On 4 February 2014 our lives changed forever when our beautiful, identical, triplet boys – Ted, Tom and Ralphy – were delivered nearly three months early at The Rosie Hospital in Cambridge. The next seven weeks were the most stressful and heart-breaking of our lives. Tom and Ted, who were the biggest, were transferred to the Lister Hospital in Stevenage at first and then moved to the West Suffolk Hospital as they slowly grew stronger. Our littlest boy, Ralphy, was incredibly poorly and remained on the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in Cambridge where he underwent two operations. Despite the amazing efforts of all the medical staff, Ralphy died in our arms seven weeks to the day after being born. This is our story of both triumph and tragedy.
My husband, Andrew, and I were in complete shock when we found out that I was expecting triplets at our 12 week scan. I was referred onto consultant led care at The Rosie Hospital and initially scanned every two weeks. At 24 weeks I was given steroid injections and monitored very closely due to an issue that came apparent in the scan. Then five weeks later, there was a problem with the flow of blood between my placenta and Ralph, so I was admitted to The Rosie Hospital where I was scanned daily.
Ted, Tom and Ralphy arrived at 30 weeks, weighing 3lb 6oz, 3lb 2oz and 1lb 10oz respectively. I was awake throughout the caesarean and it was an unreal experience. Ted cried when he arrived and I hadn’t expected that because they were so early. I was amazed they could make any noise at all. It was a comfort to hear Ted cry, as I didn’t get to see my babies who needed urgent attention and were seriously ill. The room was full of doctors and nurses who quickly intubated the boys and transferred them up to NICU, but we knew that they wouldn’t all be together for long as there weren’t enough cots for the three of them.
At just hours old Ted and Tom were transferred by ambulance, one at a time, to the Lister Hospital because there was only room for one incubator and hospital staff in the ambulance at a time. After that I didn’t see my boys for three days. I was devastated, traumatised beyond words at being kept on the ward for longer than expected, and desperate to be discharged so I could be with my babies. Words cannot describe the emotional pain I was going through. Looking back, the trauma of having my boys in different hospitals was on a par with the suffering of losing Ralph. I didn’t realise it then, but for the next five and a half weeks I would never be in the right place because my babies weren’t together.
The Sick Children’s Trust helped us in so many ways that it is difficult to explain in words. We had heard about Chestnut House before the boys were delivered, but hadn’t been guaranteed a room and didn’t know what to expect. Over the next seven weeks the house became our lifeline, keeping me away from edge of a dark void I felt I was moving so close to. The utter devastation of my reality was inexplicable to anyone but Andrew. Having a base at Chestnut House, therefore, at least meant we just had to be in two places and not three, as would have been the case had we needed to go home every evening.
Chestnut House, which was just a few minutes away from Ralphy’s side, allowed me to spend time with him every morning and evening, whilst during the day I could go and see his brothers in another hospital. During those seven weeks, Andrew had to return to work and so commuted to and from Chestnut House each day. And although he was unable to see Ted and Tom during the week, he was gratefully reassured by my daily reports that they were doing well and growing stronger. Although he didn’t want to leave my side for a minute, Andrew felt comforted to know that the staff in Chestnut House were there to support me when I needed them and he was at work.
Unlike Ted and Tom who were taken off their ventilators at two and a half weeks, Ralphy was incredibly poorly and so very small. At just five days old, Ralphy had undergone the first of two operations he was to have during his short life. He was given a stoma, but the operation hadn’t gone to plan and he suffered from a pneumothorax, which is a build-up of air in the chest cavity that caused one of his lungs to collapse. As a result, he needed multiple chest drains. However, over the weeks that followed he seemed to be growing more resilient, putting on a little weight, with specialists closely monitoring his progress.
Ted and Tom were discharged when they were five and a half weeks old and, because Ralphy seemed to be over the worst and was no longer intubated, we left Chestnut House and took two of our boys’ home. It was amazing to be able to spend the next week introducing the boys to each other. We would take Ted and Tom on the half hour drive to Cambridge early each day to be with Ralphy, who continued to make progress.
Then all of a sudden, when he was six and a half weeks old, Ralphy became extremely ill with necrotising enterocolitis (NEC). NEC is a serious illness in which tissues in the intestine become inflamed and can cause a perforation in the tissue allowing the contents of the intestine to leak into the abdomen. This meant Ralphy had a very dangerous infection. We moved back into Chestnut House and this time the boys came with us, but Ralphy went downhill very quickly, so the boys’ grandparents collected Ted and Tom so we could focus on the baby that needed us most.
The Sick Children’s Trust is an amazing charity. The staff on NICU were brilliant, but it was undoubtedly a big help to have people around us who understood what we were going through, who were not medics. It was also a great help to share experiences with other parents in roughly the same boat, give them some support when they had had a bad day and get some support when Ralph became critically ill. It also meant that, before Ralphy became ill with NEC, we had been able to have all our boys together, using Chestnut House as a base where we could feed Ted and Tom away from the hospital ward.
The whole experience of having a baby on the NICU is incredibly intense. One of the great things we found about Chestnut House was that it provided somewhere we could go to get away from hospital and switch off a bit, without actually going away. We spent some time watching the Winter Olympics so, four years on as we watched this year’s, we were taken back to that time at Chestnut House with memories flooding in about how important sitting down on the sofa and watching TV became to us. Even just for five minutes, it was an escape.
The pain of losing Ralphy will never go away, but Andrew and I are now ready to fundraise for The Sick Children’s Trust. We know it costs the charity £30 to support a family for one night and so we are taking on the Prudential Ride London-Surrey 100 miles cycle challenge in the hope of raising £1,470, £30 for every night we stayed at The Sick Children’s Trust’s Chestnut House while Ralphy was in hospital.
We will never forget Ralphy and although Ted and Tom are only four and our youngest son Henry is just a baby, they will know all about how brave he was and how hard he fought for his life right up to his last moment.
Lauren Braithwaite, Ted, Tom, Ralphy and Henry’s mum