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Birth Stories

A Mother and Baby Unit Saved My Life – Vanessa’s Story

mother and baby unit

Trigger Warning: This birth story involves birth related PTSD, psychosis, NICU and IVF.  If you are triggered by these topics you may wish to skip this blog or read it once you have support available. If you are seeking support for your birth trauma, you may wish to contact our Peer Support Service.

After going through IVF, I was thrilled to be pregnant with twins. It was a dream come true and I was so excited. I wanted so much to be a mum. No surprise there as a pregnancy and newborn photographer!  The whole twin pregnancy was difficult right from early on. I had to stop work by 8 weeks and was on bed rest at home by 10 weeks. I was diagnosed with Hyperemesis Gravidarum. I vomited constantly and frequented hospital for IV fluids.

I went into preterm labour at 24 weeks and came close to losing them as they were so small and had little chance of survival. Gratefully my labour was able to be repeatedly stopped and by staying in hospital on strict bedrest I was able to keep them inside until 29+5 weeks. During bed rest in hospital, I developed a DVT in my groin/upper thigh area. I was in excrutiating pain with any movement and due to the location of the DVT plus my dilating cervix, I was unable to walk and required a wheelchair and roller frame. To be able to go to the toilet by myself (in my hospital room) a physiotherapist came to teach me how to use a roller frame and the safest way to move out of bed. I felt disabled and was worried that I wouldn’t walk again. Luckily once the babies were born I was able to start better treatment for the DVT and was able to walk within days. But I did have random pain frequently and was not able to spend a lot of time on my feet. I still have mild problems with that today, 5 years on.

At 29+5 weeks, my first waters broke and our babies were born. They were immediately rushed off to the NICU. I only remember the birth of twin 1 as I passed out just as twin 2 was born. It was the most scary thing, I passed out in a room jam packed with medical staff (a team of doctors for both me, and each twin, my student midwife, my photographer, my husband, my mum etc). When I woke up, I was fully dressed in a gown, had a white blanket tucked all around me, the room was in darkness and there was just one nurse sitting at a computer screen that illuminated the room. The first thing I said was “Am I dead?”. I was reassured I was fine. I asked for a sip of water and as soon as I had it, I did one last vomit. It was a projectile vomit of bright red blood! “Now am I dying?” I asked, stressed. Turns out I burst a blood vessel in my throat from all the vomiting I had done throughout my pregnancy. I was cleaned up again and my husband came back into the room. He showed me a photo of the babies. I asked if i could see them as it was already the wee hours of the next morning and they wheeled me down to the NICU to meet my babies.

It was so emotional and overwhelming. Their tiny little bodies were in isolets with wires all over them connected to all sort of beeping machines and they had breathing supports covering their faces. The next day, twin 2 was rushed to another hospital for surgery with little notice. All went as well as possible but it was so distressing. That was the start of our 55 day NICU journey. It was extremely emotional and difficult seeing all my tiny babies had to endure but it was relatively smooth as far as complications go. 

NICU mums are at much higher risk of PTSD and postnatal depression and anxiety. But despite the ordeal, I was doing amazing. I was grateful to have two living babies in my arms and I coped really well. I loved every minute and nothing could bring me down. Life was perfect to me and I was the happiest I have ever been in my life. 

My second pregnancy was also IVF assisted. On the first cycle back we were victims of a hit and run by a tow truck. I struggled with anxiety afterwards and was unable to drive again. This anxiety was my first taste of mental health struggles. At the time I didn’t understand what was happening or why I was feeling the way I did but after explaining my symptoms I learned this was anxiety. 

We continued on and had numerous failed IVF attempts. I also grew a rapid growing ovarian cyst which was suspected to be cancerous. I had surgery to remove it and lost the majority of one ovary. I had recovery complications that left me with a catheter for some time, but at least the cyst turned out to be benign. I was devastated to be left with a ‘c-section’ type scar without giving birth to a baby as the surgery was meant to be keyhole but once the surgeons got in there, it had grown again. 

Soon I was pregnant again. With one baby! I was over the moon and so happy that our dream of another baby was coming true. 

I was also sick with HG once again but not as severe as the twins pregnancy. during my pregnancy, I started to have quite irrational fears about my unborn baby. It was like all the trauma of the previous pregnancy finally hit me all at once. I developed PTSD and depression and my anxiety increased. I was admitted to hospital and even though I was concerned about it, I started on antidepressants and anxiety medication. This helped and I managed the rest of my pregnancy fairly well. After my previous premature birth, I was excited to make it past 30 weeks with my cervix a decent length. I was excited for my baby’s birth and couldn’t wait to hold him in my arms.

I was scheduled to be induced at 37 weeks due to some concerns over cord flow and early signs of pre-eclampsia, but Jeremy decided to come on his own the day before! The birth was uncomplicated and all I wanted was to be able to hold my baby after birth and avoid NICU. He was born and passed up to me to hold him, fresh out of my womb, vernix still on him, cord attached. I was so happy! A dream come true!  ‘I did it! I got to hold him’ we’re my first words! He was gorgeous.

After a while, Jeremy was taken off me to be weighed, measured and checked over. 5lb10.  I’ll never forget the words ‘that’s not right’. Some tests were done as he was small and had a growth deficiency on part of his body. I soon learned that they would have to wait a few weeks to do more testing to determine whether it was an isolated growth deficiency or a sign of a syndrome. Knowing what I know now, what I experienced in that moment was dissociation. When Jeremy was given back to me, everything was different. I felt like a failure. I just wanted to cry.

We were moved from birth suite to our room back on the ward. I was required to stay for 5 days due to the medication I was on to watch for withdrawals from baby and also for some specialists to come see him.

Over these days I found myself not connecting with my baby. I got the beautiful baby I had wished for and I had the birth go as I’d hoped (getting to hold him straight after birth) but I just thought about running away and disappearing. I didn’t want anyone to touch my baby. I just wanted to hide him and protect him but at the same time I didn’t want to pick him up. I didn’t want to hold him. I didn’t want to breastfeed him. I was scared to attach to him.  

I pushed all these thoughts and feelings down and went through all the normal motions of new mum life. I fed him, bathed him, smiled at him, sung to him, clothed and cared for him. I took videos and photos and shared him on my socials. I smiled on the outside, and cried every time I was alone with him. I went to a mum and bub playgroup. I joined a mum and newborn splash group for some one on one bonding time. That helped a little bit.

I tried so hard to ‘fake it til I make it’ but i was filled with sadness and fear of the future. I started to barely shower or brush my hair and lost motivation for things that I used to enjoy doing. I 

Months went by but it didn’t improve.

Nothing felt right.

Things only got worse. 

Jeremy loved attention and close comfort. He was a very happy smiley baby, so I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just enjoy him. I was so grateful for my eldest son as he was smitten with his baby brother and showered him with hugs and kisses and told him how much he loved him. He filled the gap of what I struggled with. Every time I wanted to say I love you, all I could say was i’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I thought he was always going to hate me.  

But the more distant I was, the more he craved my affection and attention. He began to be unsettled and would not sleep on his own, constantly wanting to comfort feed. I went against my own values and co-slept with him as I was literally not getting any sleep otherwise. I felt like a failure going against my own values. I struggled with his need for closeness.

When he was a few months old, I knew I needed help and that this wasn’t the way things should be. I shouldn’t be feeling so miserable when I got the new baby I wanted so badly. I should be happy, filled with love. I got everything I ever wanted. But I felt completely opposite to my experience with my other babies. I started to struggle with my memory and concentration. I struggled to separate dreams and thoughts from real events.  

I reached out for help a few times but didn’t get far. I called the helplines and they referred me to my GP or told me to get someone to watch him while I got some sleep. I went to my GP and tried a different antidepressant and got a mental health care plan to see a psychologist. But it was hard to get appointments, they were few and far between and I felt worse a lot of the time afterwards as I didn’t get any help on what to do about my thoughts and feelings. 

I attempted to find a new psychologist but I just couldn’t afford it. Medicare only covered a portion and being down to one wage and me receiving no maternity pay made that not possible. I was asked repeatedly by professionals whether I had private health cover. I didn’t. “That’s a shame, there are a few places I could refer you to if you did.” There were no options available in the public system. And like most families who have just had a new baby and stopped work, there was zero possibility of me affording a private hospital out of pocket. I was referred to a perinatal mental health service at the local hospital but on intake they turned me away as I was ‘too severe for their kind of service’.  

So I kept plodding along hoping the storm would pass. 

I wanted to run, far away on my own. But at the same time I felt I couldn’t leave him as I would be the only one who could protect him from this world so he would have to come with me. I was so conflicted with wanting to run away with him and run away from him. Thoughts of just running away became frequent and intense. And many times I did just that. Some nights, when I was tired and feeling overwhelmed with my thoughts and couldn’t soothe the baby’s cries, I would leave home with him in the pram and wander the streets trying to clear my head. 

A few times I walked to my GP clinic (they are open til 10pm). I remember the last time I did this, pacing the hallway, Jeremy and I both crying. Eventually I asked the staff at reception to take my baby as he wouldn’t stop crying and I couldn’t cope. 

I didn’t get the help or support I was after though. They looked at me like I was an alien for the longest time and then simply told me to take him home  as they were closing soon and if I thought something was wrong with him to take him to the hospital but that babies cry. They dismissed my cry for help completely. I left and walked until he went to sleep and I ended up sitting down, exhausted at a 24hr Maccas. The next thing I knew, there were police officers wanting to take us home. My husband had called them worried about us and my mental state.  

When he was 8 months old, my thoughts of wanting to run away got worse. I started to imagine all the ways I could end our lives. I decided that it was the only solution. I had to save him from this world that was going to treat him so badly. I was convinced that he hated me for giving birth to him and that he was going to grow up and die by suicide. I had to save him.

At playgroup one day, they were doing music time. I realised that instead of interacting with my baby like all the other mums, my mind had drifted off thinking about our deaths. In that moment I knew that it was so wrong to be thinking like that and realised I needed urgent help. I made an appointment with a health nurse at the community centre. I was completely honest answering her questions and filling out her questionnaire (postnatal score).

She said I rated so high and due to my answers about harm, she was arranging immediate help and I would need to be taken to the hospital. 

They wanted my husband to come and get my son and arranged for an ambulance. I got really upset and insisted Jeremy needed to stay with me. He is a fully breastfed baby who is barely taking to solids. Jeremy stayed with me at the hospital for a day or two. But they couldn’t accommodate a mum and a baby. They moved us a few times from emergency, to another area, they didn’t know what to do with us. The staff openly would discuss in front of me about not belonging in that ward, and that they couldn’t have a baby there that isn’t the patient. This made me feel even more like we didn’t belong, that we were different, there was something wrong with us and that there was no hope for help.  

My husband took Jeremy away and I was admitted to the Adult Mental Health Ward. For a week I was separated from my breastfed baby. He was brought up a few times for a breastfeed but it was just not feasible due to travel and children are not allowed in the ward. I expressed milk for him as best I could but it was difficult getting access and supplies to be able to express. And the staff were so busy that it would be huge gaps in between expresses. Jeremy also refused to take the milk in a bottle despite every effort. My sister used my breastmilk to make a puree to get something into him as he was not drinking and barely eating. He was quickly becoming distressed and dehydrated. Every visit he would scream and scream the moment i would try to unlatch him from my breast. he wouldn’t let go even when he was done feeding. It was so awful. I hated myself for how we could be in this situation. 

Finally someone mentioned that there was a fairly new public mother and baby unit in Queensland at the Gold Coast University Hospital called the Lavender Unit. An admission request was made and I had a video conference call intake assessment. As there are only 4 beds at the unit and they service all of QLD, I was assessed against other mums and acceptance was on a highest needs basis. It seemed such a small chance that I felt hopeless. But gratefully, I was soon offered the bed and transferred to Lavender Unit and Jeremy met me there.  

The mother and baby unit was no walk in the park. It was intensive, confronting and at times very emotional. But that was all part of the process. There were a lot of staff on hand. Nurses 24/7, allied health staff, occupational therapist, sensory specialist, psychologist, psychiatrist and no place to hide or ignore our problems. Everything was brought out into the open, every angle was covered, and we were greatly supported. 

I was able to accept that I had been suffering with postnatal depression, anxiety and psychosis. I stayed there for 6 weeks and feel like I improved so much in that short time. I was able to change to new medications under supervision and learn strategies to help me deal with problem thoughts. They put in place various supports in my community for when I was discharged. I still had a long way to go but I felt like I was on the road to recovery when I left there. I was started on a better medication regime and I was given distress tolerance strategies. I learned that Jeremy and I were the opposite sensory profiles and was taught ways to manage that too. I was given hope, confidence and validation.  

I can recall the very day I started to think and feel better. I remember one particular day at breakfast and looking at Jeremy as he smiled and it was like meeting him for the very first time! That feeling filled my heart and that’s how I expected the post birth feeling to be. I told him I loved him and I meant it, I felt it. It did also come with some serious guilt and self loathing thinking about the thoughts I had been having about him previously. I could now see just how mentally unwell I had been and was so grateful for this help as I was so far from the type of person who would ever harm a baby. But that’s the reality for many with severe mental illness. It doesn’t discriminate and can affect anyone.

The experience at the Lavender Mother and Baby Mental Health Unit was priceless and saved my baby’s life and my own. I often have nightmares about the what-ifs. I wish I had gone there sooner before my mental illness escalated to such a crisis point, as the longer term affects it has had on my life and my family are still problematic today. I still struggle with complex PTSD, depression and anxiety. The duration and severity of my post natal mental illness turned chronic and it’s been a long process to recovery. PND stole so much from me and my family.  

I now know what a massive gap there is in PUBLIC post natal mental healthcare facilities. As the Lavender unit was only a year old when I was admitted, many professionals still didn’t know of its existence. And it is the only public one in QLD. With postnatal mental illness affecting so many mums, how can there be so few facilities to treat them? It upsets me to think of the lives being lost and ruined due to this massive shortcoming of facilities. 

NSW just announced their very first Mother and Baby Mental Health Unit. Every hospital that caters for maternity needs to have a mother and baby mental health unit. It just makes sense!  

Postnatal depression has such a huge impact on families, not only short term but long term. And it affects every member of the family. Jeremy is 2.5 years old now and is still traumatised from the experience. Jeremy struggles with attachment and separation issues. The whole family has needed therapy.  Our lives were ravaged and I’m still working towards recovery and rebuilding our lives.

This trauma and ongoing need for mental health and family support services could be prevented or at least lessened if Public Mother and Baby Mental Health Units were available to all women in earlier stages of their mental illness and without them being separated from their babies.  

If you would like to support Vanessa’s petition calling for publicly funded mother and baby units in Queensland please click here:

If you would like to connect with a mum who has experienced birth trauma, please contact our Peer2Peer Support service to connect with one of our Peer Mentors.

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