"I felt like no one was listening when I was crying out for help"

After a straightforward pregnancy with her first daughter, Martina from Aberdeen experienced 5 devastating losses. She sought help from Professor Andrew Shennan at Tommy’s Preterm Birth Clinic in London to get the specialist care she needed, and welcomed rainbow baby Gail Shennan this year.

I always knew I wanted children and when I got married to the man of my dreams, I could not wait to start a family. I had completed my master’s degree (MBA), working as a CEO of a charity, and decided it was time to start trying for our first baby.

With our first daughter, conception and pregnancy were both straightforward. She was born via emergency c-section in 2012. We were delighted and totally grateful to have had our adorable little girl, and after a couple of years we were ready to bring another child into the world. Sadly, things went downhill from this point onwards. 

I felt like something was wrong

When our daughter was 2 years old, I fell pregnant, but lost the baby at 8 weeks. I fell pregnant again soon after, and lost the pregnancy at 9 weeks. After taking a break for a few months, we decided to try again. Sadly, we lost our third baby at 11 weeks.

As I have had 3 recurrent miscarriages, I was finally eligible for testing. I was full of questions and I felt like something was terribly wrong. However, all the tests came back clear; the doctor confirmed that there was nothing wrong with me.

When we were ready emotionally, we started trying again and I became pregnant quickly. This time, things felt different. We were delighted when we reached 12 weeks and saw a fluttering heartbeat at our scan. I felt like we had finally passed the ‘danger zone’.

Nobody took my concerns seriously

But a week later, I felt a strange heavy feeling around my abdomen. I went to my GP and told her I felt like something was seriously wrong. She told me not to worry and that it was very normal and sent me home. I believed her, but the feeling did not go away. 

At 17 weeks, I went to the hospital. I told them that something did not feel right and that I could feel the weight of the baby and the pressure down my abdomen. I was certain that something was not right. I was checked over and reassured that everything was fine. 4 days later, I went back into hospital with bulging membranes - my amniotic sac was pushing through my cervix.

I was heartbroken. I felt like I hadn’t been listened to by medical professionals. I know my body, but I was silenced by those around me and nothing could be done to save my baby.

We had to ‘let nature take its course’ and lost our darling baby. Nothing can prepare you for the loss of a child. To keep losing babies is incredibly painful. At this point, I was broken, and I felt helpless.

Searching for answers

I needed to know why my losses had happened. If we couldn’t find what was wrong, I knew we wouldn’t be able to fix it. I continued to push for testing. I know my body and something just wasn’t right. I had a detailed scan of my womb and was told everything was normal, so I was sent away being told that I was just ‘unlucky’.

I tried to be proactive following all that happened: I requested for my consultant to be changed, had a review, and a plan was put in place for future pregnancies. After a few months, I fell pregnant for the sixth time, and asked for an early appointment with a consultant to arrange follow-up scans.

The first trimester passed, and our 12-week scan was perfect. I asked about the possibility of a cervical stitch but was told that we should use a “wait and see approach”. I tried to advocate for myself, but at this point, I didn’t even know terminology like ‘PPROM’ and ‘cervical weakness’.

At about 16 weeks, I had that same strange feeling again, and realised I was leaking fluid. I went straight to the hospital. After a review, they told me that everything looked normal and I should go home. This time, I stood up for myself and told them I would not be leaving. I couldn’t risk losing another child.

I knew that if I lost another child at this point, I wouldn’t survive.

I finally got to speak to a consultant, who agreed to do an internal scan. As soon as she started, it was obvious that my cervix had funneled and my body was preparing for labour. I was booked in for surgery to get an emergency cervical stitch that evening - but it was too late; the stitch failed.

Broken beyond words

I lost the baby at 23 weeks plus, a few days before viability. I don’t have the words to talk about it. My world was completely shattered. This was a very dark time in my life. I was broken beyond words and just needed to be left alone for some time. I was close to giving up hope. I’d lost 5 babies and I could barely go on.

During this period of intense grief, I joined a Facebook group for women who had been diagnosed with an incompetent cervix. A lady on the group read my story and messaged me asking if I’d heard about the work of Professor Andrew Shennan at the Tommy’s Preterm Birth Surveillance Clinic in St Thomas’ Hospital, London. I emailed him straight away and tried to give him as much of my history as possible.

2 days later, his secretary called me and booked me an appointment at the clinic. Right from that initial point of contact, my experience was different. For the first time, I felt like someone genuinely cared about what we’d been through.

For the first time, someone was listening.

When I met with Professor Shennan, I felt reassured immediately. He looked me in the eye and said, “you’ve come to the right place – here, we believe that every baby is worth fighting for”. He performed a detailed scan that day and very quickly identified a scar on my cervix, which he explained was caused by my first c-section in Aberdeen.

I didn’t have the words. The pain was tremendous. If someone had caught this earlier, my losses could have been avoided.

Professor Shennan was compassionate, understanding, and professional. He went above and beyond to explain everything clearly. He told me about a new procedure that he had pioneered at the Tommy’s Research Centre in London. Instead of inserting a stitch into the cervix via the vagina, he suggested something called a transabdominal cerclage (TAC).  

With a TAC, a stitch is placed higher up the cervix via the abdomen and provides a stronger physical barrier to keep a baby inside the uterus. He explained that this would be performed via surgery and the baby would have to be born via c-section. We left hospital that day feeling hopeful.

Getting my surgery - and my rainbow

When I called to organise my TAC, it became clear that the waiting list for the procedure was very long. I decided to visit my consultant at my local hospital in Aberdeen, who I respect enormously, and explained everything I’d discovered. I asked how she’d feel performing the surgery; she explained that she’d need to be taught, as it was a new procedure.

That night, I emailed Professor Shennan to see how he’d feel about teaching the TAC procedure to consultants at my local hospital. I knew the people of Aberdeen needed his help, and I felt excited that so many babies’ lives in Scotland could be saved. I introduced Professor Shennan to my consultant via email and they were both willing to proceed.

It took some time for them to sort everything out from a legal and HR perspective, but after a few months everything was organised. In July 2019, I had my TAC inserted. My operation was the training session for obstetric consultants in Aberdeen. The surgery was a success and, after some time recovering, we started trying for a baby again. 

At the end of September 2019, I found out I was pregnant. The TAC worked, our pregnancy was straightforward, and both my consultant in my local hospital and Prof Shennan worked tirelessly in providing the needed care and support to ensure I had a successful pregnancy. Our healthy little girl Gail Shennan was born via C-section at 35 weeks - she is beautiful and has brought us so much joy.

I can’t thank Professor Shennan enough. He has rewritten our story and given us hope in our lives after such unspeakable pain. He was the answer to our prayers.