Our 100 day NICU journey
While on holiday, this mother experienced the unexpected - the premature birth of her son. She gives her perspective of great highs and lows of the journey.

Going into premature labour is hardly the perfect ending to a summer holiday in Cape Town. 

"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) at the Netcare Blaawberg 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 4-months-old.

Hattingh Coetzee was born on 18 January 2016 weighing just 700 grams and was delivered and cared for by neonatologist, Dr Ricky Dippenaar, and the NICU nursing team at the hospital.

Going into premature labour

"I went into labour right after packing to return home to Namibia 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 Hattinghs premature birth and for the traumatic experience that followed.

She recalls how they didn't know what to expect, and had so many questions.

However, the team at the hospital addressed all of their concerns and assisted the family 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,” Chantal recalls.

Every milestone, a celebration

Dippenaar sat with Chantal and her husband and explained in detail what they could expect.

He said he was delighted that Hattingh 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 and 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,” says Dippenaar.

In 2011, Dippenaar made international headlines when he headed up the team who saved “Ziploc 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 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 1 in 7 babies is born prematurely.

Dippenaar explains a healthy pregnancy is typically around 40 weeks, while a pre-term 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 extremely vulnerable after birth as they are born before they are fully developed inside the womb,” says Dippenaar.

An exceptional support team

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 Hattinghs 100 days in the NICU, Dippenaar and his team had to perform a number of procedures including a hernia operation, and treat him for bleeding on the brain when he was 56 days old.

There were also many other concerns, including whether Hattingh would be able to hear, see and breathe without complications.

“Every time we received potentially shattering news, the team at the hospital was there for us and I never had to cry alone. It feels like we had been adopted by a whole new family."

“Having established a warm and caring relationship with Hattingh and with us, the nurses and doctors cared for him based on the relationship they had forged with us as a family unit."

"I am so thankful when I look back on the past few months and have such sweet memories of my little baby. It wasn't an ideal situation, because we were far from home, but that's unimportant."

"Everything happened as it was meant to, because Hattingh received the best medical treatment possible,” Chantal explains.

Today Hattingh is at home in Cape Town after the family relocated to be closer to the team that was so integral in his survival. 

Chantal explained they fully understand that Hattingh's first two years are the most crucial and they are committed to ensuring he receives the best medical care possible; as a family we know Hattingh needs to be close to the team in case of any eventuality.

"This kind of experience isn't something I would wish on my worst enemy. I know we will never look at Hattingh without thinking of the role each member of the team played in getting him home to us safely. We are so thankful and so blessed to know and love each of them.

"Thanks to the exceptional care of the team at Netcare Blaauwberg Hospital, we were able to get through it," Chantal concludes. 

Do you have a birth experience you would like to share? Email chatback@parent24.com and we may publish your story.

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