A mother’s perspective on the great highs and lows of premature birth
100-day journey gives life to premature baby Hattingh
Going into premature labour is hardly the perfect ending to a summer holiday in Cape Town. But, for a Namibian couple it turned out to be a Godsend as their premature baby son was born at Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital, a facility known for its tremendous success rate in caring for compromised, highly premature babies.
“Our son, Hattingh, who was born severely compromised at 24 weeks, spent the first 100 days of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of the hospital. Each passing day brought its own challenges, but as a family we took it minute by minute,” recounts Chantal Coetzee, mother of baby Hattingh who is now four months old.
“This kind of experience is not something I would wish on my worst enemy, but thanks to the exceptional care of the nurses and doctors at Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital we got through it,” she says.
Hattingh Coetzee was born on 18 January weighing just 700 grams and was delivered and cared for by neonatologist, Dr Ricky Dippenaar, and the NICU nursing team at the hospital.
“I went into labour right after packing to return home at the end of our holiday. As the delivery was so premature and Hattingh would be a high-risk baby, my gynaecologist called several hospitals and doctors to find a facility that could safely deliver and care for him.
“Dr Dippenaar and his team at the NICU did not hesitate to accept us and today I am immensely grateful that Hattingh was able to benefit from the expert care they provided and that everything turned out so well,” Chantal adds.
Chantal confesses that despite having two daughters, she and her husband were not prepared for Hattingh’s premature birth and for the traumatic experience that followed. She recalls how they did not know what to expect, and had so many questions. However, the team at the hospital addressed all of their concerns and assisted the Coetzee’s every step of the way through their difficult journey.
“I still remember walking into the NICU for the first time. I was frightened and felt intimidated as my baby was being cared for by people I did not know. Seeing Hattingh lying there with so many tubes and equipment attached to his tiny body will stay with me forever. However, my fears soon faded as I met the caring team at the NICU,” Coetzee recalls.
Chantal says Dr Dippenaar sat with her and her husband and explained in detail what they could expect. He was patient and understanding when we were trying to come to terms with the difficult road that lay ahead for Hattingh.
Dr Dippenaar says he is delighted to say that Hattingh has now passed all the most important milestones. However, he still has a way to go and his progress will need to be closely monitored over the next two years.
“It is difficult to imagine how hard it is for the parents of micro-premature babies. They face an immense emotional roller coaster during the first weeks of their baby’s life. Every time a micro-premature baby reaches a survival milestone, the staff members as well as the parents breathe a little easier. When you are this involved, it is difficult not to become emotionally invested in the lives of these families, but we also have to try to maintain a sense of balance, otherwise it can become overwhelming and may interfere with our work.”
In 2011, Dr Dippenaar made international headlines when he headed up the team who saved “ziplock baby” Allegra Lategan, born at just 22 weeks and four days. He says that tragically some micro-premature babies are just too vulnerable to survive but in most cases the team is able to return them home with their doting parents.
“Modern medicine is increasingly giving babies born prematurely a chance at survival. We see many of these premature, often highly compromised, babies end up leading normal, healthy lives,” notes Dr Dippenaar.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 15 million babies around the world are born prematurely every year, of which one million die due to complications. In South Africa, an estimated one in seven babies is born prematurely.
Dr Dippenaar explains that a healthy pregnancy is typically around 40 weeks, while a preterm baby is classified as one who is delivered before 37 weeks and a micro-premature baby, like Hattingh, is born between 22 and 28 weeks.
“Highly premature babies are highly vulnerable after birth as they are born before they are fully developed inside the womb,” says Dr Dippenaar.
Chantal says the experience was traumatic, but when the doctors and nurses who care for your baby care enough to build a relationship with the family it can truly make a difference.
During baby Hattingh’s 100 days in the NICU, Dr Dippenaar and his team had to perform a number of procedures including a hernia operation, and treating him for bleeding on the brain when he was 56 days old. There were also many other concerns, including whether the boy would be able to hear, see and breathe as a normal baby does.
“Every time we received potentially shattering news, the team at Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital was there for us and I never had to cry alone. It feels like we had been adopted by a whole new family,” Chantal adds.
“Having established a warm and caring relationship with Hattingh and with us, the nurses and doctors cared for him based on the relationship that they had forged with us as a family unit. This meant that they chose to ride the emotional rollercoaster with us, something that I value and admire. We truly could not have done this without them,” Chantal explains.
“I am so thankful when I look back on the past three and a half months and have such sweet memories of my little baby. It wasn’t an ideal situation because we were far away from home but sometimes that is not what is important. Everything happened as it was meant to because Hattingh got the best medical treatment possible.”
Today Hattingh is at home in Cape Town after the family relocated to be closer to the team that was so integral to his survival. Chantal says as a family they made the decision, knowing that Hattingh needed the best possible care during the all-important first years of his life.
“We are committed to ensuring that Hattingh receives the best possible medical care, as we fully understand that his first two years are the most crucial. The medical outcomes at this dedicated ICU for neonates have been superb and as a family we know Hattingh needs to be close to the team in case of any eventuality.
“I know we will never look at Hattingh without thinking of the role each member of the team played in getting him safely home to us. We are so thankful and so blessed to know and love each of them,” she concludes.