Born fighting in middle of the pandemic

Pregnancy complications came at the same time as tight health restrictions, resulting in extra complications for Alex and Anna

A nurse in Barcelona's Hospital Clínic taking care of a Covid patient in an ICU in July 2021
A nurse in Barcelona's Hospital Clínic taking care of a Covid patient in an ICU in July 2021 / Francisco Àvia/Hospital Clínic

Júlia Baldó | Barcelona

March 31, 2024 05:19 PM

In week 25, the worst is confirmed. Their dreams crumble, filling their days with pain and anguish.

Thinking back over what they went through makes them uneasy, even years later: “The pain is so strong that the hard moments still have an impact."

Alex and Anna are a couple from Castelldefels, just south of Barcelona, who in 2019 decided to try to start a family. All parents hope for a smooth and exciting journey, but it can’t always be like that and the chances of something going wrong are higher than most people like to believe.

After a few idyllic months, they were told that something seemed wrong in week 20, but test results weren't conclusive and the most prudent thing to do in this scenario is wait another five weeks. 

“When I got the diagnosis, my body started to shake and the doctor told me: ‘I’m so sorry, Anna’. Then, the world fell on top of us." At the Clínica Corachán, a private hospital in Barcelona, Anna was told she had intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) and was in the fourth stage, with the fifth being the most serious.

From there, they sought a second opinion and went to Hospital Sant Joan de Déu in Esplugues de Llobregat, a town bordering Barcelona, where they visited a specialist in IUGR. Anna went through extensive tests and the diagnosis was confirmed, but rather than the fourth, they said she was in the second or third stage.

IUGR is a disease that can be caused by a problem in the blood flow of the umbilical cord or by a problem intrinsic to the placenta, which is the tissue that transports food and oxygen to the baby. This results in the baby not growing optimally in the womb and not being as big as expected for its 'gestational age.'

Doctors explained to Alex and Anna that their baby was making huge efforts to keep surviving but that at any moment they could get tired and stop fighting. “The chances were 50-50; at any moment they could tell us that it was over,”  Alex explains.

From the first visit, they set a very clear objective: to reach the 30th week of pregnancy. They would consider that their victory.

At this point, they began to work for little Vera knowing that they were facing one of the most complicated periods of their lives.

According to the WHO, the rate of premature babies in Spain, born before 37 weeks, is 7%, i.e. between 1,000 and 1,100 each year. Prematurity is the leading cause of death among children under 5 years of age, and in 2013 it caused around one million deaths worldwide. This percentage is due to, among other things, delayed childbearing age and assisted reproductive technologies.

Thanks to scientific advances, the survival of extremely premature babies, those born before 28 weeks, or weighing less than 1,000 grams, has increased considerably in recent years. although these babies have a greater risk of problems in the medium and long term. They are children who come into the world without having completed their development in the womb, their organs and systems are less developed, therefore they are more vulnerable and need much more specialized treatment that can help them maintain their body temperature, eat, and breathe.

It is common in this type of pregnancy for complications to be more severe, including for the mother. Days before reaching the targeted 30th week, Anna began to suffer from pre-eclampsia, a serious condition characterized by high blood pressure that can affect organs.

Alex says that at this point, doctors said that Anna had become the priority, and that she would be monitored until her due date. “We reach the 30th week, March 19, Vera is born, we are in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, and this has an effect,” Alex nervously explains.

In Spain, a state of emergency was declared on 14 March, five days before Vera’s birth, confining everyone to their homes. “I could no longer go into the operating room with my wife, knowing that the possibility of something going wrong was very high,” Alex says.

“She’s very small, but she’s fine, don’t panic,” the nurse told Alex. “When they showed her to me it was one of the happiest moments of my life, but also one of the hardest.” Vera was born weighing 880 grams and was considered extremely premature, and had to be kept in the intensive care unit in the hospital. 

The first few months of Vera's life were very difficult, with strict pandemic restrictions in place. Their daughter’s life was in danger, and for a long period, the new parents went to see her every day to have skin-to-skin contact, but because of the pandemic, only one parent could go. “The other one stayed at home alone for more than 12 hours a day. During this time, you break down,” they say.

The stay in the hospital was long and uncertain. “They were very hard moments. You see everyone leaving, you are happy for them, but you turn your head and yours is still there.”

Anna and Alex finally got to bring Vera home on 30 April, almost two months later. “It was one of the happiest days of my life, along her birth, but we were leaving the hospital with many fears and uncertainties,” Anna says.

At Sant Joan de Déu, they were offered psychological assistance but at the time they felt they didn’t need it. “Maybe I would need it now. What we went through, added to the pandemic, made me a wreck," Alex says. 

Alex and Anna were one of the many couples who had a child during the pandemic who were unable to share the joy of the birth with family and friends. But more importantly, they were unable to feel the physical warmth of their loved ones during the hardest moments. “I would have loved to hug my parents, it was surreal, I could never have imagined telling them that my first daughter was born over the phone,” Alex explains.

Having a premature child involves a lot of work and difficulties for parents. Those who experience it push many aspects of their lives to the limit. Alex and Anna believe it's important that parents are more aware of this fact, to take into account that a premature baby has finished forming outside the womb and this can have negative effects on growth.

Although the baby’s prematurity is generally not counted after the age of two, the effects can manifest themselves years later. Disorders such as dyslexia or hyperactivity are often associated with prematurity.

Nowadays, Vera is a healthy and happy four-year-old girl, and with a smile that fills her parents with life. Both Anna and Alex say they have learned a lot from this ordeal and that they will never be the same people again.