At 20 weeks, my waters broke. I knew I was going to lose my baby

Shema and her husband Ian lost their firstborn son, Altair, at 21 weeks. After discovering she had a rare condition, she was supported to full term in her next pregnancy by Professor Alex Heazell and the Tommy’s team at St Mary’s in Manchester.

We knew we wanted children and began trying in 2014, just after we got married. We’d left it late and knew age might make things difficult, we couldn’t have known then just how difficult.

Naively, I thought IVF would work but 3 years passed, one gruelling cycle after another. As each one failed, a little more hope went.

Just at the point I thought I’d never have children, our fourth cycle worked. I was elated but, because it was an IVF pregnancy, it also felt precarious.

At our 6-week scan, they thought baby wasn’t growing as he should but a week later, they heard a heartbeat. We thought we’d had our scare. We assumed we’d get to take our baby home. I’m a doctor, yet it didn’t occur to me that we’d be one of the unlucky ones who wouldn’t.

By 12 weeks we felt safe and, even at our 14-week scan when they thought there was an issue with the blood supply to our baby, we weren’t worried.

They confirmed my waters had broken early

I was 17 weeks pregnant when they told us something was seriously wrong. A scan showed too much fluid on our baby’s brain and that he wasn’t growing well.

It was suddenly very frightening. He was already kicking when we went back two weeks later for test results, I felt awful. I’d convinced myself we were going to lose him, but the scan showed he’d picked up and was putting on weight. That’s when we learned we were having a boy. As we left my worst-case scenario was that he’d be premature, I felt reassured.

“A few days later, at 20 weeks, my waters broke on the tube. I was alone, and I knew straight away that I was going to lose my baby.”

I went straight to hospital where they confirmed my waters had broken early and that I’d need to be induced, go through labour and deliver our baby, knowing our baby would, most likely, be dead.

It was such an awful experience and made me realise that not all health professionals are good at managing baby loss.

I asked for an extra scan to say goodbye

I was left to wait for 2 hours, and then admitted to a labour ward where I could hear babies crying, knowing my own son never would.

Just before taking the induction tablet I asked to be scanned once more, to see my baby alive for the last time. They looked at me as if I was mad and someone said, ‘It won’t change anything’. I knew that, I just wanted to say goodbye.

Two days later, after a long and protracted labour and birth, Altair was born at 21 weeks. I was exhausted and scared.

I didn't realise he would look perfect - like a normal baby

At first, we didn’t want to see him because nobody had told us what he’d look like.

I wish someone had told us he’d just look like a tiny baby. I wish someone had told us that he may even be breathing. I didn’t know that could happen. You only get one chance; you can’t go back.

A few hours later I wanted to see him. He was perfect; our tiny little boy.

It’s so hard that his birth is described as a late miscarriage. I gave birth to him; I held his body. In my mind he was stillborn, but we had no birth certificate, no death certificate, and that’s impossibly hard to bear.

My placenta had a condition

It took months to recover, then we needed to think about next steps, and that meant more IVF. Our next round, six months after losing Altair, failed. Focusing on the IVF cycles helped me cope and, in April 2018, we did our sixth round and it worked.

Altair’s post-mortem showed that my placenta had a condition where my immune system attacks the foetus, eventually cutting off the blood supply to the baby. It’s rare, and thought to be untreatable and reoccurs, usually getting worse so I knew any future pregnancy would be extremely risky.

I did lots of research and emailed every expert in the world. I came across Professor Alexander Heazell, the Clinical Director of the Tommy's Stillbirth Research Centre in St Mary's Hospital in Manchester.

I made contact with him and explained our story. He phoned me went through my history and told me he’d treated a few women with my condition with good results. He said that if I got pregnant, he’d look after me at the Tommy’s Rainbow Clinic at St Mary’s in Manchester.

I went there from 17 weeks onwards for scans. I was so nervous that first time, but everything was completely normal, and I continued to have a very uneventful pregnancy.

“The clinic is amazing; everyone is so compassionate. They really understand how to look after families who have lost babies. Something as simple as asking our first son’s name, then referring to him by it.”

Pregnancy after loss

They also understand that scans are terrifying after loss, so immediately tell you there’s a heartbeat. These small things come from a real understanding of the emotional consequences of baby loss.

I carried on seeing them until I was 32 weeks. It was a long trip from London to Manchester, but we loved going there and felt safe with them.

I’ve been a doctor for 20 years and Professor Heazell is one of the most compassionate doctors I’ve ever met both professionally and personally. He goes above and beyond for his patients; he really cares.

To see our living son was an incredible miracle

Faris was born on December 11th, just a week early. When they handed him to me it was overwhelming. We’d been on this journey for five years, we’d lost one son, to see our living son, to hold him, was, and still is, an incredible miracle.

Altair is very present in our home. We talk about him and his ashes are on our mantelpiece. He will always be our firstborn son and now, with Faris, we see ourselves as a family of four.

The Tommy’s team at St Mary’s have given us the most amazing gift, we’ll never be able to thank them enough.

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