The mum of a gravely ill baby has told of how she didn’t get to kiss him until the day he left hospital, at two-and-a-half months, because of strict hospital rules.
Rachel Brown gave birth to tiny Aston Smith 13 weeks early after she dramatically went into labour on the M80.
The little boy was given just a 50/50 chance of surviving, when he developed a “flesh eating bug” at 15 days old.
Now, looking back on the time, the 31-year-old mum-of-two is speaking out about how the hospital’s mask-wearing rules created a bonding barrier between her and her baby.
“It was really hard. The first kiss I gave him was when he got out of hospital after 78 days, because I had to wear a mask all the time,” Rachel, from Alva, near Stirling, told the Daily Record.
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“It felt brilliant when I eventually did – I could actually be a normal parent, with no rules. He didn’t even know what my face looked like until then.”
Rachel said even sitting holding him skin-to-skin, she couldn’t look down and see her baby properly due to her mask.
“It was like a bonding barrier and added a whole different stress level to the situation,” she said.
Rachel also feared Aston, who had part of his digestive tract removed to save him, would never learn to smile, as everyone he saw had their mouth obscured by a blue medical mask.
To make matters worse, Rachel developed postpartum rheumatoid arthritis, but was “refused” her six-week postnatal check-up after being told the routine examinations had been scrapped by all GP surgeries in Scotland due to the pandemic.
She said: “My hands were all curled in and I couldn’t stretch them out – they were like claws. Some days I couldn’t even lift my son.”
She ended up begging accident and emergency staff at Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, where Aston was born, for help and they initially treated her for gout.
But her condition worsened as the weeks went on and she demanded to see a GP.
She said: “I had to fight to get an appointment. They kept wanting to diagnose me over the phone. They wanted me to take pictures of my hands but my hands weren’t working to be able to take them. I needed to be seen.”
Miss Brown has written to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to highlight the emotional and financial issues being faced by neonatal parents due to the “harsh Covid rules”.
“It feels like we’re just left,” she said. “Even his brother, who is seven, couldn’t understand how he wasn’t allowed in to see his brother.”
The family’s ordeal began when she went into labour on the M80, when she was just 27 weeks pregnant. She had been on her way home from Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, where she had spent four nights after suffering early contractions.
Rachel’s partner rushed her to Larbert hospital, where Aston was born four hours later.
Smaller than a “Sky remote”, Aston, who was not breathing, was whisked away to the resuscitation room where doctors battled for several minutes to bring him back to life.
Rachel and partner William Smith, 35, had to wait another eight hours before they could see their son, who spent the next two weeks in the Larbert hospital. While he initially appeared to be doing well, a nurse noticed on day 15 that his breathing was rapid, and put him on oxygen.
Doctors gave him just a 50:50 chance of surviving after it was discovered he had necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and he was rushed to Glasgow’s Royal Hospital for Children for life-saving surgery.
NEC results in inflammation of the digestive tract, causing the tissue to die off, and his parents were warned that “depending on what they find” surgeons may not be able to save him. By this point, Aston was so ill that his weight dropped to just 1lb 9oz.
Rachel heaped praise on the “superhero” surgeon, Dr Gregor Walker, who saved her son’s life by removing 80% of his colon, part of the large intestine which removes waste products from the body,
It took Dr Walker and his team four hours to remove the dead tissue and create a stoma – an artificial opening – which is due to be reversed later this year.
While she was given steroids to boost his lungs and magnesium to prevent brain bleeds during labour, she was not told of anything to protect a premature baby’s gut.
“We were told it was like a flesh eating bug inside him. It perforates whatever organ it’s in, and the higher up [in the digestive tract] it is, the less chance of survival,” she said.
Unable to stay overnight in hospital, the first they knew their son had taken a turn for the worse was when they received a call at home telling them he was being prepped for surgery.
Aston is now 26 weeks old and thriving, although after spending so long in hospital his proud mother admitted it took him a while to adjust to home life.
“In the end, I had to record episodes of Casualty and sleep down stairs with him with the light on, he was so used to hearing the beeping sounds in the hospital,” she said.
The Scottish Government told the Daily Record said it understood the difficulties restrictions have caused for new parents and their families.
A spokesman said: “Looking after the health and wellbeing of new parents and their children is paramount and health visitors retained their contacts with families throughout the pandemic, including their six week check.
“From August 9 all health boards began a gradual and cautious move back to full person centred visiting to neonatal units, although our guidance has always allowed for both parents to be present on a neonatal unit to care for the baby, as an essential partner in their care.”
He added that the lifting of visiting restrictions would be a “phased process” but physical distancing and face masks would remain “for some time.”
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