On a cold, wet, Belfast morning in spring, Sandra had a sharp, severe abdominal pain. She knew instinctively that it was the onset of labour. It was the moment she had been waiting for, all these months. There was no panic – she had had the text-book pregnancy. Her husband, Robert, was at work, but waiting for THE CALL to come and take her to the hospital. Less than an hour later she was in the delivery suite of the local maternity hospital.
It was 1980 and men-waiting-to-be-fathers were relegated to the waiting room. It was draughty, not very warm, filled with cigarette smoke and the grey, uncomfortable, plastic chairs were arranged in rows like a small theatre. The décor was typical of the late 20th century utilitarian style with sickly pastel green gloss walls enhanced by fluorescent strip lighting encased in yellowing plastic diffusers. By way of diversion, the management had thoughtfully provided some dog-eared 1978 ladies' journals and a few grubby vintage home decoration magazines. On the walls were leaflet dispensers with helpful advice on contraception and where to go for treatment for sexually transmitted infections. Apart from a background noise of a busy hospital, the only sounds came from the public address system and the occasional occupant of the waiting room saying to a neighbour that if anyone was looking for him, he had just gone to the toilet/to get a drink/to buy fags and he would be back in a couple of moments; or a nurse would appear and ask “Is Mr ---- here? Oh, there you are. Congratulations! You have a lovely little baby boy/girl. You can come and see your wife now.” About 12 hours later, Robert had read all the available magazines, irrespective of their content and was having a fun time learning about the symptoms of genital herpes. He was relaxed. Although this was his wife's first child, it would be his second. A nurse appeared and called his name. No cheery “Congratulations!” for him – just a short message; “Your wife won't be giving birth for quite a while. Why don't you go home and give us a ring in the morning to see if there's any progress?” In the rush, Robert had forgotten to bring money with him to the hospital, so the prospect of a warm drink and a decent meal was very attractive indeed. He left without delay.
Next morning there was no news so Robert went to work. It wasn't until the mid-afternoon of the following day that he received a phone call. It was the “Congratulations! Speech” but had an addendum. Robert was, indeed, the proud father of a baby boy, but he was a “difficult child”. He had been a sleepy baby who didn't cry immediately after birth; the birth had been difficult and eventually a Caesarean section procedure had been carried out. His wife was recovering from her ordeal and his son was in the intensive care unit of the maternity unit. Robert would be contacted when it was possible to see either or both of them. There was no point in coming to the hospital just yet, he was informed.
The next call came the following morning. Robert was told that, all things considered, Sandra was doing fine; but having endured 48 hours' labour and the loss of a lot of blood, it would be another day or two before he could see her. He could see his son, but he had been removed to The Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. It was suggested that he went there as soon as possible. Apparently his son had volvulus, a twisted gut. Robert left for the hospital immediately.
At the hospital, he was met in the corridor by the surgeon, complete with green theatre outfit and wellington boots, who was just about to operate on his son. The surgeon was upbeat. The operation was uncomplicated and 100% success was the anticipated outcome. Robert would be able to see his son in an hour or two. Longer term, no further problems were expected. The only consequence of the operation would be that Robert's son would have a scar on his abdomen.
Indeed, just over two hours later, Robert was summoned to the neonatal intensive care unit, where his son was in an incubator. Robert's first sighting of his son revealed a very sick looking baby with what appeared to be a huge incision right across his abdomen and a distended stomach, surrounded by wires and monitors. (Similar to the photo.) The Ward Nurse explained to Robert that his son had been poisoning himself with the waste that his twisted gut had prevented from exiting his body. He would look better in a couple of days. The operation had been a complete success.
For the next month, Robert spent nearly all of his free time at the children's hospital, where, after a couple of days, he was able to nurse his son (although still attached to a mutitude of wires), change and feed him. The emotion Robert felt welling up inside him for this helpless infant was so intense that it was almost torturous. When he wasn't at the children's hospital, he was at the maternity unit where, for two weeks, his wife Sandra stayed to recuperate after having her “difficult baby”. After leaving the maternity unit, Sandra accompanied Robert to the children's hospital. It was the first time that she had seen her baby – her firstborn.
She accompanied Robert several times subsequently until at last, the baby was discharged with a clean bill of health. The family home, eerily quiet since Sandra had left to give birth, was now a busy, happy place where the smell of baby formula mixed with the smell of wet terry nappies and the gurgles and occasional complaints of the new arrival.
Now read part 2.