months, the girls are happy and thriving, despite their hard start to life.
Katie said: “The minute we got home, we were in this bubble of happiness.
“It'll obviously stay with us forever in terms of not having that birth experience that you just dream about - it kind of feels a little bit robbed from you - but as time goes on, you kind of accept it and accept it as your journey and you just have to kind of take positives from it.
“They're here, they're healthy, they're thriving. So we didn't have those initial moments, but at the same time, we've got two babies at home with us who are just incredible.”
Eleven episodes of Unexpected Beginnings will be released across all podcasting platforms at 8pm on November 17.