Justine gave birth to a very premature baby at 25 weeks' gestation.

We close a rich year of #motherstories with that of Justine, who gave birth to a very premature baby at 25 weeks' gestation. Martin, who weighed just 800 grams at birth, is now a healthy 2.5-year-old boy! A beautiful lesson in life that gives us strength, courage and hope, the winning trio to start the New Year.

Justine, can you introduce yourself in a few words?
I'm 32 years old and live in Blonay in the canton of Vaud with my partner Jérôme and our 2 ½ year old son Martin. I worked for 10 years in the tourism sector before turning to another field I'm passionate about, theater. I've been working in the administration of a Foundation for 4 years at 60% and the rest of the time I take care of Martin.

Did you get pregnant easily?
Yes, I was lucky. After 9 years with Jérôme, we felt ready to start a family. I stopped taking the pill and we waited a few months before trying to get off the pill. 10 months after stopping, during a trip to Japan, Martin was conceived (smile). I didn't realize right away that I was pregnant, because like every month, I had bleeding which I thought was my period, but which turned out to be the beginning of a pregnancy.

At what point were you told that your pregnancy was at risk?
At no point! I had a new gynecologist who I'd only seen once before getting pregnant. At 9 weeks, I had my first hemorrhage, which took me to the emergency room. I was sure I was having a miscarriage, but it was a false alarm. Then my gynecologist told me that my placenta was a bit low but that it could go up until the 32nd week, so there was nothing to worry about. My gynecologist was a bit too chill and underestimated the situation.

Did you then have a2nd hemorrhage?
Yes, around the 21st week. This time, my gynecologist asked me to go to the CHUV for further examination. In their opinion, the haemorrhage was due to placenta previa, but there was nothing alarming. After 48 hours, I went home.

No one seemed to be stressed?
Except my partner and I, no one! What's more, they'd already told me that I'd have to have a caesarean section because my baby was breech, whereas I was dreaming of having a natural birth.

At 5 ½ months pregnant, you and Jérôme head off to the south of France for a final getaway for two. The 3 of you finally returned 2 1/2 months later. What happened?
Before leaving, I went to see my gynecologist to ask him whether it was reasonable to leave or not. As I wasn't bleeding any more, apart from a few discharges, he gave me the go-ahead. After 2 days in the Luberon, I wasn't feeling very well. Nevertheless, we decided to stay our last night in Marseille as planned. The next day, I woke up bleeding. The SAMU came to pick me up at the hotel and take me to hospital.

What do you think at that moment? Do you realize what's happening?
It's a total surprise, you don't know where you're going to end up. What's more, there was a big misunderstanding about my stage of pregnancy, given that Switzerland and France don't calculate pregnancy in the same way! For them, I was 26 weeks and I kept saying 25. In this case, one week's difference had an impact on the decision as to which department I would be hospitalized in.

What did the doctors tell you?
It was a bit of a panic because I was losing a lot of blood. They told me about a corticosteroid injection to speed up the maturation of the baby's lungs, but I didn't want that. For me, it was unthinkable that I should give birth now. We decided to call the CHUV for a second opinion, but they told us we had to do it. We spent Friday day and night in observation. Jérôme slept on an armchair so as not to abandon me.

The next day, we called Rega to see if a repatriation was possible, but then I started bleeding like never before. Everything went very fast! They had no choice but to prepare me as if I were going to have a C-section (catheter, urinary catheter...).

At that point, was the baby viable?
I was convinced it wasn't, it was awful. Surprisingly, the team was quite positive. They reassured us that things could go well, and that they had many success stories. A pediatrician from the neonatal unit came to explain how the delivery would go if it were to take place now, and what the post-partum care would be (intensive care, intubation, incubator...).

When you realized you were about to give birth, what did you feel?
A lot of fear, but when they told me this time to go to the operating room, I felt almost relieved despite the fear. I was lucky in my misfortune to be conscious when Martin arrived. They were adorable. The atmosphere was relaxed. Jérôme couldn't stay, but he was in the adjoining treatment room.

It all happened very quickly. Martin came out and first win, he screamed (smile). We didn't know the sex, so that was a surprise. I couldn't do skin-to-skin because, at that moment, every second counts. They took him into the room where Jérôme was, and I found myself all alone.

I really wasn't psychologically ready. I felt so empty.

I still lost a lot of blood. They discovered that I had an ACCRETA placenta, which means that a small part of it was adhering to my uterus. Gynecologists hate this because it's very difficult to deal with when it's discovered during childbirth. I was lucky that it was only a small piece. So they left it in for the time being.

What was the atmosphere like in the OR once Martin was out?
It was really intense! There was a team looking after me and a team looking after Martin in the next room. They were communicating by phone. I could hear: "your baby is 900 grams". 900 grams! As it turned out, he weighed only 800 grams...

Did you have to undergo another operation immediately to remove the placenta?
Yes, and it had to be done quickly, as only a radiological surgeon could intervene. In my misfortune, I was lucky enough to be able to see my son while waiting for my transfer. I was able to take him with me, which normally never happens, and we were able to forge our first bond.

I then went to the hospital annex for this very specific and delicate operation. Basically, they told me it was double or nothing and that after 3 unsuccessful attempts, my uterus would have to be removed.

At this point, everything is such a blur. I don't know if my baby will live, I don't know if I'll keep my uterus, I don't know anything, I'm helpless.

Once Martin was born, how long were you going to have to stay in hospital?
The doctors initially told us 1 month, but in the end we stayed more than 2 months.

Did your family and friends know?
Only our immediate family knew. I gave birth at 4.40 in the morning, and by 5 they were all there. There were never more than two of us around the baby. Parents and grandparents + siblings exclusively. My sister couldn't have seen him, but they made an exception. My mom stayed for 10 days and came back every time Jérôme had to go back to Switzerland, which happened twice. Fortunately, he's independent and was able to arrange to work from Marseille. I stayed 12 days in hospital and then in a Ronald McDonald House next door.

How did you get started with Martin? What was his care like?
He was in an incubator, intubated, had a central catheter to receive chemical food, a nasogastric tube, electrodes, patches... In short, he was hooked up to everything, with very stressful beeps at first. As soon as a machine beeped, we wondered if something serious was happening, even though it could be insignificant.

After 36 hours, I was able to skin him, the first of many. Every day, when his condition allowed it, we wore him as a kangaroo.

What does a premature baby look like?
Like a little baby mammal. A miniature, fully formed but so fragile, all hairy and thin-skinned. He may have been 30 cm long, but curled up he looked so small. At first, we're not going to lie, it's very impressive and difficult. You have to get used to the machines beeping all over the place. Sometimes, the nurses had to stimulate Martin because premature babies forget to breathe. They are often desaturated and apneic.

Great whipworm in incubator

Did the medical team listen to you and explain developments on a day-to-day basis?
The medical team was really great. We quickly bonded with them. You have to realize that our baby's life was in their hands. We were with them for 2 months. With Jérôme, we needed to understand the situation for ourselves, the doctors' terms, the manipulations to do or not to do. I needed to be an actor, not a spectator. The more the weeks went by, the more confident we felt about handling Martin. How to unplug him, take him in our arms, plug him back in. In France, parents are given freedom more easily and quickly, which is important for creating bonds and feeling like parents as quickly as possible.

How did the long-awaited return to Switzerland go?
We were due to return at the end of May, 2 months after Martin's birth, but the day before we were due to leave, we had a big scare! There was a complication in his intestine. We had to go back to the intensive care unit where they re-intubated him. He had enterocolitis, a part of his intestine that was starting to necrose. We almost lost him. We were very, very scared. This time, the doctors weren't at all reassuring, so much so that the pediatrician had tears in her eyes. But Martin, our warrior, pulled through! He survived.

After a few days, we had the OK to return. We called Rega again, who had been checking up on us regularly since our first telephone conversation. They've been incredible! I can tell you that it's with great pleasure, and now with great gratitude, that we pay our contributions. Within 24 hours, everything was organized. The ambulance ride to the airport and then the plane with all the necessary medical equipment. A doctor and a nurse specialized in neonatology and a Rega nurse arrived with everything they needed! The team in Marseille were stunned, because they don't have such resources... They put Martin in the incubator, hooked up to everything. I stayed with him the whole time. Jérôme returned to Switzerland with my mother in our car. When we landed, an ambulance was waiting on the tarmac to take us to the CHUV.

Emotionally, it must have been strange to leave after so much time spent in hospital?
Oh yes! As I was saying, the medical team did an exceptional job. I owe Martin's life to them. We spent so many hours there. We went through so many emotions that to leave, this time for good, was a blow. Relieved, of course, but a little nostalgic.

How long did Martin have to stay at the CHUV?
We knew that he would have to stay at the CHUV for at least another month, until the initial due date of July 16. He was not yet respiratory independent. Jérôme and I returned home (finally) and went back and forth every day.

So, Martin's room wasn't done?
Strangely (or perhaps a sign), we'd planned ahead. We'd already bought everything for his room. We even had the baby carriage (smile). We just had to finalize the decor to make it as cosy as possible.

Were you able to breastfeed Martin?
As soon as he was born, I took out my colostrum and they gave it to him by syringe. Then I was able to pump my own milk, which they gave him (through a tube) for 2 months in Marseille. Expressing milk many times a day is demanding and time-consuming. But knowing that breast milk is gold for them, I was happy to do it, thinking it was the least I could do for him. We started breastfeeding when we got back to Switzerland and it went quite well. I breastfed him until he was 1 year old.

When and how did the BIG return home for the 3 of you take place?
July 23 (smile). It felt strange to find the three of us home alone. No more medical team, no more machines, just us, two parents who, like all parents in the world, felt a little stressed, but we quickly found our feet.

We come home with a newborn, but he's already 3 months old, we know him.

What's maternity leave like with a large preemie?
It's a big problem! Maternity leave would have started on the day of the birth, which would have meant that I would have had to start work again before Martin even got home, which was quite unthinkable! We were therefore able to postpone maternity leave so that it would start on the day Martin came home. But during the months of hospitalization, no insurance covers the mother's salary. There's a sort of gray area (which will no longer be the case from 2021, thanks to the federal law to support family carers). We've been extremely lucky because my employer has continued to pay me, and I'm very grateful for his generosity!

How is Martin today at 2 ½ years old?
Super well (smile). He has no after-effects, he's never sick. I only go to the pediatrician for his annual check-ups. So far he's progressed very well and caught up with his growth curve.

What's your relationship like?
We're very close, but I try not to overprotect him. It's important to me that he can blossom like any other child. I find it hard to have someone else look after him, I must admit. We were advised not to put him in daycare for the first two years, if at all possible, to protect his immune system. So we worked it out between his grandmother, his dad and me.

And how are you? And your relationship?
Physically, it's been a long time coming. 3 months after my first operation, I had to have it done again, but this time it worked! The bit of placenta that had remained inside me has finally gone.

Emotionally, it wasn't easy. We were so afraid of losing Martin that all our attention was on him and we completely forgot about ourselves, but little by little we're taking time for ourselves again. Jérôme has incredible strength of character. He was my rock through all these trials. He made me laugh and always saw the positive side.

Today, I can say that this ordeal has taught us a lot. It strengthened us and allowed me to reveal myself.

What advice would you give to parents who are going through this today?
Every story is so different. My mantra was: trust & patience. We had "prepared" ourselves for the possibility of losing our son. You have to put all your trust in your baby. They're the real warriors, and we can support them as best we can by giving them all the energy and strength we have. The medical environment is scary at first. You have to tame it and turn it into an ally. Despite the situation, it's important not to be "robbed" of your place as parents, and to assert it. 

If you had to define motherhood in one word?
Surprise, because you're never prepared for what lies ahead. And love.

Justine, what's the best thing we can wish you today for tomorrow?
May our whole family remain in good health, and if we have a2nd pregnancy, may it go well and reach term.