Alex James: My twin miracles

When his partner went into labour three months early, it struck terror into Alex James. Here he describes how, with the help of a crack team of NHS specialists, his babies won their battle to survive - and he was as awed by the wonder of the hospital as the wonder of life
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The Independent Online

At any stage of a pregnancy, losing a baby is a death in the family. You get really attached to babies, even before they are born. It was an extra-special pregnancy, because it was twins, and I was feeling extra special. Twins draw a crowd. We went to see Claire's GP when we realised she was pregnant, and joked that we thought it was twins. We had just come back from a holiday during which Claire had been unable to get out of bed. The doctor said: "Don't be ridiculous, you don't want twins. It's complicated. It's risky. Have them one at a time."

We called her 20 minutes later from the ultrasound clinic and said: "It is. It's twins." She said: "Fantastic." and she meant it, too. It is the hardest news I have ever had to contain. It was all I could think about, but you cannot tell anyone until the 12-week mark. About a quarter of pregnancies do not make it past 12 weeks. We got the all-clear the day before Christmas Eve and told the grannies on Christmas Day. It was our best Christmas.

The bump was huge at six months and Claire was already starting to decorate, as she did at the end of her first pregnancy. She looked incredibly well. She had a glow. I came into the house and she was unloading a mountain of food from the car, mainly taramasalata. She had a very determined look. She was not due for three months but later that day she called and said she thought her waters had broken. It is often the first sign that labour is about to start when that happens.

I got to the hospital as soon as I could. Increasing numbers of fathers are choosing not to be present during childbirth. Expecting mothers sometimes prefer their super best friend to be at their side as their "birthing partner". I am not sure if I like the idea of an alternative birthing partner. If dad is going to be around for the child, it is best to start at the beginning.

There are lots of things about babies that are anathema to the chic metropolitan male. Pooh, goo, rucksacks all spring to mind. The birth is the time to roll up those sleeves, take a deep breath and say to yourself: "My, how things have changed." Even if you think you do not want to be around for the birth of your children, that you hate hospitals, if you ever get that phone call: "Oh my God. It's happening now." you will want to be there. If you do not you are truly insane. Men's glossy style magazines do not tend to embrace fatherhood. They seem to be more concerned with gadgets, trousers and unsuitable women. Positive role models for fatherhood are hard to find in the media.

I blame the car for a lot of what is wrong with the 21st century. The combustion engine is 100 years old. If you look at how the technology for, for example, listening to music has developed since the time the car engine was invented, there have been several paradigm shifts. The revolutions from musical boxes to wax cylinders, vinyl to CD and MP3 have come thick and fast. But the car engine is still, basically, a Victorian musical box. It has only been refined, never revolutionised.

Wheels are even worse. Wheels are prehistoric, anachronistic and embarrassing in the 21st century. We're all supposed to have spaceships and jet packs by now. The only way car companies can promote their superannuated, unethical equipment is to make it appear unknowably sophisticated, and unfixable by human hands.

Medicine has advanced beyond belief since the petrol engine came into being. We understand how the body works so much better now, but we are less willing to, because of the way we deal with everything else. But we are surrounded by lots we do not understand. When the dishwasher breaks, we tend to get someone to come and fix it. We regard our bodies as we regard our cars and other machines, things only other people understand.

If modern marketing is mystification, hospitals are flying in the face of fashion. They are all about understanding and clarifying. Right from the beginning of the pregnancy, the care has been fantastic. The local midwife team had been very supportive, before Claire was admitted to hospital. When she reached the maternity ward, she said: "They want to give me steroids." She was terrified, thought she was going to sprout a beard. She was hoping to give birth in a kind of aromatherapy spa environment, with candles and new age mood music, more "ylang ylang" than, "How about some steroids madame?"

For Claire's first pregnancy, we had been to visualisation sessions, and imagined something wonderful and wafty. I remember her saying,"I don't want to get in the bath any more; I want some fucking drugs, right now" when the water birth wasn't quite going to plan.

This time, the doctor patiently explained that steroids, when used correctly, have positive effects on babies likely to be born so long before term. The lungs are the final organs to develop, and that is why premature babies often have difficulty breathing. Steroids help the lungs. After that, Claire would have taken extra steroids, just to make sure.

She managed to hang on to the babies for another week, which was fantastic. She was 28 weeks pregnant, and as a rule of thumb, every extra day in the womb at that stage is worth three days in intensive care. It also gave time for the steroids to start doing their stuff.

More or less every day I got a phone call saying, "Get down here quick" and I was starting to think it was never going to happen. On Easter Monday, I got the most shocking call. A friend had died suddenly. He had young twins and had stayed with us a couple of weeks before. I was upset and told my mum I had decided not to let Claire know until after the babies were born. The phone rang and it was Claire. I picked it up and said: "Jesus, Jago's dead." Two hours later she went into labour. It was the oddest night of my life. The twins were so small and both pointing feet first, so it was always the plan to deliver them by cesarean section. As labour had started, the operation had to be performed before natural labour had gone too far for it to be safe for a cesarean.

It was five o'clock on a bank holiday morning. Mine was the only car on the road. In the theatre, there was assembled an all-star cast of a dozen highly specialised staff; some had expertise in twins, others had particular knowledge of premature babies, the surgeon, anaesthetist and so on. How such a team could be scrambled at such short notice was flabbergasting.

We had been told of all the risks, but I suddenly had a wonderful feeling, that I could trust and rely on every one in the room. It is hard to explain how precious that feeling was. We only ever tend to hear how bad the NHS is. I can tell you, and my heart will beat faster when I say it, that our health service is absolutely incredible. In fact, during the birth I was more overwhelmed with the wonder of the hospital than with the wonder of life.

The bright light and the white walls of the theatre make the place look like an art gallery. There was a curtain over Claire's chest. A friend told me it is fine as long as you do not look over the curtain, but the trouble is, all you want to do is look over the curtain. It is true. I spent the whole procedure on my feet looking over. The surgeon doused Claire's tummy with iodine. Then she made a cut and spread it open with a caliper device and pulled the babies out. She was cool as Coca-Cola and steady as steel, the surgeon.

The babies are passed on to the care staff who make sure the hearts are beating, get them breathing, all the important stuff. Each baby has two specialists. The anaesthetist was next to me, continuously monitoring Claire. It was a big team. Eleven people went in. Thirteen came out.

It has been a very steep learning curve, but Claire and I are now fluent in the language of paediatric intensive care. The special-care baby unit, where the boys have been since s a whirring, whizzing hive filled with tiny precarious precious lives and wonderful staff. They have all been incredibly sensitive and patient, nurses, doctors, surgeons, one and all.

The boys are doing brilliantly. Hallelujah. It is a bloody miracle.

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