July marks Group B Strep awareness month. So in light of this I thought I would share my personal experience of GBS and the effects it can have on a newborn baby.
For those unaware Group B Streptococcus is a bacteria carried in 20-30% of adults. It can be found in the gut or for some women in the vagina. It doesn’t cause any symptoms and is classed as a normal bacteria. For the mother it is seemingly harmless but for the unborn baby it can be life threatening, especially as they travel through the birth canal where the bacteria is found.
Finlay was born on 27th November 2013 at 6.18pm. I had been pushing for about 2 hours and his birth was a great sense of relief. My labour I was told wasn’t a long one, just over 12 hours but to me it seemed to last an eternity. I was rather “out of it” once Finlay had been delivered so David had the first cuddle. The midwives left us in the room to go and have their dinner and fortunately my mum was with us as Finlay soon turned blue. My mum rushed to get the midwives who took Finlay to the delivery suite next door and placed him under the heated light. They gave him some oxygen and managed to bring back his colour.
A few hours later we were back on the ward and all seemed well. Finlay had his first feed, given by David (in my mind I had all night and morning to feed him so wanted David to have a go). David noticed that his breathing seemed rather grunt like but we both just chalked it down to first time parent paranoia and didn’t say anything.
By 11pm both David and my mum had left and it was just Finlay and I together. He started to cry so I picked him up. I remember the midwife saying to me I would create bad habits if I picked him up every time he cried. I placed him back in his cot and went to the toilet. Those reading this who have given birth vaginally before will know a trip to the toilet will take nearly 20 minutes compared to the usual 5!
When I returned, Finlay was in the arms of the midwife (the same one who told me not to pick him up so much). She said he was struggling to settle so was going to take him for a walk. Again I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t know any better. She returned about 20 minutes later and explained he was in an incubator as his breathing was slow and he was cold. She went on to advise I call my mum and David back up to the ward. And she handed me the staff phone to make the call. I sheepishly told my mum that the midwife said she should come back. Of course this prompted 20 questions from my mum and I silently handed the phone back to the midwife who tried to explain, best she could without ensuing panic, that Finlay wasn’t feeling very well. My mum swung by my flat and collected David en route.
Living on a small island means that our maternity unit is rather small and ill equipped to deal with Neonatal emergencies. It only has (to the best of my knowledge) 1 or 2 incubators. We do not have a Paediatric department and rely on locums from the mainland to consult.
*I have to disclose that the rest of my post will be written to the best of my knowledge of the given events. As it was very traumatic I cannot guarantee that everything I write will be in chronological order. But it all will have happened.
Upon arrival David, my mum and I were taken to see Finlay in his incubator. He lay there lifeless. His skin was extremely jaundice and you could still see some blood from birth on his hair. At this point I had only held him for a matter of minutes and we were not allowed to touch him. I had to look at my newborn through a Perspex screen. There were two midwives on shift and one was assigned to Finlay and only Finlay. She told me I should take a photo of him. Thoughts started rushing through my head: why is she saying that? Is it because she believes he will die and I need a photo to remind myself of him?
I had been moved to a side room and advised to get some rest. I dozed in and out while David sat next to me. My mum became the liaison between us and the midwives. The Peadtrician had been called along with a local GP who specialises in Neonatal cases. Neither of them knew what was wrong with Finlay. They decided it was best to “pump” him full of different antibiotics in the hope one would work. They also set up a video conference call with the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) in Glasgow, who advised them that the best course of action was to transfer Finlay to Glasgow for further treatment.
By 3 or 4am the Neonatal Transfer Team had been informed as had the hospital in Glasgow. All we had to do was wait till the morning when the transfer could start. I too would be transferred to Glasgow to the same hospital. My mum booked a flight for 8.30am so she could be with us. I was in physical pain, I was in emotional pain, I was raw and numb.
By the time daylight appeared on the cold November morning the Tranfer Team were already there. They placed Finlay into a small more compact incubator. Neither David or I were going to be allowed to travel with Finlay. The plane was too small and could only carry the essential team and Finlay in his incubator.
The secretarial staff booked David and I on a commercial flight leaving at 2pm. The Transfer Team nurse was lovely and she took my mobile number so she could call once Finlay landed in Glasgow and again when he reached the NICU. They placed a special cover over his incubator so no one could see in and ogle over his fragile state.
They discharged me from their care and sent me home to pack a suitcase. “How many days will we be away for?” I asked. “Maybe 2 or 3” was the response. So we both packed a small suitcase. I still had my hospital bag prepared so I took that too. We turned up at the airport with our luggage and an empty car seat for Finlay’s return.
While waiting in the lounge I got a phone call from the Neonatal Tranfer Nurse who said Finlay was now in the care of NICU team. My mum was already at the hospital waiting for us.
Two and half hours later we arrived. I was in a lot of physical pain, which became clear to the Consultant who met us at the door of the ward. Before she began to explain Finlay’s condition she went to get me some painkillers.
I do not remember much about the initial discussion. I do remember her saying his skin was lemony in colour, they did not know what was wrong with him but were “pumping” his body full of antibiotics to combat his condition and that we had to brace ourselves as they fully expected him not to make it through the night.
They allowed us to visit him. The strict rules meant that only two people were allowed by the cot and one had to be a parent. I was in too much shock to stay long by his bedside.
I was wheeled up to my ward where I was given a side room to myself. At around 11pm David and my mum left and I was on my own. That night was the loneliest moment of my life. I felt imprisoned in the room, away from all those I loved the most. I had a baby in a ward upstairs whom I had yet to cuddle properly and I struggled with feelings of love towards him. I woke up every hour or so longing for it to be morning when I could see my family again. I had told myself that I would not spend another night in that hospital bed and asked to be discharged in the morning. The midwife agreed to my demands and set up check ups with the community team, which took place in my brother’s West End flat.
The next morning I got a phone call from David to say my mum and him were running late. This forced me to make the long and winding journey to the NICU by myself. What was a 5 minute walk must have taken me about 15. I struggled along the corridor grabbing onto the railings for support.
When I arrived at the NICU I was met by Fiona, Finlay’s personal NICU nurse. She was a trained midwife and soon became our close aid. The consultant was doing his rounds and sought me out. He explained to me that Finlay had contracted Group B Strep from me during labour. He went onto explain that Finlay’s infection markers were at 169. A normal healthy baby’s were usually under 10. It all of a sudden hit me how ill he was. He said we had a long road ahead of us. Their main priority was to make sure the infection didn’t enter his brain and cause Meningitis or Sepsis.
But what was this Group B Strep? I had never heard of it before. I was not given a leaflet about it in my antenatal pack. The doctor explained the bacteria to me and how Finlay must have contracted it as he passed through the birth canal. I asked if this could have been prevented and he said that it could have if it had been detected in me before labour. Currently on the NHS the number of babies affected by the condition is not enough to warrant a routine check of all pregnant women for the bacteria. Also the bacteria can present at anytime. It is most likely I did not carry it at the beginning of my pregnancy but towards the end. A swob taken at the beginning of my labour confirmed that I indeed was a carrier of Group B Strep. I was carrying a harmless bacteria to me but one that so drastically harmed my child. I felt sick.
The next few days were a blur. We got many visits from family, though they were supportive it was hard. My mum was our solid rock throughout the whole situation. She held her own emotions together in order to stay strong for David and I. We would have been lost if she was not there. The NICU is such a surreal environment. It is very hot, there are a lot of random beeps and noises and you spend a lot of your time washing and sanitising your hands.
Finlay was in a room with 3 other incubators. Each held a baby born too soon, premature. Finlay was the only “term” baby in the ward. We were not allowed to pick him up whenever we wanted and had to wait for that magical time in the day when he was allowed out of his incubator for a cuddle. We became dab hands at changing a nappy inside an incubator, manuvering past all the wires and tubes.
Each day we saw a little bit of progress, as his infection markers dropped. Finlay had 2 lumbar punctures and numerous blood tests. His heel looked like a pin cushion. Fortunately he never contracted meningitis or sepsis. He was and still is a little fighter!
After a week in NICU we said goodbye to Fiona and the team and Finlay graduated (down the stairs) to the SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit) ward. Here the environment was more relaxed. The babies were in cots not incubators. You, the parent, were allowed to wash, feed, change and cuddle your baby. At a week and a few days old Finlay was given his first bath and we were finally able to wash off the dried blood in his hair. He was also able to wear clothes, something he didn’t need in the warm cosy incubator.
Strangely both David and I missed the constant and rhythmic sounds of the NICU machines and it took us a wee while to get used to the more quiet atmosphere in SCBU. Finlay spent 3 nights on the ward in SCBU and then we were given the opportunity to “room” in with him.
“Rooming” in is where the parent or parents get to spend a few nights in a room with their baby in order to prepare them for what it will be like when they go home. You the parent are 100% responsible for your child with the SCBU nurses on hand just in case you might need help or support. Normally it is the mother who rooms in. But because David and I were not from Glasgow he was allowed to room in too.
On 9th of December 2013, twelve days after arriving in Glasgow we were given the all clear and allowed to take our precious little fighter home. I would like to give you more details about Finlay’s medical treatment but as I said earlier I have wiped large chunks of the experience from my memory. It was extremely traumatic and left both David and I with lasting effects as we both suffered from PTSD.
Upon return I spent some time researching Group B Strep and came across the Group B Strep Support Facebook page and website. I began to educate myself on the bacteria that nearly robbed us of our son. It was here I found out that if you are a carrier you should be given antibiotics in labour. And the only way to check if you are carrying the bacteria is to have a swob done between weeks 36 and 40 of pregnancy. It also went onto say that women who have had babies affected by the bacteria should be given antibiotics in their next labour regardless. I clung tightly to that fact and was indeed given antibiotics in my labour with the twins.
The work Group B Strep Support do is fantastic at raising awareness. If you would like to read more then please visit their website:
If you are pregnant, thinking of trying or in the process of trying then please educate yourself about Group B Strep. It could be the difference between life or death.