What a small ward: A Nigerian mother shares her experience of nursing a premature baby

A preemie in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit(NICU).Pic:about.com/pediatrics

In 2009, PETRA AKINTI ONYEBGULE had a preterm baby born at 25 weeks. The 80 days her daughter was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of National Hospital Abuja opened her eyes to what having a preemie is, especially how difficult it is for financially disadvantaged parents to adequately care for one. Her daughter now 3 inspired the birth of Tiny Beating Heart International- an organisation she formed to reduce neonatal mortality with focus on preterm babies by educating women on preventive measures and supporting families with preemies. She shares the moving story of her transition from being a boisterous expectant mother to the challenging life of mothering a preemie. Her story presents countless lessons for mothers to be, our medical professionals and indeed the Nigerian health system

I remember the 21st of August 2009 like it was yesterday. How can I ever forget that day? As labour progressed, I asked the duty nurse to send for the doctor on call as the pains were becoming unbearable. The pains-I later gathered, were not just from labour. I was agonised that I could be losing my baby and of course in denial.
I held on to a faint but unlikely hope that there was some sort of last minute remedy the doctors would proffer out from their medical arsenal. To my horror, the doctor on call failed to show up.
She sent a message to me through the nurse that I should “try and bear it; it will soon be morning”. It was about midnight; I tried to follow the advice but after sending for the doctor repeatedly between the first time and about 2 am, she showed up and brought me some analgesics (paracetamol). Her refusal (and that of anyone else) to tell me exactly what was going on almost sent me out of my mind.
She said to me pointedly, “I cannot tell you anything. When the MD comes in the morning, you will know everything”.
“Wait for the MD? The same one who would most probably come in at 9am?” I was horrified. I needed to know; I deserved to know!
At about 3 am, I had an idea. I remembered the hospital branded cellophane bag that contained my ante-natal drugs. Praying that it would go through, I dialed the number printed on it. At the sound of “hello” from the other end, I cried hysterically “I am dying in your hospital and no one is attending to me”. Sure enough, at that time of the night, it didn’t take up to 20 minutes before the MD arrived. Contrary to what I bargained for when I opted to register for ante natal in a private hospital over a government hospital, I wasn’t wheeled downstairs; I walked into the delivery suite. It was on my way that I overheard the MD telling a visibly distraught Ford Onyegbule that his wife was going to have a miscarriage as the lungs of the baby were not fully developed to breathe outside the womb (I was only 25 weeks gone).
I am not going to narrate all the shenanigans that took place  when I had my baby and been told she was dead and when she was eventually whisked to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of the National Hospital at about 7 am. I remained in the hospital for ‘monitoring’ as I had lost quite some amount of blood from retained placenta.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I listened anxiously to hear the beep of my phone that would herald a call to say my baby was dead. I hoped for the best and prepared for the worst.By the next day, which was a Saturday, I asked to be discharged. How could I just lay there when I didn’t know what was happening to my baby?
Finally, I went on my maiden trip of what was to become a daily pilgrimage to NICU. As the house officer” clerked” me, I was restless. All I wanted to do was see my baby.

Petra Akinti Onyegbule: valuable lessons for moms on raising prematures

After changing into a sterile gown and cap, I was led into the incubator room. There were a number of babies there and I was struck by how alike all of them looked. Nothing prepared me for how I felt upon sighting my baby under the phototherapy machine. I was broken to my bones. For a second, I almost turned to run out of the room, rather I stood there speechless as her heart heaved from beneath very bony rib cage. The tears welled fast and streamed down my face, super fast and I wondered if it was the same baby my husband always had the broadest of grins on his face for when he talked about her.

When we left the NICU, I continued to shed those tears beneath my sunglasses even though the weather was clement from the heavy downpour of the previous day. The glasses were with me for that purpose.
“It is important to express your feelings and fears to the NICU staff and to those close to you. Many strong feelings arise when babies arrive prematurely. These may include shock, denial, numbness, anxiety about your child’s condition, guilt, self-blame, feelings of failure, and anger at God, yourselves or doctors. Many parents feel isolated, hopeless and helpless. Parents often regret missing out on the rest of the pregnancy, months they expected to have to finish preparing physically and emotionally for the new member(s) of their family. It is often hard to believe that the small child in the isolette, so different from the chubby-cheeked baby you may have imagined, is really yours. Your baby’s caregivers are aware that parents have conflicting emotions, and can help you sort out your feelings.” Dr. Elizabeth A. Pector.
As soon as we got home, I did the above (even though at the time, I had not read anything on coping with preemies) of course not to my baby’s caregivers: they simply didn’t have the time. As a matter of fact, I preferred not to because what I was told during clerking were practical truths of the complications that could arise; ranging from developmental disability to cerebral palsy.
I vented to Ford – my partner, my husband, my friend. This therapy helped me a great deal. I was able to shed some burdens through my tears and voicing out my frustrations giving me a lighter feeling afterwards. But more importantly, I became focused. I knew there was going to be just one of two possible outcomes: the baby either survives or dies. We hoped and prayed for the former and constantly resigned ourselves to the possibility of the latter. What this did for Ford and I was that there was no undue tension between us. We lived each day as it came: thanking God for progress or praying for it and moving on; we lived each moment at a time.
I am sharing this so that women will learn from my experience. The Yorubas would say “only fools wait to experience a thing before learning.” The wise learns from the experiences of others. This contradicts the English saying that experience is the best teacher. But some lessons are better learnt from the experiences of others.
1)I chose a private hospital over a government hospital because I felt there was too much time wastage at government hospitals (which is true) but that decision cost me a whole lot more at the private hospital.
2. If you must register at a private hospital, please enquire about their services and verify their claims. I registered for ante natal at a cost four times more than what I would have paid at the National Hospital, yet I got no special treatment. Emergency cases were treated with kid gloves and appalling negligence. I went to a hospital that relied on only the initiative of the Medical Director when I had the National Hospital with throngs of specialists a stone throw away.
3. Read, be informed and take steps. If I had read enough about pregnancy and possible complications, I could have saved myself some of the trauma by knowing what was going on inside my body and perhaps acted upon it by realising my hospital wasn’t competent enough.
4. Finally, I am sharing because even though so many women have gone through this, at the end, they go to their Churches, give testimonies and end the chapter. We should be able to offer a hand and shoulder for those who are presently going through this. Mothers shouldn’t have to go through such traumatic experience alone. Sometimes, just a listening ear and “you will pull through, I’ve been there, so I know” works so much wonders.  And this is the inspiration behind Tiny Beating Heart International. To offer hope, care and support to mothers of preemies and give these babies a chance at survival.
A graduate of Sociology, Petra Akinti Onyegbule worked for three years with the Justice, Development and Peace Commission (JDPC) of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria and currently studying for a master’s degree in Public Health.


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  1. samuel tobson says:

    Quite touching, this brings to limelight the plight of most preemie mothers in Nigeria and also the decay in the health sector. I hope this woman’s story will help bring some attention to preemies

  2. Abike Tricia says:

    Petra dear. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. This is quite inspirational and educative and I believe mothers will not only learn from this article but also draw strength fro and learn how to care for their preemies when they have one.
    Thank God your daughter is doing great and you are happy. I wish people ca to the public their experiences so that others can be well enlightened. God bless you dear.

  3. juliet.t says:

    am glad to know your baby is fine,but if not for the care free attitude of pulic health providers you would’nt have gone to a private hospital because our health system is full of uncertainties.i think its time for our medical practitioners to stop taking medical issues involvig life with levity.a lot of did have being done,they should start rendering services at the base of need and not on financial base.

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