Looking back, I’m glad that Professor Quenby was so cautious

After treatment for cervical cancer in her early twenties, Emma King was at a higher risk of miscarriage when she became pregnant so was referred to the Tommy’s Miscarriage Research clinic in Coventry. She was given a cervical stitch, but her son, Tommy, was born prematurely after her waters broke just before 32 weeks. This is Emma’s story.

I was diagnosed with cervical cancer after my first smear test when I was 25. It was obviously a shock but I was told it was first stage and curable. I ended up going to Coventry to have surgery to take the affected area of my cervix away.

There was no question of not having surgery, I didn’t even know if I wanted children and felt too young to be even thinking about it and the consultant was confident starting a family would still be an option in the future.

Referral to a Tommy's clinic

We started trying in January 2020. I’d always been told it could be harder for me due to scar tissue from the surgery but I fell pregnant within a month. Although I felt fine, I was sent to Warwick Hospital for my 12-week scan because of my history as I’d always been told I was high risk for miscarriage and would need a C-section.

I ended up being referred to Tommy’s National Centre for Miscarriage Research at Coventry, under the care of Professor Quenby and the Tommy’s team. I first saw her at 16 weeks where an internal scan showed everything was okay, then I had cervical length scans every four weeks. They gave me a cervical stitch to help keep my damaged cervix closed and reduce the risk of baby coming too soon.

I think because that scan had been so positive, I just thought everything would be okay but the further along I got, the heavier the baby got – putting pressure on my weakened cervix and meaning a higher risk of miscarriage or premature birth.

At 26 weeks my cervix had shortened so I was admitted and put on bed rest for two weeks which, mentally, was incredibly difficult. We were in the middle of lockdown so I had no visitors, I just lay there, alone, in hospital.

They gave me steroids for baby’s lungs and came up with a plan for if I went into labour. I felt very looked after but the solitude was mentally tough and I struggled with being admitted as I felt physically fine.

Looking back, I’m glad that Professor Quenby was so cautious, that she just wanted me to get to that 28 week milestone. She was all about the baby and I’m grateful for that now.

By 28 weeks, I felt physically fine and my cervical length had gone back up so I was sent home to rest with the plan I’d go back at 32 weeks. I didn’t make it.

Emergency C-section

My waters went three days before I was due to go back so it was a panic to get to hospital where I was admitted to triage. They monitored baby, who was fine, and gave me magnesium to protect baby’s brain. The midwife was incredible, so calm, she called Professor Quenby in the early hours who told her I needed a C-section.

I was terrified, it had been all about keeping baby inside then suddenly about getting baby out, 8 weeks prematurely. They took me to theatre where the neo-natal team spoke to me as I had my epidural, explaining baby would probably go straight to NICU.

He was early and tiny but he did cry which made the medical team happy. They were also happy with his weight but couldn’t tell me much more for a few hours.

They explained that premature babies can be stable, then not, it’s one step forward and two back a lot of the time.

I didn’t get to see him but my husband did and told me we’d had a little boy.

Life in NICU

He was born at 2.19am and I went to recovery while my husband went to NICU. He sent me a photo at around 5am then I was finally wheeled down to meet him at 9.30am. It was really daunting, I didn’t even know which baby was mine.

I don’t remember much about seeing him for the first time. I think it was self-protection, I hadn’t slept and I was in shock.

I have a photo where I’m holding his hand but I don’t remember it being taken. He had a breathing tube, a feeding tube, oxygen via CPAP and was wearing an eye mask, it was all just a massive shock.

He was only in NICU for two days then into the high dependency unit, all in all he was in hospital for four-and-a-half weeks and it was an horrific time. I was discharged after a few days but I live 45 minutes away and it’s so heart-breaking to leave your baby alone in hospital, it is not how it’s supposed to be.

I couldn’t drive after the section so just getting back and forth to hospital was a juggle and every day that’s what I wanted, to get back to him. We’d call first thing, I’d go in at lunchtime then my husband would join us later. It was regimented but I think that’s the only way we got through it.

He was incredible, really strong. There were ups and downs but nothing too bad, it was mostly about feeding him but you’d never guess now that he arrived eight weeks early.

Bringing him home

Bringing him home didn’t feel real and it was daunting because they are so good in hospital. I was a first-time mum, I’d had no antenatal classes and they taught me so much, how to change a nappy, how to bathe him. It took time but you do eventually find your feet and start relaxing.

The experience was tough and, looking back, we didn’t really get any emotional support, nobody reaching out. I’m quite strong and I have a good network of people around me so I’m lucky, some people don’t have that.

Weirdly it was in the run-up to his first birthday that I started having nightmares but, as soon as it passed, I was fine. I think it was just looking back and thinking about where we’d been the previous year.

I still see a consultant once-a-year to check me after the surgery and I know the stitch they originally put in is a mess and will need to be taken out going forward.

I spoke to Professor Quenby afterwards and said how lucky I felt that we got a positive outcome and explained I wasn’t sure I could face it again.

She referred me to Tommy’s in London to see Professor Shennan at the Tommy’s Preterm Birth Surveillance Unit. He’s an expert in the area, especially for women like me who have had issues with their cervix and previous premature births, and I need all my cards on the table in case we want to have more children. We’re not sure that we want to knowingly go through that again but we’re so grateful for our little boy.

More support and information

Premature birth is when a baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Most of the time, premature births happen on their own and often doctors will not be able to find out why. 

If you have any concerns about premature labour or birth, you can talk to the Tommy's midwives on our pregnancy line. Call 0800 014 7800 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm), or email [email protected].

Find out more about premature birth.

Your pregnancy symptoms

In many cases, pregnancy symptoms can be treated easily and will not lead to a serious complication. But sometimes they are signs of something more serious. 

Tell your midwife or doctor if you have any symptoms that you're worried about. Do not worry if you've talked about it before and don't be concerned about whether you're wasting anyone's time. This is your pregnancy and it's important to trust your own instincts.

Maternity care is still essential during the coronavirus pandemic and services are still running. If you have any concerns about your pregnancy call your GP, midwife, nearest early pregnancy unit or maternity unit.