The First Time I Held My Heart in My Hands

How it feels to hold your preterm babies for the first time

Nothing comes close to the profound experience of holding your newborn in your arms for the first time.

That first touch. A moment so brief yet so indelible; a memory to be cherished forever. Now picture that and multiply it by two. That was our experience – our twin boys.

My husband and I thought we had it all planned out: March 15th, 2021 would be the magical day we deliver our twins when my Kohconuts (nicknamed my twins after my husband’s family name “Koh”, and the delectable tropical fruit) were term and ready. And as with anything in life, plans may not usually play out as expected.

I started developing preeclampsia in the third trimester. That was a sign we were going to become preemie parents. Perhaps a small part inside us had always anticipated this. After struggling to conceive for a few years, we finally found success with IVF but with the knowledge that this will raise the risk of preterm birth by up to 80% compared to naturally conceived pregnancies.

In January, I checked into University Hospital and stayed there for a week. Under the expert care of the medical staff, I was prescribed anti-hypertensives to manage my blood pressure and administered DEXA jabs to hasten the maturation of my babies’ fetal lungs. But on February 16th, my pregnancy-induced hypertension took a turn for the worse.

“But on February 16th, my pregnancy-induced hypertension took a turn for the worse.”

I tried to not think about myself. It was not the time to be afraid. I placed my life with absolute faith in the capable hands of UH medical staff led by Prof Aizura (my OB-GYN/specialist). All I could do is to whisper to my Kohconuts – telling them that we are in this together, encouraging them to be strong. Trusting in the team of doctors and nurses who were looking out for us. At this point of being really worried and in pain, trusting them was all I could do. The facts provide all the more reason for me to trust.

A critical strategy our country has advanced for reducing maternal mortality is to extend the availability of a skilled birth attendant to assist the delivery of babies. About 75% of childbirth occurred in public hospitals, with private hospital deliveries making the bulk of the remainder; in the event where a medical doctor or specialist is not conveniently available, the presence of a midwife is shown to reduce the risk of stillbirth or death due to intrapartum related complication by 20%. Only 0.5% of deliveries were carried out in the absence of any trained personnel. Malaysia has charted a remarkable decline in our maternal mortality ratio (MMR) over the last three decades. Our national MMR has halved from 44 to 21.1 per 100,000 live birth in 2019.

Going back to my own personal experience, it was physically harrowing. Despite me being firm on wanting to keep growing my twins inside my womb, my obstetrician advised otherwise and immediately prepped me for an emergency C-section. After losing over a litre of blood, and shedding even more tears; after many quivers and shivers, two of the most perfect babies dropped onto this world and made me a mother.

“After losing over a litre of blood, and shedding even more tears; after many quivers and shivers, two of the most perfect babies dropped onto this world and made me a mother.”

But, instead of a TV moment I dreamt of — with my twins placed snugly into my arms after childbirth — my babies were whisked away to begin their lives outside my womb in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). An experience I wouldn’t wish on any mother with her newborn.

The anxiety was relentless, and it consumed me. The only respite came in the form of the knowledge that they are not alone somewhere in a dimly lit, sterile corner of the hospital — they have each other. I didn’t get to meet my babies until four days later. It felt like a lifetime.

I was overwhelmed and emotional when I first lay my gaze upon the two of them. My heart broke at the sight of them hooked up to wires, tubes, and ventilators, so fragile yet so strong. Tears welling up in my eyes, it took every fiber of my being to shove aside my motherly instincts telling me to reach out and clutch my babies. I stood there for as long as I can, drinking in the reservoir of details on my babies; studying their fuzzy wisps of dark hair, the cutest little bumps for noses, the way they turn their heads; willing them to tell me somehow their secrets.

As a new preemie parent, naturally, I become a bit obsessive. Over sleepless nights I parsed over the condition and accessibility of neonatal care in the country. Overall, Malaysia’s neonatal mortality rate (referring to the probability of a baby dying during the first 28 days of life, expressed per 1,000 live births) is relatively low compared to other ASEAN countries, except Singapore.

The Advisor of the National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC) Dr Amar-Singh HSS wrote in 2019 that the true picture of child health services still left much to be desired. He informed at the time of the anguish faced by hospitals and parents due to a severe shortage of high dependency beds, equipment, and nurse staffing in NICU and pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). It is heart-rending to think of the possibility that some premature babies were not given the same opportunity to be saved.

It is yet to be disclosed how much had been done to address Dr Amar-Singh’s revelations thus far. Nonetheless, from firsthand experience, I’m altogether impressed with the professionalism exhibited by UH’s NICU staff, and deeply grateful for the immaculate attention and care given to my babies.

Nine days after my delivery, I was finally allowed to hold them. The nurse worked swiftly with her dextrous hands, unhooked as many wires and contraptions from my little babies and gently placed them on my chest. It was a surreal moment. I was in awe, in love, and I couldn’t stop saying hi to them. They are my new definition of perfection.

“I was in awe, in love, and I couldn’t stop saying hi to them.”

The wait had felt like a lifetime, but it’s well worth the exchange of a lifetime of love, I mused as I looked on as one twin grab onto his brother’s hand.

That first touch. You will never forget it.

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