“I had started grieving for my baby before it died, but what I didn’t know is that it was the wrong one.”

When Charlotte Cowman (pictured with baby Eli above) discovered she was having twins, she was in complete shock, but it was a happy surprise, and though daunted by the journey ahead, she was excited.

Having already had three children, Charlotte thought she knew what to expect from her pregnancy, but this one felt different. Charlotte felt some discomfort through those early weeks and was quite drained, which she put down to the fact she was having twins. However, as she became more lethargic and sick, she felt perhaps things weren’t quite right.

Then, at 23 weeks, her fears were confirmed when her waters broke unexpectedly. She was transferred to Birmingham Women’s Hospital, which is home to a specialist neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Charlotte was beside herself, “it’s too soon” she said to the doctors. However, they tried to reassure her that she was in the best place to give the babies a fighting chance.

Three days later, at 24 weeks, her contractions began. However, Charlotte was in for another shock. From a swab, doctors discovered she had an infection, which had now turned to sepsis. They couldn’t afford to wait and Charlotte would have to go down to theatre to have a caesarean section. Charlotte was put under general anaesthetic, and the babies were safely delivered and immediately taken to NICU and put on a ventilator.  

As she was still recovering from her general anaesthetic, Charlotte didn’t see the babies until the next day. She said: “I went down to see the babies, who were in different rooms, and remember being really apprehensive about what to expect. I saw my boy, Eli, first. He was just so tiny – the size of my hand – and so blue. It was a shock, but as soon as I touched him I felt a wave of relief.” She then went to see her daughter, Tia Mae, who looked a lot healthier than Eli, although they were both very poorly.

Tia Mae

Tia Mae in her incubator.

As the days progressed, Tia Mae seemed to be coping well, despite a couple of setbacks. However, it was clear just how sick Eli was, and there was a very good chance he wouldn’t make it. Charlotte reflects: “I had started grieving for my baby before it died…but what I didn’t know is that it was the wrong one.”

On their thirteenth day on NICU, Charlotte was sitting with Eli when she heard the nurse run and call for her. It was Tia Mae – her heart rate had dropped and they were struggling to stabilise her. Charlotte watched from outside Tia Mae’s room as the doctors and nurses worked to save her, but after half an hour, the doctor came out and told a hysterical Charlotte that there was nothing more they could do. Charlotte went in and held Tia Mae in her arms while she fell asleep forever.

When the time came, Charlotte wrapped Tia Mae up and took her down to the mortuary in the basement of the hospital. Charlotte said: “I just remember thinking, ‘oh my god, I have to leave my baby here?’ We passed what looked like a service entrance, there were spare beds on the side; it just looked so industrial. I had only just lost Tia Mae, but this felt like another trauma I had to endure. I know that if Woodland House had been here, that would have saved me from the extra pain of that horrible feeling.”

When complete, Woodland House will provide a safe haven for our bereaved couples, away from the hustle and bustle of the main hospital. With a sympathetic setting that will honour their loss, key features will include a comfortable and spacious lounge area and a private mortuary, where they can spend time with their baby, in privacy, before they’re ready to face the world again.

Unfortunately for Charlotte, she didn’t have much time to grieve properly, with Eli still poorly. In total, he was in hospital for four months, and there were at least three occasions when she thought she was about to lose him, but he pulled through, and it was an emotional goodbye for Charlotte and the NICU team after so much time together. Due to his premature birth, Eli is deaf, has lung disease and other developmental issues, but Charlotte is thankful every day that he’s still here.

Charlotte says: “Going through an experience like this, it completely changes your outlook on life. You’re changed forever, it can never go back to how it was before, but I’ve had to come to terms with that. This trauma has made me who I am today.”