A first-time mum with a history of depression was told her mental health problems "weren't serious enough" before she gave birth prematurely and developed PTSD.
Virginia Field-Bennett had begged for help from a mental health team before the delivery and traumatic aftermath, but says her pleas were ignored.
Aside from PTSD, it's likely she also had postpartum depression after her son Finlay arrived early – and says she continued to ask for help but eventually gave up.
With her newborn in an incubator she was brought to tears by her "crippling guilt" and it felt like her body was constantly shouting "where is your baby?"
Virginia, who also had a history of anxiety before her pregnancy, has since suffered flashbacks and her husband Laurie, also 35, has experienced similar trauma following their experience in neonatal intensive care.
As she spent five weeks on an antenatal ward, one consultant suggested her problems were not serious enough when she asked to see someone from a mental health support team.
Virginia, now 35, told Mirror Online: "Near the end of my stay a senior female consultant coldly suggested the reason I may not have been seen was because 'that department usually only deals with people with serious mental health issues'.
"I'm not usually caught speechless but I was shocked. I just accepted it and began to question my ability to deal with stress."
The former Londoner's pregnancy was going well until a routine 25 week scan revealed a problem with her cervix in 2017.
She was shocked when she was admitted to the antenatal ward and put on strict bed rest despite feeling "completely fine".
Virginia, a former social media consultant, said: "My diagnosis was cervical incompetence – my cervix was open and funnelling.
"An absolute nightmare for anyone and an awful introduction to parenthood."
She "struggled" in hospital and suffered a panic attack on her first night as she spoke to a consultant about being forced to stay in the induction room for the first three nights due to a lack of beds.
Once she was moved out of the room she adjusted to life on the ward, but she was filled with anxiety and fear.
She said: "I've dealt with mental health issues long enough to know when to ask for help, so I did, as soon as I felt emotions getting out of control.
"I requested help every day for the first three weeks I was on bed rest in the antenatal ward and roughly every other day after that until Finlay arrived.
"I explained to each doctor that visited on ward rounds that I have a history of generalised anxiety disorder and depression and that I was not coping.
"I needed help and was not scared to ask for it. The whole experience really added to my trauma.
"My requests were consistently met with blank faces and I was told every day that they would look into it, that they would speak to someone who may know who I could talk to.
"No-one ever came. I felt as if they didn't believe I was really struggling."
She had a history of anxiety and depression, and had been doing well and was off medication for eight years.
Even though her requests went ignored, Virginia said medics on the antenatal ward were "truly wonderful" and offered "compassion".
She added that the NICU nurses and doctors who cared for Finlay were "incredible".
At almost 30 weeks, the mum-to-be went into spontaneous labour. By then she had been on the antenatal ward for almost five weeks.
Virginia gave birth to her son, who weighed 2lbs 11oz, and he was whisked into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where he would spend the next six weeks.
She said: "He was in pretty great shape considering his prematurity.
"It was just awful having to leave him there every day.
"We had trouble sleeping, my husband reduced his workload by half.
"We were coping, but I was in tears daily – it was like my body was shouting 'where is your baby' constantly.
"I was scared to go in to see him out of guilt and for fear of bad news, and I was torn apart every second I didn't have him near me."
She added: "I felt incredibly guilty for feeling a sense of relief when I went into labour, knowing the anxiety and uncertainty of the last five weeks was about to be over.
"I felt I'd failed him – my body being unable to keep him in was the reason he was born so early.
"And I felt guilty for feeling anxious and depressed when, really, I had a healthy baby who's biggest issue was that he was very small.
"We were meeting families who were dealing with the loss of one twin, whose babies were having life-threatening surgeries, who had been in the neonatal ward for six months or more.
"The heaviest guilt came when I'd go home and leave Finlay in hospital."
In some happy news, Finlay was discharged a month earlier than expected.
What are the risks of premature birth?
About 60,000 babies, or one in every 13, are born prematurely (before the 37th week of pregnancy) in the UK every year, according to the charity Bliss.
The earlier they are born, the more vulnerable they are because they haven't fully developed in the womb
Some may suffer from conditions such as behavioural difficulties, long term health problems or cerebral palsy as they develop into children and adults.
Some research has found that the earlier a baby is born the higher their risk of having special educational needs at school, the charity said.
It added: "It is important to remember that every baby is different and will develop differently. If you are worried about your baby’s development please speak to a health professional."
His parents later realised they hadn't processed everything they had been through and it was having a negative effect on them.
Virginia sought help from her GP after Finlay turned one and later saw a psychologist who diagnosed her with PTSD and said she likely had postpartum depression.
She said: "I had really struggled with flashbacks, crippling anxiety and depression for a year, and roughly three months later was contacted by my borough's perinatal team.
"They were so kind, they listened, and they referred me to a psychologist who I eventually had 11 weekly sessions with.
"She was wonderful and I'm so grateful to have been able to work through things with her.
"She suggested I had more work to do for my trauma, but wasn't able to see me any longer.
"I could see she wanted to, but they are only allowed 10 sessions.
"I couldn't believe that either – as if 10 sessions is enough time to work through a great deal of trauma and difficulty. Such a disappointing policy."
She added: "In hindsight, it strikes me as shocking that NICU parents aren't just automatically issued a meeting with a psychologist to talk through everything that has happened.
"You're caught in a whirlwind of information and emotion, living on autopilot, then when your baby is finally discharged, you're relieved but it's not like it's over.
"People don't always ask for help or realise they need help."
Virginia and Laurie have since moved to Vancouver in her native Canada.
Laurie, a business coach, suffered similar trauma and was left struggling to come to terms with everything.
He said: "The whole period was emotionally challenging for me, but the impact of that really only surfaced many months after Finlay's birth.
"I think the reason for that was that seeing that both [Finlay] and Virginia were safe and well allowed me engage with all my own fears, which I'd set aside to 'be strong' and help Virginia stay positive before, during and after.
"All that has affected my work – both through balancing working with daily visits to the hospital over 11 weeks, and through the difficulty of finding focus with everything else going on.
"I'm seeing a therapist to work through it, and it's helping a lot."
Finlay is now aged two-and-a-half and his parents are grateful that he is "thriving" after being born early and small.
Virginia, who is training to be a meditation guide and MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) facilitator, said: "His speech has been assessed as advanced in all his development assessments, he is stubborn and challenging and loving and everything a boy his age should be.
"He's still catching up size-wise, but he likely would have been small even if he wasn't born prematurely. Both Laurie and I were tiny kids."
Virginia's advice for NICU parents
Having a child in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is a traumatic experience for mums and dads.
Virginia offers the following advice for parents:
– Be kind and considerate of the people around you – staff and fellow patients. Everyone is in a difficult situation and they're likely doing the best they can.
– Don't play the comparison game – everyone's struggle is real and valid. Comparing your situation to others' will only make the situation worse.
– Adhere to the hand-washing rules – I know this one seems silly, but I saw so many parents/family members get lazy about it, sometimes not even washing. That laziness could kill a baby.
– Open up to the nurses – one nurse named Marta saw I was in a bad way, and so she hugged me and suggested we worked through some logistical difficulties I was having.
"In that moment I felt like she saved me. I felt heard and supported. Another senior nurse patiently taught me to breastfeed my son, as I was having a lot of difficulty and feeling awful about it. I'll never forget either of them.
– Seek professional help to work through your emotions if you're struggling.
– Talk to your partner – this is hard for both of you and you need to support one another more than ever.
– NICU life is like a roller-coaster – there will be good days and bad days throughout your stay.
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