Premature Birth and Medical Care in Canada: Emily’s Story
Bringing a new life into the world is an incredible and scary time for any parent. And when your bundle of joy decides to arrive a little bit early to the party, things can get even more overwhelming. Today we talk to Tanya about the journey of her daughter Emily, a premature little angel full of fight and a smile that can light up the dimmest of rooms.
Settling into Canada
Tanya and her husband immigrated to Canada from Pretoria, South Africa in 2018, and eventually settled in Kitchener, Ontario. Moving to a new country with their two little dogs was a pleasant and exciting new experience for them at the time. Tanya recalls getting used to feeling safe in an unfamiliar environment and climatizing to the sudden changes in weather, which she found comparable to that of Cape Town.
An Unexpected Addition
By the end of 2018, Tanya became unexpectantly pregnant. This proved to be in difficult timing as she had just begun a new job at an accounting firm and had not yet found a family doctor, a process that can typically take awhile. Tanya’s concern for this was even more pressing as she had experienced a miscarriage just a few months before. She decided to seek out a doula (similar to a midwife), which then allowed everything to fall into place. She quickly learned that in Canada, being pregnant makes it much easier to find a doctor willing to take you on as a new patient.
Doula’s are not considered to be medical professionals, so their main role is to provide you with moral support and information regarding pregnancy and birth. Your family doctor will provide you with checkups until 20 weeks into your pregnancy, at which you can begin your first appointment with an OB/GYN.
Upon going in for her 19th week check up, Tanya was told she needed to complete a few extra scans and was given a referral to a children’s hospital in Hamilton, Ontario. She quickly learned that unborn Emily was without one of her kidneys. It was also apparent that a blood flow issue was occurring between Tanya’s uterus to the fetus. She was admitted to the emergency room and administered daily steroid injections.
Despite having to be monitored, the doctors were confident that Emily would be okay. Tanya recalls being checked on throughout the day to ensure the baby was still being active, which Emily certainly was.
“She was busy as hell! When the doctors would put their hands on my tummy to feel something, she would kick them away.”
A few days later, Tanya started feeling strange and began having cramps in her chest. Her blood pressure had become incredibly high at 210 over 180 and her skin became unrecognizably pale. Tanya’s internal organs were failing and so Emily needed to be taken out immediately. After an emergency c-section, baby Emily was born at 24 weeks and 1.05 lbs (470g).
Tanya recalls the experience taking about 20 minutes. Emily was then immediately intubated, on life-support and oxygen. Restricted to her bed for the first 24 hours, she was not allowed to see the baby yet. She and her husband were then able to give the baby droplets of milk to keep her nourished.
Emily was ultimately kept in the hospital for 162 days. At 130 days she was no longer deemed high risk and was transferred to a local hospital in Kitchener. Other than paying for a room at the Ronald McDonald House for a few days, Tanya was fortunate enough to not incur any medical expenses from the hospital.
Tanya could take advantage of the family caregiver maternity benefits (35 weeks per case, of which you have to have been working for 600 hours to qualify). After that maternal and parental leave of 52 weeks kicked in when she returned home.
Once discharged, Emily required more medical care than Tanya originally expected. She needed additional eye treatments and regular checkups in Hamilton every two weeks. She needed to be seen by a paediatrician, dietitian and physiotherapist bi-weekly as well. The government of Canada typically provides you with specialists that can help and support babies with developmental issues at home for 4-5 appointments per season. However, Covid-19 has since shifted this service to online appointments only.
The unprecedented experience has inspired Tanya to do more work with children. Even while home in South Africa, Tanya always had a passion for working with kids and had planned on giving back to those in need upon settling in Canada. She credits the Ronald McDonald House to being extremely accommodating for her family and hopes to work with them in the future. She recalls seeing many of the families with ill children and how difficult it is for them.
“You know there are kids with cancer and even other illnesses. [But] when you see it, it really breaks you. You just want to bring them some love. Some normalcy.”
Tanya wants people to understand what many families like hers go through, and to give them some relief and happiness. Particularly for the children, who rather than getting to enjoy their childhood, are forced to endure harsh medications and treatments from the moment they are born.
After her maternity leave unexpectantly started early, Tanya was given a lower paying extension so that she could devote more time and care to Emily. Due to the pandemic she has since been working from home. She says her employers have been supportive throughout the whole experience. Emily’s numerous appointments and strict feeding schedule however, can make it difficult for Tanya to manage work at times.
In terms of her support system, Tanya and her husband were fortunate enough to meet a few fellow South Africans when they moved to Kitchener. Once Emily was born, their friends and some distant family were extremely supportive and helpful to them, even bringing them food to the hospital. Being with her loved ones and “adopted Canadian family”, even just to get some fresh air with while in hospital, is was what got Tanya through the whole experience. She was also grateful to her family back home for their support as well as their space and understanding, which was needed at times.
Currently Emily is 17 months old, while developmentally 13 months old (October 2020). While some tasks are still a struggle for her, for the most part she is visibly healthy and steadily developing at her own pace.
Of the experience, Tanya says she’s learned a lot about letting go and living life for the moments. She’s learned to relieve herself of the pressures of being the “perfect” wife or the “perfect” mom.
“There’s no such thing. You just need to learn to let go [and] to live it day by day.”