Sam Squiers has endured the unimaginable for any mother. When the Channel Nine presenter should’ve been enjoying a blissful third trimester of her first pregnancy, her world was shaken to it’s core when a severe case of pre-eclampsia forced her to deliver her daughter Imogen eight weeks premature. What followed was a fight for both of their lives and an emotionally taxing two straight months in hospital. But despite all the challenges life has thrown at her this year, Sam still radiates positivity, and after finally taking her “Wonder Woman” home, she opens up and introduces The Delivery to her courageous little family.
Sam, we are so pleased this has turned into positive story of great strength and you are now home with your baby girl, how do you reflect on the past few months?
These have been the hardest months of my life but the NCCU (Neo Natal Critical Care Unit) journey makes you tougher as a parent. Ben and I don’t take anything for granted with Immi. We saw so many parents leave the NCCU in tears and many without their babies and we’re just so grateful that we have this beautiful girl in our arms now.
It’s a numbing way to become a mum. You stare at your baby through a perspex box, unable to pick her up as you like, (just once a day with the help of a nurse who has to disable a web of sensors, cords and wires before carefully laying this tiny lightweight baby on your chest.) You can only touch her through the holes in the sides of the isolette (or what we called Immi’s space ship) and only with pressure on her head and bum, no stroking and only after you had washed your hands for 90 seconds up to the elbows and sprayed them with alcohol twice. She would often grip our fingers, this whole hand wrapped tightly and securely around a small adult finger. Something so small like that would cause a seismic eruption of love and emotion stronger than anything we had felt before.
You can’t shake the feeling of being helpless as a parent in there. There’s so little you can do and you can’t enjoy the thrills of parenthood like others. Little things like changing Immi’s nappy was the highlight of our day as it would make us feel like we were finally parents and helping in some way. Don’t underestimate how hard it is to change nappies through two holes in an isolette and on this 1kg human you’re sure will break if you touch her too hard! I’d also never changed a nappy before!
It was a month before we could give Imogen her first bath and I’ll never forget the feeling. Ben and I walked out of there floating on air that day, the smiles couldn’t be wiped from our faces. We were able to do something so important and meaningful for our little girl and her face when the warm water first touched it is framed beautifully in my memory, pure delight. So now at home, we still don’t take simple things like that for granted. We’ve never once complained about changing a nappy or grumbled while doing it, it’s still so vivid how much joy this particular “chore” gave us. It still does.
In order to enlighten other pregnant women about the dangers of pre-eclampsia, would you please share more about it and how these traumatic events unfolded for you?
We knew early on that our baby was small and were having scans every week from 24 weeks as I had some blockages in my placenta and umbilical cord which were restricting nutrients from getting to Immi. From 26 weeks I was told to cut back work to 3 days a week and was having up to five doctor appointments a week. I was told she might come in two weeks, or four and it was 50/50 whether she would make it to 32 weeks. There were two scenarios; either she stops growing, in which we book in soon after and take her out or I would get signs of pre-eclampsia in which we would then book in and take her out. Each case, we’d have some sort of notice.
No one thought about what would eventually transpire and how dangerous it would get. I started to get pains one night when Ben was in NSW working (as a firefighter), it was about 8pm at night but I just ignored them thinking they’d pass (I had similar pains a fortnight before and even though I’d gone to hospital they passed within 24 hours). I woke up at midnight in pain and again thought they’d go by the morning. At 2am they were so excruciatingly bad, I woke up and tried to stretch them out by doing some yoga moves. It was then that I realised I hadn’t felt Immi move in a really long time. I sat down and tried to feel her move, I poked her and prodded her but couldn’t feel anything. I was afraid of being labelled as ‘over reacting’ and ‘dramatic’ and didn’t know whether to call the hospital or not. I asked myself “if Ben was here what would I be doing?” And I’d be calling the hospital, so I did and naturally they were concerned and told me to get to the hospital as soon as possible. I called Ben at 2.30am and said “I don’t want you to worry but I’m just going into the hospital (which at that point felt like our second home) to get these pains checked out”. He told me to call an ambulance but I told him that was too dramatic and I’ll just catch an Uber. I rocked up to the hospital with just my phone, keys and wallet thinking I’d be out of there in a couple of hours but once I was there it was clear things weren’t good.
I had an extreme case of pre-eclampsia which had already caused a placental abruption, when the placenta breaks away from the wall of the uterus, and I was bleeding from inside my uterus. The pre-eclampsia was also shutting down my kidneys and organs. My obstetrician called Ben, who was already rushing to Sydney to catch the first flight to Brisbane, to say that they’d try to wait but he needed to get to Brisbane ASAP as the baby was coming today. It was straight after that phone call that suddenly all my vision went blurry which was a sign I had fluid pooling on my brain. The next step after that was brain seizures. The obstetrician called Ben back and said they couldn’t wait, they needed to get the baby out now. He asked to talk to me but I’d already been wheeled off to surgery. Immi was born in an intense and stressful environment, I didn’t get the chance to see her before she was rushed away and it’d be two more days before I got to see her. I spent the next three days in ICU with it being a balancing act to get my organs functioning properly again and making sure the pre-eclampsia hadn’t caused more problems. There’s no genetic reason to get pre-eclampsia and I was healthier in my pregnancy than anyone I knew. I had green smoothies every morning and ate more vegetables, lean meat and fish than any health freak out there. I’ve run marathons and have always stayed fit, I didn’t over do it while pregnant either, cutting back to regular walks and low intensity weights. No one knows why this case was so severe either.
You watched other families take their babies home while yours spent 44 days in hospital, that must’ve felt like an eternity … what exactly has Imogen been through?
Immi was just 1.34kgs when she was born and had to be intubated for the first day before going onto C-pap respiratory support. Ben was going between ICU and NICU bringing me photos and videos of Imogen as I was too sick to see her. She was so tiny and fragile. I thought the premmie journey would be one of a straight trajectory upwards; we would watch her grow and every day things would get better and she would get stronger. That’s not how it goes. The premmie dance is “two steps forward one step back” or sometimes “one step forward two steps back”. And this is incredibly difficult emotionally. Some days we’d go in and she would be there in her “spaceship” and she would have put on weight, off respiratory support and they’d talk about going home in a few weeks. Then you’d come in another day and her whole face would be covered with the CPAP mask which she’d hit at with her hands and you wouldn’t hear the staff mention going home again. We saw other mothers put up photos on social media of their babies milestones (one month, two months etc) and in NICU those milestones took on a different meaning, there was cracking two kilos, coming off CPAP, moving into an open cot from an isolette. passing your due date and the big one, coming home. Immi spent almost seven weeks in there and because she was born so early her lungs didn’t get time to develop properly which means she is on oxygen at home for the extra support. We have oxygen tanks in our house and she was hooked up to it 24 hours a day for three months and now just at night. We have to head back into hospital once a month so they can study her oxygen saturation levels. I won’t lie, the oxygen is really annoying, the cords get caught everywhere, we trip over them, the dog lies on them and just when you think you’ve got her asleep, you put her down in her bassinet and by the time you’ve rearranged the cords so she won’t choke on them, she’s woken up. We’ve also come woken in the middle of the night to find the canula in her eyes, mouth and even the cord around her neck.
I was fortunate that my breastmilk came in after birth (it sometimes doesn’t after premmie and traumatic births). I would have to pump between 6-8 times a day and then bring that milk into the hospital everyday, they would mix it with fortifier and give it to Immi through a feeding tube. Because she was so tiny it was quite awhile before she could latch properly but she finally got there and we could go home. When I was pregnant I wasn’t going to put any pressure on myself to breastfeed if it wasn’t working for me, but after seven weeks of pumping eight times a day, it would have broken me if Immi didn’t end up breast feeding.
The only other issue for Immi is her little hemangioma. It wasn’t there when she was born but popped up six days later, starting off as a pressure point and growing into something bigger. They occur in one in 10 babies and are more common in premmies, girls and babies under 1.4kgs, so Immi ticked all the boxes.It’s not there forever, they do go away on their own but because it’s so close to Immi’s eye & growing we’re treating it with a drug called propranolol. These are sometimes called strawberry kisses or stork kisses but right from the start we called Immi’s her Wonder Woman kiss because she showed Ben and I her incredible strength fighting her way through some incredibly tough times in NICU. We saw parents go through some tough times in NICU and some parents leave without their babies, so for Immi to come out with just a hemangioma, we were doing incredibly well.
We knew walking out of hospital for the first time without Immi would be hard, there were other parents walking out with husband, bag and baby in hand. Ben and I got halfway out the exit and made a joke about forgetting our baby, we tried to lighten the moment and it worked. But after about three weeks of walking out of hospital and seeing that same scene of happy new parents trying to negotiate their new car seats and take photos, we decided to find a different exit for the next four weeks.
“My obstetrician said to me straight after the birth that wasn’t your moment Sam..it was really aggressive, so that wasn’t your birth moment, you’ll get your moment though and Ben will be there”.
Did the hospital visits ever get easier or did you just get stronger?
I would love to say that the hospital visits got easier, but the longer you’re there the harder they got. It was like groundhog day for Ben and I. We’d be at the hospital at about 8am in the morning and would stay until 1pm, we would go home for a couple of hours for lunch and to see our dog, who was so depressed for those 7 weeks, before returning to hospital at around 4pm and stay through to 9pm sometimes later at night. It was so physically and mentally draining, three weeks in we had to find a new place to park near the hospital to change things up as we felt it was all just too repetitive. It definitely makes you stronger, but at one stage Ben and I had seen two full rotations of babies come and go in our pod (room) and kept wondering if it would ever be our time to come home.
When was the first time you got to hold your baby in your arms and what did that moment feel like?
I didn’t get to see Immi for two days as I was too sick to leave ICU. In the end the ICU doctors agreed for me to be wheeled in on my bed to NICU on the other side of the hospital to see Imogen for the first time. My obstetrician said to me straight after the birth “that wasn’t your moment Sam. Ben wasn’t there (for the birth), it was really aggressive, so that wasn’t your birth moment, You’ll get your moment though and Ben will be there.” It was actually the best thing that she could have said, because it really wasn’t the “beautiful moment our daughter was born”. The moment they wheeled me in to NICU was. They pulled my bed right up to her little isolette and I just saw this little thing with tubes, sensors and cords covering almost every part of her skin. The nurse then pulled her out and placed her on my chest…it was heaven. Ben was beaming by my side and kissed my forehead as he wiped his own tears. This was our moment. Immi just melted into my chest, I didn’t want to let her go, there was no better feeling.
Personally, how is your recovery going?
I may have felt a little ripped off that I had always been so healthy and tried to keep an active lifestyle only to have a premature birth like this. But the lifestyle I led (and those endless green smoothies!!!) really came through for me with my recovery. The doctors said I went downhill pretty quickly but recovered even faster. I am back exercising and running and feeling like myself again. It shouldn’t affect my chances of having children, I’ll just have to have daily injections should I go down that path again. I do have to have my kidneys checked every six months for the rest of my life.
What advice or coping mechanisms do you have for other parents who may be in the same position with a new baby?
These babies are such huge fighters and have a resilience that is impenetrable. They are going through a really tough time, but that battle will make them and you so strong in the long term. I really think my advice would be to people who know someone who’s had a premmie. We had people say some really strange things to us while we were in there like “well at least you’re getting a good night’s sleep and not being woken up by a baby” or “you’ve had an easy introduction into motherhood, you get to sleep” or “you’ll just have to accept she might always be behind the other kids”. These people didn’t mean harm by it but it was often said because they simply didn’t know what to say. They were also very wrong, she won’t be behind other kids and we would have given anything to be woken up 20 times in a night, just to have our baby home with us. If you’re in that position, you really don’t have to say anything, but listen instead and just provide support. Try not to compare premmies with premmies either, every baby is different in there. And meals, meals, meals, meals. It meant the world to us and reduced us to tears when people dropped off meals. Other friends would drop off coffee vouchers to a nearby cafe. Just to know we were supported and people wee thinking of us really helped. But to the premmie parents out there I say simply, stay strong.
“I would love to say that the hospital visits got easier, but the longer you’re there the harder they got… At one stage Ben and I had seen two full rotations of babies come and go in our room and we kept wondering if it would ever be our time to come home.”
Developmentally, what have doctors told you to expect from a premature baby as she grows up?
Immi has two birthdays at the moment, her birth age and her corrected age (age from her due date). There are some milestones that work off how old she is from birth and others that work off her corrected age. So we always have to tell people she’s 4 months old but 2 months corrected. All Immi’s scans came back in the clear (there were some scary moments when they thought she had a small bleed on the brain but it has since disappeared), the underdeveloped lungs will catch up and shouldn’t affect her breathing in the future. I may have asked the doctor if she will still be able to run a marathon in life and the answer is yes. In 12 – 24 months Immi will have caught up from her corrected age to her birth age and there shouldn’t be any other problems. We’re so fortunate as this isn’t the case for every premmie.
How has this experience altered your perspective on life?
This experience has definitely made Ben and I stronger as parents and we don’t take anything for granted. I won’t complain about getting up in the middle of the night or having no sleep as I still remember the longing to have her at home with us. Baths and even nappy changes are still really important to Ben and I as we remember how important being able to do something simple like that was to us. I have a motherhood mantra now of “positivity without expectation”. Every time I started to put an expectation on Immi in NICU like for example “we might be home in a week” or “she’ll be off oxygen soon” we would get really down when that wasn’t the case. So I’ve just taken the expectation out of the equation but all while staying positive about Immi’s progress. This is actually hard for me as I’ve always been one who set a goal and fiercely worked my way to achieving that goal in as short a time as possible. I’ve had to learn to be patient now, not my typical ‘bull at a gate’ mentality. I’ve had to simply place the ball in Immi’s court and just cheer her on as passionately and lovingly as I can from the sidelines.
After what you’ve been through, will you ever consider falling pregnant again one day?
It’s a really interesting question. Right now I would say no. I think it’s too soon to say though. I remember thinking in NICU I just never want to go through this again. Since then I’ve met so many premmie mums who have had two or three babies in NICU and I just think they are superwomen.
You have a high pressure career, between your presenting job and running the successful female focused sports website, Sportette … Did you relinquish control of everything professionally during this time?
I didn’t get the chance to go on maternity leave and was working the day before this all happened. Ben called Channel 9 and they were really supportive of everything which was fantastic. Ben’s work (NSW Fire Brigade) has been incredible to us as well. I was really fortunate when this all happened that my best friend Penny Edwell immediately took over Sportette and all its social pages and kept posting for me so that the site didn’t lose relevance. I didn’t ask her to, it’s something she did as she knew I would have needed help. I can’t thank her enough. It was one less thing I had to worry about and could put all my energies into those seven weeks into Imogen. Penny was fantastic to us, she came up to Brisbane with her sister Rachel who is a midwife and like an older sister to me as well. The pair cooked meals for Ben and I, lunches, dinners, meal planned our week before they left, stocked our fridge, baked me lactation cookies and took our dog Broby on lots of walks and runs. We’ve been best friends since we were 11 and have always been there for each other and I couldn’t have kept my head throughout the NICU grind without her support.
“I have a motherhood mantra now of ‘positivity without expectation’. Every time I started to put an expectation on Immi … we would get really down when that wasn’t the case. I’ve had to simply place the ball in Immi’s court and just cheer her on as passionately and lovingly as I can from the sidelines.”
Tell us more about your latest brainchild, The Sportette Summit for Women in Sport & Business…
This was something I’ve wanted to do for years and had been planning since the start of the year. When we knew I was having complications we put off all planning for the Sportette events until after Imogen was born and going well. I have been working with Ministry of Sports Marketing on the events and they have provided me with so much support throughout my pregnancy and through our NICU journey. We wondered whether to postpone the Summit until next year after Immi was born but we are all so passionate about the impact of this event, we decided to push on and hold it on November 22. I have always been passionate about women in sport and founded my own website, Sportette in 2014 to tell the stories about women in sport which weren’t being told in mainstream media. The business has grown to be a think tank on women’s sports and we consult with businesses and sports organisations on how they can better grow their women’s game and support women’s sports. The Sportette Summit is the next step. While women’s sports are experiencing a huge boom, we are still a long way off achieving long term sustainability and this doesn’t happen organically. This summit brings together some of the most powerful men and women in sport and business to facilitate discussion and formulate strategies to ensure the continued progression of women both in the boardroom and sporting field. I want to build the relationships of women in sport and business as moving forward they can provide each other key learnings, inspiration and networking opportunities. I truly believe this summit can make a difference to the future of women in sport and after Imogen entered my life it’s made me even more determined to try to change the sporting and social landscape for her generation of little girls.