This mom shares how lonely she was giving birth to a preemie during COVID-19

When Joni van der Merwe and her husband Johan found out they were expecting a baby at the end of last year they were over the moon. While Johan has a son, Logan, from a previous marriage, this was Joni’s first baby and they couldn’t wait to share the news with their friends and family. But as they celebrated and made plans for their baby’s arrival, little did they know what impact the COVID-19 pandemic would have on their birth plan.

Here Joni shares the fear, loneliness and disappointments resulting from not being able to be with the people she thought would be there to support and cheer her on as she dealt with all the emotions of an emergency C-section and coping with a premature baby.

ALSO SEE: Giving birth during COVID-19? Here’s what to expect at the hospital

“Ask any pregnant mom today how she feels about expecting during a pandemic and her answer will be ‘a little nervous’. Add to that an emergency C-section a month early, and she’ll probably say it sounds quite terrifying.

That’s right – our little Lacey Lee surprised us with her sudden arrival four weeks before her due date on 2 July 2020, weighing 3.09kg and measuring 51cm in length.

I knew something wasn’t right…

I woke up on the morning I was due for my 36-week check-up with my gynae feeling just fine – in fact, my whole pregnancy up to that point had been smooth-sailing. It was when my stepson came to say goodbye to me before leaving for school that I suddenly “saw stars” and knew that something wasn’t right. I slowly pieced the information from the last few days together. Swollen feet. A headache that lasted a day…

Not being able to shake the feeling that something was off, I packed my toiletry bag for the hospital. (being an avid planner I had packed mine and Lacey’s hospital bags long ago).

I didn’t even make it 10 minutes into my appointment before my gynae was having me admitted – my blood pressure was sky-high, which put us at risk. I had a COVID test and the nurse gave me medicine to bring my blood pressure down but 5 hours later it was decided that Lacey had to be delivered ASAP as I was getting very sick, very quickly. Fortunately for me my test came back negative and in time, they allowed my husband, Johan, to be there for the delivery.

It all happened so quickly

It all happened so quickly and at 18:28pm our baby girl was born 4 weeks before her due date. My husband was only allowed to stay with me for an hour after the birth. The poor man, he ended up running up and down between the neonatal intensive care unit (NCIU) where Lacey was being kept and the maternity ward where I was recovering from my op. He showed me videos and photos of her – it felt so unnatural to not be able to see her.

While I was pregnant, I read. A lot. I read every magazine, book and blog that I could, yet nothing prepared me for having a premature baby in the NICU under the current circumstances.

I saw my baby girl for the fist time almost 24 hours after she was born and even then, just briefly. I spent the next few days trying to provide milk for her and had every nurse and night nurse helping me try and get my milk to come in. I had so many people helping me to express colostrum into a cup at first and then eventually after a week I could manage myself. I was up and down to the NICU every 3 hours to drop off milk for Lacey and to try and breastfeed. It was quite a struggle with her as she was so small and premature. She would try and suck and then immediately fall asleep.

ALSO SEE: Your essential premature birth guide

My blood pressure eventually came down and I was discharged after a week, but Lacey unfortunately had to stay on. Because of COVID-19, you’re not allowed into the hospital more than once a day so in order to stay and feed Lacey I had to ‘lodge’ in the paed ward of the hospital. My husband could drop off clothes and snacks but we couldn’t see each other (except through the glass). It was extremely hard to not see my husband or any family or friends. Especially because I wasn’t with my baby girl. I felt very alone at times.

Dads could visit on Sundays and Wednesdays for an hour so Johan at least got to visit Lacey in the NICU. But when he was visiting, I wasn’t allowed to be there.

Another difficult thing for me was to wear a mask all the time. I really applaud the essential workers who work like that every day because it was so hard for me. To have to learn to breastfeed but you can hardly see your baby because of a mask was challenging to say the least!

I am forever grateful for the NICU nurses that looked after Lacey and the nurses that looked after me during this time. I even made a friend whose baby was also in the NICU. I am also so thankful to my husband who I could rely on to hold the fort at home while I was with our daughter, to my father, who phoned me every few hours every single day, and God for keeping us protected during this time.”

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