Down in the pump room


I closed my eyes. If I couldn’t see then I could pretend that I wasn’t there. Then I wouldn’t feel like I was intruding on a grief so raw I could almost taste it deep in my throat.

I closed my eyes. If I didn’t move a muscle then I would blend into the backdrop. Then I wouldn’t be so acutely aware I was in touching distance of this lady in her darkest hour.

I closed my eyes. If I sung a song in my head then that would busy me. Then I wouldn’t attempt to voice the many words on my lips that sounded is so painfully inadequate.

I closed my eyes, but I couldn’t close my ears. I can today still hear every gut-wrenching haunting sob. I was helpless. And useless.

But there is nowhere to go or hide from this.

Not here. Not down in the pump room. That forgotten room on the next floor, at the end of the corridor or the next building from the place where hundreds go to have to their babies each week.

Side by side we sat, exposed literally and metaphorically, hooked up to machines pumping milk into bottles. Milk that they said was vital medicine now – medicine for our ailing, failing babies.

For every nine families that walk out of the door of the maternity wing elated yet flagging, one will spend time in the neonatal unit. And within each unit is this room. The pump room. A room that if it could talk would tell you such tragic tales. That has witnessed the deepest depths of despair.

I didn’t know this lady. Yet I knew this lady too well.

She had told me her tale in a numb monotone the day before. How she’d been blue lighted across the county to give birth prematurely to her longed-for twins. How one had later died and the other was now locked in a private turbulent battle to survive. She told me all this in the way you would tell someone you’d lost a tenner at the shops. Quite bummed out at her bad luck.

She was not so numb now. Now she felt every painful emotion all at once. There was nothing I could do for her. Except sit silently beside her as I double pumped milk for my baby who was hooked up to similar machines in the next room

Gabe.hospitalThis is just one of many sad stories I heard and witnessed during our 17-day stint in the neonatal unit. Quite a short visit compared to many, but at the time it felt like a lifetime.

Five years on, I can still recall the smell of that room; the beeps of the machine; the strange comfort of the sterilizing routine; feeling shy during kangaroo care in crowded wards; the quietness of quiet time.

The heart-broken memory of leaving hospital to go home without my baby; the rush of emotions as I drove back to the unit in the early morning light wondering what I would find when I walked back in, despite calling ahead before I left home each day.

I can still feel that coldness (such indescribable coldness) of walking around my house with empty arms after the heat of pregnancy and the utter loneliness of setting an alarm to pump milk at 3am when the rest of the world sleeps on.

A neonatal spell is an experience like no other. No matter how long you spend on the unit, it leaves an indelible mark. It changes you in many ways and shapes your attitude going forward.

Here are just a few things that I learnt:

Things can’t always be fixed

When something bad happens to a loved one or a friend, it is human nature to want to try to put things right. You try to think of a platitude that will make them feel better or rack your brains for anyone you might know (or know of) that can help. I was a fiend for this. Sometimes even promising people things I couldn’t deliver. Just to feel like I was helping.

But you know what – sometimes things can’t be fixed. And that is that. I met a lovely lady on one of my first days in neonatal who told me that her son had been starved of oxygen at birth and as result had suffered irreversible brain damage. Surely not irreversible I declared. I started to talk about stroke rehab programmes, I demanded to know if she had investigated therapies. There must be a way to fix him I said arrogantly (and ignorantly). I wouldn’t accept it. It was too sad. And unfair.

Six weeks in she was well versed in this reaction. With a dignity that left me shamed she stated quite kindly but firmly. Like breaking bad news to a child. No. Thank you. But we can’t fix this.

Shut the hell up and listen

I spend a lot of time now with people who are living extraordinary different lives. All too often  layered with complexities and decisions that are difficult to comprehend at times. Stuff is debated that used to be way out of my comfort zone. It was in the neonatal unit that I began to learn the fine art of shutting the f**k up and just listening. The temptation when someone is telling you their troubles and fears to go “hey yeah me too” and then share your experience is strong. But there is a time and place for it. Empathy is sometimes not necessary – sometimes someone in pain just needs a lending ear – that and a little hug or buddy shoulder punch (whatever your style).

Terrible things happen

Horrible, horrible thing happen all the time, yet there is nothing more raw than sick and dying babies. And in the neonatal unit you are surrounded by them. If you sit there long enough you hear the alarms going off and the medics swooping out of the room en-masse to try to save a life; you see the man and woman in the family room inconsolably clutching at each other locked in their own private hell; you notice that the bedside space of the baby in the corner is empty again for the 10th day in a row and the nurses are taking turns to dole out the cuddles. Terrible things happen and that is just life.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

The gift of perspective is never greater than when your child is ill. All those little things that bothered you suddenly disappear. I remember a friend telling me that I would have all the sleepless nights to look forward to when he came home so to enjoy the nights when he was looked after by the nurses. I longed for the sleepless nights as it would mean he was home beside me and mentally promised myself that I would never ever moan about stuff like that ever again. Obviously, I did because I am not from Stepford. But I never saw it as a personal witch hunt from the universe in the way I did with my older two. Things often have a way of working out just fine. And it is amazing how strong you find yourself to be at times. Don’t get me wrong I love a groan as much as the next person but some of the things that people grumble about are, still to this day, a bit alien to me. And I’m grateful for that.

Don’t compare

It is impossible not to these days especially when picture perfect presentations of people’s lives are being thrust at you from all directions. Everyone else’s lives always seem better on paper. I used to get massively jealous of all those families I saw leaving the hospital after seemingly uncomplicated deliveries. How I longed for their easy lives. How naive. Who am I to guess at strangers’ lives. Everyone has their own crap and all crap is relative.

As one door shuts…

Things aren’t always as I expected with Gabriel. Many times over the past five years this has made me cross and sad. I remember feeling so cheated of his first few weeks of life during our hospital stay, but the life lessons that period taught has held me in good stead for the rocky times that came. Now I am sort of grateful for the time there. Life surprises us all the time.

And you know that lady – the one who I tried to fix – well I met her again two years later and we are now good friends and the boys are buddies. I didn’t get to fix anything, but we often patch each other up and giggle over a glass of wine or three. That friendship alone makes those difficult 17 days very much worth it.

So if you are currently down in the pump room, you don’t know it yet but you are now part of new club. There is a strange solidarity between us neonatal mums. We try and look after our own. You can’t really explain it properly to people who’ve not been there. But know we are all rooting for you.

I can’t tell you all will be okay because I don’t know that.

But I can tell you that our okay was not the okay we wanted or expected, but it is a lovely different sort of okay all the same.

In fact our okay goes way beyond okay almost every day.

So keep on hanging on in there.

You’ve got this.

Okay. xx

Gabe (2)


Post inspired by the brave updates from Charlotte from Write Like No One is Watching whose daughter is currently in neonatal.

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13 Comments on Down in the pump room

  1. Whealie
    May 24, 2016 at 7:01 pm (6 years ago)

    My very different experience may be relevant. My son had a heart operation at 3 weeks old. Four kids were having ops that day. Our son was first. 5% die, they warned us. Joe was OK, but we could not celebrate, not raise our voice, not appear happy until the last of the four parents came back on the ward with their children. The second and third family nodded, or raised the smallest wave they could as they came past. When the fourth and final family brought their child into the ward the volume doubled, trebled.

    • Alison
      May 24, 2016 at 8:56 pm (6 years ago)

      Wow got goosebumps then Chris – I didn’t know that about Joe. Bet that euphoria when the final child came back was immense. Did you feel like you were in a film rather than real life? I always do xx

  2. Ali
    May 25, 2016 at 8:45 am (6 years ago)

    My first son was born after a reasonably normal delivery. Having survived the pregnancy and birth and with an apparently normal baby, we went home full of hope for the future. Within 3 weeks, things had gone quite wrong. We then had 14 separate hospital admissions, each around a week long, over the next 3 years. There was never a clear diagnosis and therefore never an effective treatment. I used to be so jealous of the families on the ward with kids who had a defined problem with a defined treatment, who went home ‘problem solved’.
    Hideously dark days, mercifully now somewhat brighter!
    My heart goes out to you on neonatal.

    • Alison
      May 25, 2016 at 10:16 am (6 years ago)

      Problem solved – that was like the holy grail wasn’t it. So glad that your days are brighter. Bet you have a great kiss ass positive attitude now xx

  3. Jo Sandelson
    May 25, 2016 at 3:40 pm (6 years ago)

    Hi Alison, What a strange and difficult time for you. I was really moved by your words and how you became friends with a woman you met fleetingly but shared so much with. It’s so true about trying to ‘fix’ things – I do it myself all the time and need to remember that listening is the greatest gift. Thank you for a timely reminder too about not stressing over details.. Jo x

    • Alison
      May 26, 2016 at 4:56 pm (6 years ago)

      Thanks Jo – of course we want to fix people. Sadly we can’t always xxx

  4. laura dove
    May 25, 2016 at 4:02 pm (6 years ago)

    Oh this made me cry, so lovely and yet so sad. All three of my youngest were premature, with my youngest two spending the first few weeks of their life in ICU. I struggled massively with leaving my two in ICU when I had to return home, there was nowhere for mums to stay on the unit, especially as my second son had been stillborn at full term and so leaving empty handed had been heartbreaking all over again, and yet I made the journey there each day and sat by their incubator willing them to get better. I saw so much sadness during that time but also so many beautiful babies finding their way home, healthy and happy to live the rest of their lives. We were very lucky that our children made it home, but I carry those weeks with me and remind myself of them often, thank you for sharing this. #sharewithme
    laura dove recently posted…For Meggy, on your third birthdayMy Profile

    • Alison
      May 26, 2016 at 4:57 pm (6 years ago)

      Gosh I could imagine that was awful for you – like hitting you with a hammer each time. And yes all the lovely babies that go home make it ultimately a happy place xxx

  5. Sara Skillington
    May 26, 2016 at 10:51 am (6 years ago)

    A very moving read, Alison. The things you have learned are great pieces of advice to all of us I think. I have been lucky enough not to have suffered an experience similar to yours but have had other pretty devastating events. I think such things teach us how to make the best of life, to not have unrealistic expectations and to cherish every moment that we can. I hope your okay continues to improve :) #TwinklyTuesday

    • Alison
      May 26, 2016 at 4:58 pm (6 years ago)

      Sorry to hear that Sara – maybe there is so truth in the line what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Hope all is well xx

  6. Mummy Fever
    May 27, 2016 at 7:45 pm (6 years ago)

    Goodness me I had chills reading this. I had a similar pumping experience pumping for my first child after a blood mix left her poorly and needing special care. Except there was no room. I was just sat on my bed, hooked up to the machine and then had to trail down to the fridge at the other end of the ward. Each time I opened the fridge I would cry, cry because everyone had pumped more than me and mine couldn’t possibly be enough.

    Thanks so much for linking up to #sharewithme – hope you will join in next week
    Mummy Fever recently posted…Best of British: 101 ideas for having fun with the kidsMy Profile

  7. Helena
    May 30, 2016 at 7:22 am (6 years ago)

    Your post is full of heartfelt emotion and has moved me. I think it’s great that you’ve shared your story. #sharewithme
    Helena recently posted…My Sunday Photo: Shoe Shop WindowMy Profile

  8. Jenny
    June 7, 2016 at 4:08 pm (6 years ago)

    Oh Alison what a challenging time for you and sounds like you are stronger than you give yourself credit for darling. It’s amazing in life how we can come across and share something so strong with a total stranger I had the same in the intensive care unit when B went into anaphylactic shock and other parents were there experiencing the same hard challenges and we bonded without knowing each other too. I can so relate to that part. Apologies for the late commenting the hand over of Share With Me to Mummy Fever and the busy half term has me a little behind but never forgetting your amazing support and thanking you for linking up. I hope you will link up again tomorrow for another great round of Share With Me over with Charlotte and keep Share With Me blog hop going long after my hosting. #sharewithme


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