Rachel Brown gave birth to tiny Aston Smith 13 weeks early after she went into labour on the M80, and he was given just a 50/50 chance of surviving when he developed a “flesh eating bug” at 15 days old.
But the 31-year-old claims strict mask-wearing rules created a “bonding barrier”, as she never got to kiss her 2lb 2oz son until the day he left hospital two-and-a-half months later.
She also feared Aston, who had part of his digestive tract removed to save him, would never learn to smile as everyone he saw had their mouth obscured by a blue medical mask.
The mother-of-two, from Alva, near Stirling, said: “It was really hard. The first kiss I gave him was when he got out of hospital after 78 days, because I had to wear a mask all the time.
“It felt brilliant when I eventually did – I could actually be a normal parent, with no rules. He didn’t even know what my face looked like until then.
“Even sitting holding him skin-to-skin [in hospital], I couldn’t look down and see him properly because of the stupid mask.
“It was like a bonding barrier and added a whole different stress level to the situation.”
To make matters worse, Miss Brown developed postpartum rheumatoid arthritis, but was “refused” her six-week postnatal check-up after being told the routine examinations had been scrapped due to the pandemic.
She said: “My hands were all curled in and I couldn’t stretch them out – they were like claws. Some days I couldn’t even lift my son.
“I thought I’d be able to get help and ask about my hands at my six-week check-up, but I was refused it because my baby was still in hospital and I was told that all GP surgeries in Scotland had stopped them because of Covid.”
She ended up begging accident and emergency staff at Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, where Aston was born, for help and they initially treated her for gout.
But her condition worsened as the weeks went on and she demanded to see a GP.
She said: “I had to fight to get an appointment. They kept wanting to diagnose me over the phone. They wanted me to take pictures of my hands but my hands weren’t working to be able to take them. I needed to be seen.”
Miss Brown has written to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to highlight the emotional and financial issues being faced by neonatal parents due to the “harsh Covid rules”.
“It feels like we’re just left,” she said. “Even his brother, who is seven, couldn’t understand how he wasn’t allowed in to see his brother.
“Visitor restrictions also meant we had no support on the day Aston was potentially dying and [if he had died] no grandparents would have seen him alive.”
The family’s ordeal began when she went into labour on the M80 when she was just 27 weeks pregnant.
She was on her way home after being discharged from Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, where she had spent four nights after suffering early contractions.
Miss Brown said: “We were driving along when I went into full-blown labour. Aston’s dad said he’d pull over into a lay-by, but I knew with being so early he’d need specialist care. We were between Glasgow and Larbert, so we drove to Larbert and four hours later he was born.”
Smaller than a “Sky remote”, Aston, who was not breathing, was whisked away to the resuscitation room where doctors battled for several minutes to bring him back to life.
Miss Brown and partner William Smith, 35, had to wait another eight hours before they could see their son.
Aston spent the next two weeks in the Larbert hospital, where he appeared to be doing well.
But on day 15 a nurse noticed his breathing was rapid and he had to have oxygen manually pumped into his airway to keep him alive.
Doctors gave him just a 50:50 chance of surviving after it was discovered he had necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and he was rushed to Glasgow’s Royal Hospital for Children for life-saving surgery.
NEC results in inflammation of the digestive tract, causing the tissue to die off, and his parents were warned that “depending on what they find” surgeons may not be able to save him.
He was so ill, his weight dropped to just 1lb 9oz.
But Miss Brown heaped praise on the “superhero” surgeon, Dr Gregor Walker, who saved her son’s life by removing 80% of his colon, part of the large intestine which removes waste products from the body,
It took Dr Walker and his team four hours to remove the dead tissue and create a stoma – an artificial opening – which is due to be reversed later this year.
Miss Brown described NEC as a “silent killer”, which affects one in 1,000 premature babies, and believes more research is needed to help future newborns.
She said: “When I was in labour, they gave me steroids to boost his lungs and magnesium to prevent brain bleeds but, as yet, there is nothing to protect a prem baby’s gut.
“It’s a cruel condition because it just comes out of nowhere.
“We were told it was like a flesh eating bug inside him. It perforates whatever organ it’s in, and the higher up [in the digestive tract] it is, the less chance of survival.”
Unable to stay overnight in hospital, the first they knew their son had taken a turn for the worse was when they received a call at home telling them he was being prepped for surgery.
Aston is now 26 weeks old and thriving, although after spending so long in hospital his proud mother admitted it took him a while to adjust to home life.
Miss Brown said: “It was brilliant to get him home but the first two nights he screamed blue murder because he wasn’t used to sleeping in the dark.
“In the end, I had to record episodes of Casualty and sleep down stairs with him with the light on, he was so used to hearing the beeping sounds in the hospital.
“Now he’s such a happy baby.
“I thought he’d never smile because he had only seen people with masks. But even though he is so tiny, he knows how to laugh and smile and he always has a smile for the nurses. He’s perfect.”
The Scottish Government said it understood the difficulties restrictions have caused for new parents and their families.
A spokesman said: “Looking after the health and wellbeing of new parents and their children is paramount and health visitors retained their contacts with families throughout the pandemic, including their six week check.
“From August 9 all health boards began a gradual and cautious move back to full person centred visiting to neonatal units, although our guidance has always allowed for both parents to be present on a neonatal unit to care for baby, as an essential partner in their care.”
He added that the lifting of visiting restrictions would be a “phased process” but physical distancing and face masks would remain “for some time.”
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