Four tests. That's how many we did before finally being convinced that I was pregnant. My husband, Alex and I had been trying for a baby for a while and I had gone to the Doctors to find out about investigating whether we may have problems conceiving. Even after the doctor did a test, because of pre menstrual symptoms i.e. stomach cramps and tender breasts, it took a further two tests before the realisation occurred that we were finally going to be parents. The last test I did was in Tescos, and I was so distracted when I went to get the test, I drove into a parked car (luckily the car owner was very understanding!)
I was very fortunate, hardly any sickness or associated pregnancy problems. Our 12 week scan showed a beautiful little baby, albeit an upside down, face planting version! The genetic tests came back clear and as soon as we could, we found out the gender. A little girl, exactly what I'd wished for. A daughter, a mini me who I could gown in cute dresses and I relished the idea of releasing the inner hairdresser. I rang my Dad to tell him the news first, as he'd paid for the scan. It turned out to be the last time I'd ever talk to him, sadly he passed away suddenly a week later.
The sonographer paused at the end of our 20 week scan to tell us she was a little concerned about the baby's kidneys. We saw a consultant who referred us to Birmingham for some more detailed scans. Further observations confirmed that our baby girl had a duplex kidney, but we were told that this was not an uncommon problem and it would not change where or when we had her. We were told it was not fatal and after spotting a collapsed couple consoling each other in the corridor, we felt so lucky and blessed that we had not had the kind of news they had received.
We had monthly scans at Hereford and felt privileged to get to see our baby so frequently compared to the routine 12 and 20 week scans. I loved bring pregnant. Loved feeling her kick, singing to her, talking about what was happening around her. We didn't decorate the nursery or go crazy on clothes. But as we got to 30 weeks, the wheels were in motion and I picked up our travel system (compliments of Nanny). Baby blue leather, with white wheels. We live on a farm. Very impractical, but soooo pretty. I'd been conditioning the dogs to it and getting use to the feel of the handle in my hands. It wasn't until a friend's teenage daughter stated that it would be strange going to the hospital with an empty seat in the back of the car and returning with a baby in it, that the pregnancy became even more real.
Our short list of names soon became one, Penelope Mae Culpin.
At 30 weeks plus one day, I had a routine scan. Penny was not behaving, she kept grabbing hold of the cord which lead to me laughing, and consequently being told off, because I could at least stay still to make it a bit easier for the poor sonographer. I was told the baby was quite small and that I may need to go to Birmingham earlier than planned for my next appointment.
Penny was always small on the scans, for which I was grateful. Surely she would be easier to deliver and she was still within the 'safe' line on the graph. I didn't understand why returning to Birmingham a week earlier would make a difference. I was told I may have to deliver at 37 weeks, but I couldn't get a sound explanation as to why it was better to have her out rather than let her stay in to 'cook' a little longer. But the phone system was down in Birmingham so I couldn't speak to anyone to find out more.
The last scan was on the Tuesday. I felt concerned on the Thursday evening that Penny was quieter than usual. She was usually most active in the evenings and I couldn't shift that uneasy feeling the next morning. After speaking to a friend, I headed to triage in a break between lecturing. Driving to the hospital alone, I remember thinking that depending on the outcome, I'd pick up the nursery paint that night from B and Q, or I'd have to cancel the painter. Turns out, it was the latter.
I sat on a bed in triage hearing a midwife talking through another Mum's concerns on the phone. "Any pain...any bleeding..." I hadn't and those were the signs I associated with problems. I hadn't realised the importance of monitoring the baby's movements, surely I was just being a little neurotic. But when the midwife took a few minutes longer than I hoped trying to hear the heartbeat, the seriousness of the nagging sensation that had led me there started going up a notch. I thought she had finally found it, but it turned out to be my racing heart rate that had been detected. The consultant came through with a scanner and as soon as I saw the picture, a primitive screech left my lungs before he stated what I could see was lacking. There was no heartbeat.
After sobbing until an aching numbness took over my body, I asked the obvious question, "what now?" I was told I'd be given a pill to start the labour then asked to return in 48 hours to deliver our baby. I rang my husband. He'd just finished pressing that year's cider and was marking the eleventh hour on the 11.11.16 with a minute's silence. When he called me back, I had to break the news to him that we had lost our daughter. I also called my Mum and a friend from work. I had expected to be back within an hour, not have my world turned upside down so suddenly.
Two friends came from work and waited with me in the Snowdrop Room. A place of solace away from the cruel world. Alex turned up with an overnight bag, he couldn't understand why I was coming home and why our baby wasn't coming out. But the alternative was to stay on the maternity ward, surrounded by other pregnant women or those with new arrivals, so we went home and waited.
After two very fuzzy days and sleepless nights we returned to Hereford Hospital. Alex had taken the role of sorting out the funeral, my only wish had been for Penny to be buried a mile away from home in our local churchyard. We had tried to find some prem outfits, but struggled for choice in the time we had. We found a shop and selected something for her to wear after she was born and for something we would like to bury her in. As we got to the till, the lady congratulated us. I simply smiled and ran out of the shop, leaving Alex to pay. It was an obvious act of kindness and the lady had no idea. But one of the biggest challenges we would struggle to overcome would be the breaking of bad news to others.
We went to the hospital on the Sunday morning. It was Remembrance Sunday. The friendly bubbly midwife that greeted us hadn't realised I was coming in to deliver a stillborn baby. When I told her, she ushered us onto the delivery suite where we waited for the consultant. Mum, Alex and I sat doing the crossword. It seemed so surreal. Eventually when the consultant came, she explained that I hadn't been given the next pill, because the baby was breech. That meant that, although the risk was small, if the baby got stuck during the birth, there was a risk of decapitation. Had she been alive, I wouldn't have been given a choice of delivery. I knew the only thing we could gain from the experience was cuddles with our baby, so there was no way I wanted to risk that. I will never forget pleading with my Mum to "not let them cut our baby", and so we opted for a c-section.
The midwives and anaesthetist were lovely, everybody was in tears. Mum and Alex were allowed in to the theatre with me. I had the option of having a general anaesthetic, but I wanted to be awake. It was a very quiet, calm atmosphere. Because she was early, I was concerned that our baby may not be fully formed. I wasn't going to have the same bonding experience, so I asked the midwife to check the baby and wrap her up before passing her to us. I need not have worried, she looked beautiful. Her skin was a little delicate, but she was so perfectly formed and beautiful. A full head of dark locks and Daddy's long legs. She weighed 3lbs and was 42cm long (the length of a keyboard I later discovered after returning to work and measuring it out one day).
We stayed in the hospital overnight. The vicar came to perform a blessing and the registrar came to register the death. Penny stayed in our room in a cold cot. She was passed to me whenever I asked for her and Mum and Alex bathed and dressed her. The midwives automatically spoke to her and checked on her as they would a newborn. We were given two memory boxes, one from Sands and one from a family who had lost their son. They were both full of tiny treasures and provided much needed comfort. One of the boxes had the story of the Little Nutbrown Hare. Alex and I sat and read her the bedtime story before we said our last goodbyes and I was discharged the second evening. Leaving the hospital clutching to the memory boxes whilst walking towards excited families carrying balloons, flowers and car seats was one of the hardest experiences of my life.
We had a full post mortem in Birmingham and the wait between that and the funeral was excruciating, not knowing where Penny was, who she was with or how she was being transported. Alex picked her up on the day of her funeral and placed her in a beautiful willow coffin we'd had made. It was full of teddies. We had a small service in the churchyard with just a handful of people. We read poems and a verse from the Bible, before blowing bubbles and laying our daughter to rest.
It took nearly six months for the post mortem results. The last place I wanted to go back to was the Women's Health waiting room, full of pregnant ladies, so I asked to sit in the Snowdrop Room. The post mortem results were inconclusive. There were no genetic causes and we knew she had a duplex kidney but that wasn't what had led to her death. One of her lungs wasn't fully lobbed, but she had been delivered early. She had a little problem with her foot that was likely to be associated with her kidney not functioning properly but none of these were reasons for her death. The coiling in her umbilical cord was a little tighter than usual, so the consultant recommended that if or when I got pregnant a second time, I should take 70mg aspirin straight away. So we left confused and distraught, but the fact that we were told that we could still try for another baby in future meant we left with hope. The only thing we had to hold on to.
When I went back to work a few months later, I often found myself starring into space, tears streaming down my face. I was so lucky to be surrounded by loving, caring people. They gave me time, more than I realised I needed, to come to terms with what I had lost. A very close friend suggested I did some fundraising and researched how much money a cold cot would be. I wrote to the hospital and told them of my plan and I also told the consultant and midwife during our post mortem meeting that what I was planning to do. I set up a Just Giving page with a target of £3000.
However, it turned out the hospital already had three cots and another would not be money well spent. The communication was not good and I felt frustrated and angry that I had set about a challenge only to be told it was not needed. But then I met with a midwife and we discussed some plans about developing a bereavement suite. After delving further, I learned it was due to the financial system, other fundraising goals etc. why the plans had not come into fruition. But after meeting with the head fundraiser, Katie Farmer, a simple light bulb moment came about. It was easy to set up a fund that was dedicated to the development of three rooms for bereaved families that included a counselling room, family suite and purpose enhanced delivery room.
We just needed to set it up on the system. Through amazing family, friends, colleagues and students, by then I’d raised over £3,500 and I asked that this money be ‘ring fenced’ and put into a new ‘Born Sleeping Appeal’ fund. And that is how the appeal came about. I helped bring together Rocky Lees, The Maddison Shelbie Trust, the midwives, Estates team and formed a working group that would nurture the project with the aim of helping bereaved families of Herefordshire. From there, the mission statement is: "To improve the maternity bereavement facilities, services and aftercare support provided at Hereford County Hospital".
But I knew there was also so much to do in the community. I really struggled to find support and was on a waiting list for a year to see a grief counsellor. A counsellor I saw via work was nice but he was a man and I just felt he was just one more person to cry on. A friend put me in touch with a Mum who had lost years previously and for the first time, I spoke to someone who 'got it'. I was tagged in a post to meet a lady who had a neonatal loss and was shocked at how many other parents had turned up. I really wanted to set up a support group so invited someone who had previously been involved with Sands and Sarah, the mother I had been introduced to.
From there we launched Unexpected Parenthood within a month of meeting and have supported one another and other bereaved parents since November 2018. We both fell pregnant and wanted some structure and longevity to the group so we decided to set up Hereford Sands.
It is a comfort knowing that Penny has given me the strength to help other parents so I can help them on their grief journey.