The NIGHTMARE before Christmas
I worked with Kirsten Smith to share her story in Take a Break magazine about how her Christmas didn't exactly go to plan. While she was giving birth to her baby, her son was also in hospital, fighting for his life.
I placed a set of new pyjamas in a box, along with hot chocolate, popcorn and The Night Before Christmas book. It was part of my yearly tradition, I just hoped my poorly boy was up to it.
I went to check on Riley, four, who was sprawled out on my bed.
‘Want to come and see what the elves have left?’ I asked.
He groaned in response.
Riley hadn’t been well all evening. He had a temperature and kept telling me the lights were giving him a headache. I had called 111, but was advised it was just a bug.
In all that was going on, I could have almost forgotten the Christmas surprise I’d been waiting nine months for. I was pregnant, and my due date was tomorrow.
As I piled up the presents under the tree, I put both hands on my bump and smiled at my partner Brian.
‘Do you think he’ll arrive on time?’ I said.
‘It will be a Christmas to remember if he does,’ he replied.
Brian slept on the sofa and I got into bed with Riley.
He was sick throughout the night, and I hoped it was the virus working its way out of his system.
On Christmas morning, I left Riley in bed and waddled to the kitchen to peel the potatoes and prep the turkey. As I did, I jigged around the kitchen in an attempt to get my baby moving.
Then I went to get Riley.
‘Want to come and open some presents?’ I said.
He shook his head.
‘Alright,’ I said. ‘I’ll check on you again soon.’
But when I did, he didn’t even recognise me. I called Brian in who took one look at Riley and said: ‘Get him to hospital.’
Brian stayed at home to look after his kids from a previous relationship and I rushed Riley to A&E.
As soon as a doctor saw him, he got him a bed immediately and hooked him up to a drip.
Then he had a lumbar puncture.
‘He has bacterial meningitis,’ the doctor said.
‘Is he going to be OK?’ I said.
‘It’s lucky you brought him when you did,’ he said. ‘If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be taking him home. His health is still critical, but we are treating him with antibiotics.’
I could barely see Riley through my tears. He looked so weak and withdrawn. Christmas was most definitely cancelled.
Then the doctor dropped another bombshell.
‘Because you’ve been exposed to the disease, there’s a chance that your unborn baby could have meningitis too,’ he said.
The doctor handed me a tablet.
‘Take this, it will help prevent the disease taking hold,’ he said.
I stayed at hospital, expecting my waters to break at any minute.
But days passed, and I got no signs of labour, not even a twinge.
‘It’s like the baby knows not to come yet,’ I told a nurse.
It was so hard to watch Riley struggling. He was miserable, angry, and he lashed out at me and the nurses.
But by New Year’s Eve, the antibiotics seemed to be working and I was told he could leave.
I should have been happy to have Riley home, but I was worried about him. He was still frail, unstable and barely spoke.
On New Year’s Day, I created a makeshift Christmas to make up for the one Riley had missed out on.
‘Look, Father Christmas has drunk the milk you left for him and Rudolph has chewed the carrot,’ I said.
But Riley didn’t respond.
He wasn’t excited to open his presents and when I made a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, he sat motionless at the table, white-faced with dark circles under his eyes.
‘I’m tired Mummy,’ he said.
Then he went back to bed.
Next day, Riley’s temperature spiked and I took him straight back to hospital. He was readmitted as doctors tried to work out why his health was deteriorating.
When I was two weeks passed my due date, I was booked in for an induction. But before I could have it, I went into labour.
On the maternity ward, I had an epidural and couldn’t stop my mind whirring with concern for Riley, who was fighting for his life just moments away.
Nurses kept ringing downstairs to check on Riley and I squeezed Brian’s hand nervously.
Hours later, I gave birth to our baby boy, Jimmy.
I was absolutely shattered, not just from the labour but from spending every minute worrying.
‘Your baby is healthy,’ a midwife said.
I held Jimmy close to my chest, relieved he was OK.
Next day, Riley was allowed to come upstairs.
He shuffled into the room using a tripod.
‘This is your baby brother,’ I said.
Riley gave a faint smile before curling up on my lap.
Afterwards, his course of IV antibiotics continued and it was impossible to give Jimmy the attention a newborn deserved. I would breastfeed him, then re-join Riley.
The guilt I felt was torture.
Then an MRI scan revealed more bad news.
‘Riley has bronchitis,’ a doctor said.
He was put on another course of antibiotics and I wondered if this nightmare was ever going to end.
That week, I travelled between home and hospital.
I wasn’t allowed to take Jimmy onto the ward, so my family helped look after him. I hated leaving him, and I hated only being able to spend half-an-hour chunks with Riley.
As I drove the all too familiar route to hospital, tears began to trickle down my face. Then I pulled onto the hard shoulder and gripped the wheel, sobbing hard.
I’m letting them both down, I thought.
I had a baby I couldn’t bond with and a child who probably thought his mummy loved the new baby more than him. I didn’t feel like I was being a good enough mum to either of them.
I fought with the guilt for weeks until finally, the colour returned to Riley’s face and his cheeky personality re-emerged.
When I popped my head around the door, he was grinning madly.
‘Please can I come home Mummy?’ he said.
After a fraught six weeks, Riley was discharged.
At home in Gravesend, Kent, I sat on the sofa cuddling both my boys. I couldn’t stop kissing them.
‘It’s so good to have you both at home,’ I said.
In time, I bonded with Jimmy, and Riley and his brother built a bond of their own.
Now I feel lucky for every day I get to spend with my two Christmas miracles, Riley, five, and Jimmy, almost one.
On Christmas Eve, the elves will deliver new pyjamas for them and then I’ll read The Night Before Christmas.
Just spending the festive season with both of my boys and seeing them smile is the only gift I ask for. Christmas Day will be a day to remember but this time, for all the right reasons.