Sadly, that’s not always the case. Baby Hospital (ITV1, Tuesday 21st June 2011) followed three single mothers as they struggled to cope with the reality of a premature birth.
This fly-on-the-wall documentary was filmed inside Liverpool Women’s Hospital, considered to be a centre of excellence for neonatal science. Here, consultants and nurses give the absolute best medical care possible for babies born significantly early. Sadly, many children are born with illnesses and medical complications too difficult to treat, with inevitable deaths a part of everyday life at the hospital. Thankfully, many babies do make remarkable progress and become healthy enough to leave the hospital.
The documentary, sensitively narrated by Sue Johnston, first introduces Amy. Already a mother to five children, she had a tumultuous pregnancy. At 18 weeks, she separated from her husband of six years. At 20 weeks she contracted swine flu, a disease that poses significant and life-threatening risks to both mother and baby. At 27 weeks — four months prematurely — she gave birth to Alfie. He weighed just 1lb 6oz.
The fact Alfie survived at all was a miracle. As it is, he had severe problems with all the major organs — heart, lungs, kidneys and liver — as well as suspected brain damage. From an initial “50-50” survival estimate, he gradually declined in health, suffering a burst lung, losing weight and gradually slipping away.
Amy’s rollercoaster of emotions, in which she spent a huge amount of time at the hospital and, as such, felt torn between her family at home and staying with Alfie, lasted five days before he passed away. Before that, his family gathered for a fairly impromptu baptism. Amy’s oldest son recounted how much Alfie had impacted the whole family despite him living for less than a week.
The documentary also followed two other mums. 28-year-old Rachel gave birth to Tyler two weeks early. She already has two other children fathered by two other men. Although she keeps in touch with Tyler’s father, and they remain friends, she laments, “Everyone wants the support of a man, but it’s hard to find one in Liverpool.”
Katie gave birth to Michael but found it hard to visit him in hospital because she already has two other children, lives 14 miles away and relies on public transport.
Michael needed heart surgery, to which Katie gave written consent, but it was often weeks between visits. “People look down on me but I’m not bothered by what they think,” she says, adamant that Michael is in the best hands right now and, when he comes home, will get the same 24 hour support her other two kids currently receive.
Thankfully, both Michael and Tyler survived and went home with their mums.
Dr Chris Dewhurst, Consultant Neonatologist, sympathises with the situation many lone parents find themselves in. He rebuffs the stereotype that women become pregnant in order to get a house and benefits. At the same time, he worries about the life that awaits some of the babies discharged from the hospital.
Lead Sister for Neonatal Developmental Care, Jan Waugh, is also upset when parents can’t come to visit. She sees the benefits associated with human touch, massage, and skin-to-skin contact, saying that it’s vital for babies. If they don’t get it, particularly from a parent, they miss out and don’t grow as well. The touch, which helps in bonding a parent-child relationship, can even prevent infection and reduce pain.
The documentary is sensitively made and doesn’t come across as being judgemental. The staff give the best to the 1,000 or so babies who come into the hospital every year, regardless of their background or the social situation their parents are in.
I was also careful not to cast quick judgements over the parents featured. It would be easy to wonder how a mother might stay away from the hospital, or lament the wider situation of lone parenting, but neither is particularly helpful.
Parenting as a lone mother (or father) is a juggling act even with healthy babies and children, particularly if extended family or close friends are in short supply. I simply can’t imagine dealing with the extreme emotions of having a very ill baby, trying to look after an existing family, and deal with all the other issues that everyone goes through.
I welled up during Alfie’s hospital baptism. My hope for that family is it draws them closer together. Even the snapshot this documentary provided suggested it might. The death of a child might seem like the end, but in fact it’s just as much a beginning, though not one any parent would choose.
To the watching world, and eventually to the hospital and the medical professionals who looked after them, those three mothers and babies will become mere statistics. Yet the documentary captured part of life that, mercifully, most of us will never have to cope with.
If you’re in the UK, you can watch the programme on the ITV Player until mid July.
Did you watch the documentary. What did you think?