My name is Charlie Balcombe, I am 33 years old, born & bred in Essex and now live in West Hampstead, London with my incredible husband Alex and our 3 children, Freddie who is 5 and our twin girls, Colette & Arabella, who will be 2 next month, which means nursery in September… yippeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!
My entire pregnancy with Freddie was an absolute dream and I really do mean an absolute dream, it was the stuff of Hollywood movies! Not a single dose of morning sickness, no nausea and worked full time right up until a week before he was born. I had a natural labour (with drugs, I am a Jewish princess after all) and at 39 weeks & 2 days and he came in weighing a very healthy 7.8lbs.
The labour was something I’d never heard of, my waters broke at 4am in the morning, I called the hospital they said not to rush as I wasn’t in any pain and contractions hadn’t begun- so I did what any normal person would do… I got in the shower, washed my hair, blow dried it and changed the sheets on my bed, then made my way to the hospital.
I didn’t feel a single contraction even though my waters broke. My obstetrician gave me Pitocin and an epidural which worked a treat! I then proceeded to sleep through the entire thing as did Alex! 7 hours later, my obstetrician and midwife had to wake me up when it was time to start pushing but I couldn’t feel anything, so they had to talk me through it and 19 minutes later our son was born!!! No complications, easy breezy and all of a sudden, we were a happy healthy family of 3!
This one is a bit more complicated. After trying for a while and countless pregnancy tests later, all of a sudden, the stick turned blue! I called my obstetrician, Dr Pat O’Brian immediately (I went the private route via Pat with my son and decided to do the same again) and they said fantastic, come in for a scan. Off we trotted and the sonographer Pran (who had done all of my scans with my son Freddie, so we knew him really well) said Mazel tov you are definitely pregnant, but you are way too early, you are only 4.5 weeks pregnant- you can see the heart beat but you can’t even hear it, come back when you are 10 weeks.
6 weeks later, Alex and I went back for the second scan. I was looking at my belly and making sure the icky gel didn’t go near my new maternity Seven jeans and my husband was looking at the screen- all of a sudden Alex says ‘that looks a bit weird’, I look up and say ‘Oh my god are there 2?’ To which Pran says ‘YES, your egg has split you are having identical twins!!!!’ I should add at this point that I myself am an identical twin, so the likelihood that I could/ would ever have twins myself was so far removed from my realm of possibility that I literally lost my shit… I went into verbal diarrhoea!!! F**k off, this is a prank, my mum is here, I’m being punked, she is punking me, where is the f***ing video camera, this isn’t my scan, stop f***king winding me up… I had actual tears, joy, shock, bemusement, just full on floods of tears!!! To say I was speechless was the understatement of the century. The next 36hours were a complete haze, I was as white as a sheet and was left completely incapable of forming a sentence.
I was officially pregnant with identical twins and one placenta yet felt absolutely no different than I did with my first pregnancy- no nausea, no morning sickness, no extreme tiredness etc… please don’t hate me!
I continued to have my scans at 12 weeks, 14 weeks, 16 weeks. At my 18week scan, Pran noticed that since my last scan one of the twins was getting more nutrients than the other from the placenta. He immediately enlisted his colleague Dr George Attilakos who worked at the same practice and specialised in what was about to happen! George started to explain to me about TTTS, Twin to twin transfusion syndrome, I’d never even heard of it! They prepared for me both best and worst-case scenario. They advised that because of how quickly this had escalated since my last scan, my scans would now become weekly and that I was to be monitored more closely but at the moment there was nothing to be too concerned about. That was on the Monday. My next scan was the same week on the Friday. This was when shit got real.
My stomach had all of a sudden become incredibly tight, hard and I was really uncomfortable all the time, I knew instantly this wasn’t good, and something was seriously wrong.
The scan on the Friday showed just that. Twin 1 was essentially swimming in her sac whilst Twin 2 was almost being suffocated and they couldn’t see any urine. I had essentially gone from stage 1 of TTTS to stage 3 in a matter of 4 days. I was immediately scheduled for an emergency Fetoscopic Laser Photocoagulation (Keyhole uterine laser surgery) at UCLH the following Monday with George performing the surgery and I was to be there at 8.30am.
You obviously don’t know me, but I am incredibly pragmatic, stoic and matter of fact person if I do say so myself- I don’t let anything get me down or bother me- I carry on as normal because quite simply I hate the attention and drama that it brings. We told our family but no one else and they were all advised not to discuss it with me. I carried on like normal for the weekend and decided no big deal, have the surgery, the problem will get solved and we will continue as normal. I ALSO DID NOT BECOME A GOOGLE DR. I didn’t do research on it, I chose to put my trust in the team of Dr’s who were advising me, and it was the best thing I ever did.
TTTS if left untreated would have resulted in a 90% chance miscarriage and for those that do survive there is a 15-50% risk of neurodevelopmental delay/ handicap. Needless to say, my husband was a complete wreck and I carried him!
I should also add that not only did I now have TTTS but my particular case was rare and difficult as my placenta was at the front of my stomach and not at the back, therefore surgery would be more complicated. Due to the position of my placenta, this also meant that during my entire pregnancy I very rarely felt the babies kick or move around which at times was very unsettling, although with my weekly scans meant my mind was constantly put at ease.
Monday morning comes, I have an ultrasound before the scheduled surgery and I have now gone into stage 4 of TTTS. Twin 2 has gone into heart failure. I have the surgery which was both incredibly painful, uncomfortable and highly emotional. Once the procedure had finished, George also performed an amnioreduction and drained almost 2 litres of fluid from Twin 1’s sac. I was told to rest, go home and sit with my feet up for 2-4 weeks. We wouldn’t know if the surgery had been successful until my next scan which was at 21weeks.
21week scan showed that all signs were pointing to a successful surgery, and that both babies were breathing, bloods in the right direction and a visual on urine but we weren’t out the woods yet and needed to wait another two weeks for me to be in the “safe” zone.
23weeks and we are golden!!! Officially in the safe zone and couldn’t feel more elated or relieved.
Scans & hour-long monitoring sessions at the hospital now become a weekly occurrence.
Fast forward 5 weeks. I am now 28 weeks pregnant and just like my first pregnancy, my waters break at 4am whilst I’m in bed asleep! I call my Dr immediately (his mobile is now on speed dial) and he tells me to go the hospital and he will meet me there. 5am I am hooked up to a monitor and having blood work at UCLH. There are no signs of my water breaking as there is still fluid in the sac. My waters had ruptured at the weak point where they had gone in with the laser during the surgery. I was immediately given a course of antibiotics to stop any infections and given my first of two steroid injections within 24hours to promote the growth of the twin’s hearts and lungs. My due date was brought forward from 36 weeks, to 34 weeks in the hope that I could hang on in there until then. I was to rest with my feet up and wait! Little did I know that the twins thought they knew better.
At 30 weeks, on the 10th August I started what I thought was Braxton hicks- I had them with Freddie and although uncomfortable weren’t unmanageable. They weren’t timing regularly and were pretty infrequent, so I thought nothing of it. I was on the phone to a girlfriend who said stop being ridiculous, phone the hospital you’re in labour!! I called, they said it was unlikely I was in labour as I wasn’t screaming blue murder down the phone but better to be safe than sorry so come in for monitoring… so irritating as I had been there the day before for my weekly appointment!!!!!! I phoned my husband, explained and said I’m going in but not to worry- he also said stop being ridiculous, get your bag ready I’ll be home in 20 minutes. Within an hour I was hooked up to a monitoring machine and the midwife said ok “this isn’t a false alarm, you are in labour and you will be meeting your babies in a few hours!” I was in utter shock… which I realise sounds pathetic, but I really was.
I was shown up to a labour room, where my amazing midwife and two baby monitoring bed things were waiting for me… now shit really got real as did the contractions! Holy crap why do people chose to feel them with no drugs… they are hideous and painful, and no one looks good whilst having them!!!!!
My obstetrician Pat came in and explained what was happening and that as soon as one of the operating rooms was available, I was up next. I was always going to have a c section as the risks were far too great with me only having one placenta and what with the TTTS, natural birth wasn’t even an option.
6.30pm, Into the theatre I go. Pat was waiting for me as was the anaesthetist and about 1000 other people due to the twins being premature, the complications I had gone through and it also being a teaching hospital meant I had an audience! The neonatal and paediatric trauma team were out in full force just for me and my babies! Within 10 minutes of the epidural working, both babies were out… we had our twin girls!!! They were immediately rushed into a trauma room that was set up next door and a nurse had quickly taken photo’s, printed them and handed them to me whilst being sewn up, they were incredible and beautiful, but I couldn’t see them or touch them. Colette was born 4.3lbs and Arabella was born 3.4lbs. I was then taken back to my room for recovery. Fast forward almost 5 hours later and at 1am, I still hadn’t met, seen or touched my babies. My midwife explains that both girls are in NICU, doing well but both on ventilators and that I could now go and see them.
I put my hand in the incubators and held their fingers, I stroked their faces, but I couldn’t hold them- there were so many machines and wires and lamps, and it was totally overwhelming. I had never seen babies so tiny, only on tv and couldn’t believe they were mine and this was now my reality. I was told I was only allowed to stay by each incubator for 10 minutes a piece (they were in separate rooms although both were level 3 trauma).
The day after, Aug 11that 8am my phone rings and it is the head nurse on the NICU ward to say that both the girls were being transferred asap to The Whittington hospital as they didn’t have enough beds and it was the nearest hospital that had 2 high dependency beds available. I called Alex immediately to explain. Two specialised paediatric intensive care ambulances were at UCLH within the hour. I watched the specialist paramedic team pack each girl up ready for transfer. Both girls were transferred on ventilators in travel incubators. Alex followed the first ambulance and the second left an hour later. He was at The Whittington to see both girls being “checked in’ and I Instructed him to stay there and not to leave their side until the nurses told him otherwise. I wasn’t to be discharged until the following day. I still had not held my babies.
Aug 12th,I get discharged from UCLH, thank FUCK!!!! Alex picks me up and we drive straight to the Whittington. I walk into the high dependency room and see my baby girls in incubators side by side with name plaques on the wall above them. Jaundice lamps, ventilators, heart monitors, NGT tubes, iv cannula’s, wires and wires and wires are covering my girls and I am promptly greeted by the most phenomenal team of nurses in the world.
They explain what everything is, what it all does and tell me that the girls are responding really well to treatment. When I tell them that I have never held them, they immediately sit me in a chair and rectify it. They take Colette out and place her on my chest- at this point I am wailing, I am completely overcome with emotion and in absolute awe of my baby girls and how strong they are considering how tiny they are. I was unable to hold Arabella for another 24hours due to her teeny tiny condition. Within 72hours of being admitted, both girls were removed off the ventilators and put onto c-pap, within another 5 days they were both of c-pap and breathing on their own unaided- the steroid injections that I’d had at 28 weeks had worked their magic!
The girls stayed in high dependency for 10 days, due to not being able to regulate their own temperature and various minor infections. I will never forget walking in one morning and the pure joy to find that Colette had been moved from high dependency to the intensive care room and that she was now out of her incubator, Arabella quickly followed suit 2 days later and it was the most tremendous relief to know that they were both getting stronger and stronger as the days went on. I must add that the nurses in NICU at the Whittington can only be described as angels, the attention and care they gave for my daughters were as if they were their own children and I am forever indebted to them.
Side note, for 21days I woke Freddie up at 7am, gave him breakfast and dropped him to summer camp at 8.30, I was then at the hospital by 8.45 and stayed there all day every day until 4pm when I picked up Freddie from camp, took him home- played, suppertime, bath time and bedtime. The babysitter walked in the door at 7pm once Freddie was asleep at which point, Alex & I walked out of the house and went back to the hospital until 11pm every night.
21days later with almost 10 hours per day of skin to skin with both the girls on either mine or Alex’s chest, both of our girls were now taking bottles of formula happily and growing at a fantastic rate- they were ready to be discharged and go home!
Fast forward to where we are today. Since being discharged from the hospital the girls have been admitted into hospital 3 times due to various respiratory infections- Flu, RSV and bronchiolitis. They have seen our family GP a total of 32 times in 2 years- I like to say we have funded a dr’s kids school fees! BUT… we are now all healthy, happy, and together.
When the girls were 10 months old, I literally ran out of steam, I could no longer keep going at the pace I was and needed some assistance. Hello 6-month prescription for happy pills. They worked a charm and I was back to being myself in no time at all. We are now on the other side of it all and it feels fantastic. Alex & I are still in love, my kids are all smiling and it the best feeling in the world!!
I never realised that when writing this it would be a 3-4page story, nor did I realise how cathartic it would be for me- so I just want to finish by saying a very big thank you for giving me the opportunity to write my story.