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Real Life

Kiwi mum Rachel reveals how her premature son changed her life

'My miracle boy almost didn't make it!'

When Rachel Friend fell pregnant, it was one of the happiest days of her life. Just six months prior, she'd survived a life-threatening cervical ectopic pregnancy, which claimed the life of her unborn child and nearly took her with it.
Already a stepmum to two boys, Rachel, now 47, and her husband Phil were thrilled to expand their brood. And despite the harrowing experience, the Auckland woman had gone through previously, this pregnancy, she was thriving.
"I loved being pregnant," she smiles. "I had so much energy and felt the best I had ever felt." But upon returning home from a Christmas camping trip to Papamoa in January 2013, "something just didn't feel right", recalls Rachel.
After a series of blood tests and scans showed nothing wrong, she was sent home. Soon, however, the pain became excruciating. "It was like someone was shoving a red-hot poker in my left-hand side," she shares.
After spending several days in hospital, the pain getting worse every minute, Rachel's waters unexpectedly broke at just 24 weeks. A terrifying and painful 12 hours later, baby Reuben was born, just 30cm in length and weighing a tiny 665 grams. "I called him my block of butter because he was that tiny," she says.
Whisked off to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), it would be hours before Rachel would see her miracle son for the first time, laying in an incubator, his eyes fused shut and his paper-thin skin so delicate, it would tear if you stroked him.
"There's a photo of me by the incubator looking in and you can just see this look of complete adoration on my face," Rachel says. "I could see past it all. It didn't matter about the tubes, wires or what he looked like, that was my baby."
'I called him my block of butter because he was that tiny'
In the first three weeks of his life, they nearly lost Reuben several times. "He would just stop breathing," Rachel explains. "All these bells would go off and a SWAT team of doctors would arrive, ushering us out of the room. We'd just stand there totally frozen in the corridor while they worked on him for up to an hour. Every minute felt like a day."
After 105 days spent between Auckland City and Waitakere Hospitals, just a week before his due date and weighing a wee two kilos, baby Reuben was finally allowed to go home.
And despite a few health scares in the beginning, Reuben has well and truly thrived.
He's now eight years old – nine in January, he tells Woman's Day – and has a mop of golden curls and a cheeky smile. He loves gaming and soccer, and has just learnt how to snowboard.
Even so, Rachel admits she often catches herself "holding my breath because I'm almost waiting for something to happen". Earlier this year, after Reuben complained of not being able to touch his toes like his friends at school, a doctor suspected he had scoliosis.
Rachel never doubted her tiny baby would become a strapping young lad.
"It was like, 'This is it! I knew something was going to happen. We cannot have got off this lightly!'" Instead, it turned out that Reuben has hypertonia (damaged motor neurons) in his legs, which Rachel adds "is more manageable in terms of a long-term outcome, but it's something we need to keep an eye on".
The entire experience had a huge effect on Rachel's outlook on life. She quit her long-term corporate job and began volunteering for the Neonatal Trust, the very organisation that provided her and Phil with that much-needed care and support when Reuben was born.
Nearly seven years later, Rachel is now the charity's CEO, running the entire New Zealand team. The Trust, which survives purely on donations, not only provides around-the-clock support to parents of premature babies while in hospital (including buying supplies like nappies, breast pumps and noise-cancelling headphones), but it also hosts playgroups around Aotearoa.
Tiny Huggies nappies
Run by occupational therapists, fellow NICU parents can get together and seek free advice and support.
"You don't have to explain why your baby has a tube down their nose or why they have an oxygen tank," tells Rachel. "So many people don't realise that the journey for the parents doesn't stop when they leave the hospital. You still have a fragile baby and fragile parents, and we're here to support them every step of the way."
HOW TO HELP
Like many organisations, the Neonatal Trust was hit hard by COVID. Relying on special events to secure funds, it lost in excess of $100,000 in the past year. November 17 is World Prematurity Day, and Rachel hopes her story will help raise awareness about the struggles parents and their premature children go through. If you can, please wear purple on the 17th and donate at neonataltrust.org.nz to ensure little miracles like Reuben live a happy and full life.

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