Sometimes the future arrives early and catches you by surprise.
When our first-born child arrived, late in August 1994, we were totally unprepared – and then we had to roll the dice.
Let me preface this story by apologizing for its length, detail, and gravity. I can promise a positive overall outcome, so please bear with me for the duration …
The doctor delivering our baby physically pulled me into a tiny room next to the operating theatre and hurriedly blurted out, “We don’t have any time to talk. It’s not good at all. Get ready to lose your wife or your child, or both.”
My mouth opened but nothing came out.
“Your wife and your child are both 50/50. There is a 25% chance you will lose both of them, and only 25% chance they will both live.” The doctor fixed a stare deep into my eyes for a moment, just to make sure that I had received his message. I nodded. Then he fled, and I was left alone in that tiny room, with the dice.
An hour earlier, I had been at work, stuck in a meeting, when a message came through saying that I needed to urgently collect my 7-month-pregnant wife Susie in the city from her pediatrician’s rooms. I arrived 20 minutes later, without knowing how serious things were, and saw the pediatrician, David Francis, running frantically down the hallway toward me. He shouted, “No time to explain – Susie has a very rare but deadly Liver disease, known as ‘Fatty liver’, and she needs to be Caesar-ed immediately.” I was now starting to panic; the hallway had suddenly become very small, and David’s anxious face ballooned into my whole field of vision. I started to ask what we had to do next, but David cut me off, saying “Get her to St. Vincent’s as fast as you can. Every minute counts. The faster they can get the baby out, the better Susie’s chances are. I don’t care where you park, just do it anywhere you can; on the footpath, in the middle of Victoria Parade, anywhere.”
So we parked across the footpath at the front steps of the hospital, after erratically turning in front of, and cutting off, homeward bound peak hour traffic on Victoria Parade. The long honks and toots from irritated motorists seemed far off and remote. Hospital staff were waiting in numbers on the steps outside the front door and quickly rushed us inside.
The hospital “machine” took over; everyone knew what had to be done. We found ourselves in a room up on the third floor, smothered by staff, waivers, and technology. It started to sink in that Susie was going to have the baby NOW, and not in 7.5 weeks as scheduled. We were both dazed. Whilst the nurses and midwives hooked Susie up to monitoring machines, drips, and took blood samples, I gazed out the window from the third floor out across the inner eastern suburbs of Melbourne, wondering how such a gloriously sunny day could so rapidly dissolve into a nightmare. The deep blue late afternoon sky was cloudless, and the shadows of the outer city buildings were now starting to stretch out far across the rooftops, shading the homeward “tooters” as they bustled their way through the congested side streets below.
This moment was wonderfully captured by photographer Greg Elms, documenting Melbourne’s cloudless skyline during the deep blue dusk of August 24th 1994. One of his shots, taken at 6.17pm found its way into the centre-fold page of “The Age – Good Weekend” weekly magazine a month or so later. This beautiful photo was taken an hour before our baby was born. I can still see that sunset from the hospital window, but this photograph has allowed us to remember that moment forever.
I tried to distract myself by calling people to let them know what was going on. I found my voice choking whilst trying to make sense of the whole ordeal, and looking at Susie being taped up, tapped, and torn. One of the nurses cleaned Susie’s fingernails with nail polish remover. Apparently the color of your fingernails is an indicator of your well-being during an operation. When her fingernails were clean, the nurse looked puzzled. Susie had only put fake fingernails on that day, and although her fingernails looked nicely shaped and rounded, there would be no well-being analysis conducted on those fingers. They’d have to operate on her fingernails first to find out!
Suddenly my gazing moment was over and I was alone in the preparation room. I wandered out into the hallway and was rescued by one of the midwives who directed me to the men’s change-rooms. After covering myself in white robes and plastic shoes and headgear, I was moved to a small surgeon’s waiting area, where I met up with David Francis again who would perform the operation. This was when he fixed me with that deep stare and explained about how we were going to roll the dice.
The birth was a very quick blur. I was positioned directly behind Susie’s head at the operating table. We held hands tightly. Susie was remarkably calm with sedation. There was a sheet obscuring our vision of the incision and all the activity. It seemed like only seconds later that it was announced that our baby had arrived, and it was a “girl flavour”. I saw a tiny little body being lifted above the screen. To be honest, neither of us had had time to even ponder our baby’s sex, and when she arrived, I can remember being genuinely taken by surprise. After she had been weighed and wrapped up for warmth, I held her in my arms. She was buried in a white bunny rug, so very small and petite. I cautiously carried her across the room to meet her mother, who was only allowed to briefly introduce herself to her little girl.
Then I watched everyone suddenly evacuate the operating room, carting out equipment and trolleys and my two girls with them. One gurney turned left, the other to the right.
Suddenly I was left alone again, wondering which cart I should have followed. Where should I be, with mother or baby? I understood why I was left behind – every available resource had been allocated to saving lives. I asked someone in the hallway where everyone had gone, but they couldn’t help me, so I took the lift down to the ground floor reception to get directions back up to the intensive care units.
Susie looked yellow, Jaundice, but still surprisingly calm. Our baby had immature lungs and was breathing hard to keep herself alive. She was laid out in a humidity crib with oxygen being pumped down her throat via a tube.
The waiting rooms filled up with family and friends. Jacqui and Geoff Larkin quickly grabbed some clothes for Susie from our house, and Anna Marsh and Caroline Mews sat with me outside intensive care, making calls and looking after everything.
At midnight it was recommended that I go home and try to get some sleep, because I was going to need it in the days ahead. Anna and Mews came back to our house and pumped a few quick strong brandy and dry’s into me. We tried to celebrate the birth but I found it difficult to feel anything yet. I was just hoping the next 24 hours would not bring any unwanted news. I was wrong.
At roughly 2am, shortly after Anna and Mews had left, a call came through from a very curt doctor. “You need to come back in straight away”, he said. “Your baby is experiencing a lot of difficulty in breathing. We need to transfer her to the Royal Children’s Hospital where the facilities can maintain oxygen support above 50%.” As it turned out, our baby would require 90%.
Thank god for the Royal Children’s Hospital, and it’s world-renowned Neo Natal Unit. It saved our little girl’s life.
I reversed my car along the curb for about ten feet, but then could not physically move to change gears into drive. I sat motionless, sobbing, in the driver’s seat, in shock, not able to function, for about 5 minutes. I retreated back to the house and called Anna Marsh. Her car pulled up abruptly outside the house instantly, bless her soul. She must have driven like a lunatic. Anna always drove like a lunatic. I remember thinking when I landed in her front passenger seat that Anna really needed to do something about cleaning out her car. There were empty soft drink cans and lollie/chocolate wrappers lapping at my shoes. Every time we lurched around a corner, a wave of cans would swirl around my ankles. I tried to make a smart remark about the mess (something about drowning in stale Coca-Cola) but I don’t think Anna heard me – she was too busy planting the pedal and driving like a lunatic. I told Anna that I didn’t care which Australian rules football team my daughter chose to support (even Collingwood); as long as she would live long enough to see them play. In hindsight, that was a ridiculous statement, one that I have since tried to distance myself from having ever said. As we flew into the hospital, Anna frantically asked me for directions – “Quickly, are we turning left or turning right?!” Each time she asked, I stuttered for so long with the answer that we were already halfway around the corner before I could finish. “R, Ri, Righ … oh, okay, we’ve already done it!” These days, with a few wines, we often sit around and laugh about that crazy car trip. Even when things are dire, there is still somehow room for a little bit of comedy.
We arrived at Susie’s bedside just as the mobile humidity crib unit arrived with out little girl to say goodbye and then be transported to the Royal Children’s. A Polaroid snapshot was taken so Susie at least had an image of her still un-named daughter to look at. Our daughter was transported in a NETS capsule (Neo Natal Emergency Transport service), which looked like Superman’s Krypton escape pod. She was wired up to all the machines, and looked so tiny. We didn’t fully understand that mother and child would then be separated for 3 days, in separate hospitals, Susie consigned to looking at only a Polaroid snapshot memory. I can’t imagine how that must have been for Susie.
An old friend Mathew Collopy arrived on our doorstep at 8am the next morning, holding out application forms for the Melbourne Cricket Club (M.C.C.) to be filled out and signed. We had a major problem. We still didn’t have a name for our daughter. So I drove back into the hospital to see Susie and we settled on Emily Louise, named after Susie’s great-grandmother. Emily was formally registered by a cricket club a week before she was formally registered as a person.
Thankfully, 24 hours after the birth it looked as though Susie was going to be okay, and Emily was stable at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Susie would need to undergo further tests on her liver, but the doctors were confident there would not be any permanent damage. They said she had “more chance of growing a second head” than having the disease again.
We had rolled the dice and won.
I then happily became the meat in the sandwich, ferrying expressed milk between two hospitals. The level of support from family and friends was overwhelming. Our doorstep was thick with casseroles and Susie’s room was like a florist shop.
When she was well enough, after 2-3 days, We were able to mobilize Susie in a wheelchair, and drive her over to the visit Emily in the Neo-Natal unit to finally properly meet her daughter. My sister Rachel later also arrived and brought with her a fluffy pink teddy bear. She peered into the humidity crib at our tiny baby, hooked up to all the electronic equipment, and burst into tears, sobbing. At just 3 kilos, Emily’s whole hand could wrap around the tip of my index finger. I will never forget seeing my sister’s reaction. She had already produced 4 children of her own, and what she saw really emotionally affected her. At that moment, I wish that someone could have walked up to us and reassured us that everything would be OK, and then had whipped out some before and after photos to prove it.
Emily owned a lot of soft toys in her early years, but this fluffy pink bear, from her sobbing Aunty, has always been her absolute favorite. When she was old enough to talk, Emily proudly named this pink teddy bear “Bob”. Today Bob still sits next to her pillow. Bob has been threaded and stitched, machine washed and spun dry more times than most other teddy bears would surely be comfortable with. Bob will be with Emily forever. A silent witness and guardian angel, all rolled into one dearly loved fluffy pink little fellow.
The first six months of Emily’s life were loud and dramatic, as she had a lot of catching up to do. She screamed continuously for the first few months because she was constantly needing more food, and on top of everything she also endured a double Hernia. We were all sleep deprived in our household, rotating feeding and screaming shifts. During those months I nodded off at the wheel at a traffic intersection (my head hitting the side window to wake me up); I changed lanes on a highway without knowing, and I drove off from a service station without paying for petrol, prompting a visit at work from the local constabulary. Emily’s two grandmother’s (both nurses) helped guide us through Emily’s early stages, as we had no idea what we were doing.
It is amazing, however, just how quickly she transformed into a normal sized infant. Within 6 months Emily had completely caught up. Life for us, as parents, also returned to a filtered kind of normal; a shade of constancy that is reserved for parents “pin-balling” their way through uncharted waters, and enjoying a new chapter in life that is slightly compromised but non trade-able.
The rest of Emily’s life to date has also been loud and dramatic. She is feisty, outspoken, strong, sharp, and in your face. You get the sense that she is still fighting to catch up to her future. I think that if Emily stands still, she feels that she is going backwards, because the world keeps marching forward, and she wants to get ahead of it.
Emily doesn’t walk into a room. She explodes into it. Regional seismologists are often left scratching their heads, baffled. Her personality is infectious; there is so much going on. She spends every moment of her day immersed in fashion, is time poor in every sense, and like the rest of her generation, wants to do everything now.
Emily’s laughter (more like a shriek) is unmistakably hers. In a darkened cinema, people have been known to yell out from the other side of the room,”Emily Nolan! you are here somewhere, that laugh has to be you!” Susie and I have been shopping, deep in the busy supermarket aisles, and have suddenly become aware that Emily is also in the building. “Listen, Em’s here … somewhere!”
Now that Emily is soon to turn 21, It seemed like the right time to revisit and tell the story of her beginnings.
Sometimes, on rare occasions, we have the opportunity to catch the future, and bring it back with us.
I would very much like to go back to the Neo Natal ward at the Royal Children’s hospital, and introduce Emily to the parents of other premature babies, so they can physically experience the before and after, and take comfort in knowing that everything really will be OK, and that they don’t have to wait and see. If they could witness what the future promises, it might ease their passage through what is a very traumatic period of their lives.
And maybe we could give these parents a new fluffy pink “Bobbie” as a reminder – to hold in waiting – just while their tiny babies catch up to their own futures.