When it comes to pain, new mum Samantha Howard has a high threshold – but nothing could have prepared her for feeling every slice of the surgeon's scalpel in a desperate bid to save her baby daughter.
It's been more than three months since Samantha and husband Ethan welcomed their darling twins, son Levi and daughter Madison.
The sweet cherubs, conceived after the heartache of infertility and hormone-assisted treatment, are the apple of their doting parents' eyes, bringing joy and love into the young couple's Waikato home in rural Reporoa.
And despite being born three weeks early, they're already ticking off milestones, melting their dad's heart with smiles and giggles when he comes home after a hard day at work in the local forests, and sleeping through the night, much to their busy mum's delight.
What's more, they even have different birth dates, with Levi born just before midnight on July 6 and Madison following 32 minutes later in the early hours of July 7.
But it's their dramatic delivery at Rotorua Hospital that sets these twins apart, their brave mother having to endure an unthinkable horror – feeling every cut of the surgeon's knife and every stitch as she was sewn back up when anaesthetic failed to numb her pain during a Caesarean section.
Still recovering from the trauma, the 24-year-old shepherd tells Woman's Day the pain was so bad, she desperately pleaded with the surgical team to put her under a general anaesthetic.
"I felt most of the cutting and stitching, but even with my crying and screaming they didn't stop and wouldn't knock me out. It felt like I was being butchered. I had four top-ups of my epidural and I still felt everything."
Lying prone on the operating table, suffering unspeakable agony, the unfolding complications were a far cry from the dream plan of a natural delivery the first-time mum had mapped out.
Excited at the prospect of becoming parents after trying for more than three years, the birth started off on a rough note when an attempt to put in an epidural struck a nerve, sending Samantha's leg flying into the air.
After two more attempts, the epidural was finally inserted and a marathon 36-hour labour began with first twin Levi born at 11.58pm using forceps. But alarmingly, despite his robust 3.19kg, the tot was affected by his mum's gestational diabetes and needed help.
"He came flying out, but there was no noise. I was like, 'What's wrong with him? I can't hear him crying.' He had fluid in his lungs, so he was not at all well. He had a breathing mask put on his face straight away and was rushed away to SCBU [Special Care Baby Unit]," Samantha tells.
But worse was to come with daughter Madison, who was lying across her mum's belly and not ready to journey down the birthing canal. Worryingly, her heart rate crashed, leaving surgeons no option but to get her out immediately.
"Within a matter of minutes, they'd changed me from a birthing bed to an operating table," she tells. "They topped up my epidural and did a cold spray test around my belly – and I couldn't feel that. Then he did it on my legs and I said it was sort of cold but I didn't know how cold it was meant to be."
Because her belly was numb, she says the team was confident the anaesthetic was working.
"But as soon as the surgeon put the scalpel through me, I could feel it," she recalls. "It was a blistering-hot cutting edge. I was crying and gritting my teeth and yelling.
"The anaesthetist kept topping me up – in the end, he put drugs four times down my epidural and another one in my hand. I was bawling my eyes out and pleading, 'Can you just put me to sleep? I can feel that.'
"By the time they were stitching me up, it was burning like fire. At the same time, I was more worried about my baby coming out alive. I had to steel myself against the pain even though I was begging them to knock me out."
While the cutting was horrendous, she says the stitching up after Madison – who weighed a bonny 3.23kg – was born was even worse.
"There's so many layers and I could feel all the pulling and tugging. It felt like they were butchering me.
"For the four weeks after the birth I had night terrors. I would wake up dripping with sweat, stuck to the sheets after having flashbacks of the pain. Talking about it now has made me all teary," she quietly admits. "But at the end of the day, I just wanted the babies to be OK."
Brimming with admiration for his courageous partner, excavator driver Ethan, 28, who is a little less hands-on after fracturing his arm when he fell off his Moto X bike, says he could do little but offer support.
"I was pretty scared because I had Sam on the operating table, my son being rushed to SCBU with a big breathing mask on his head and a little girl being cut out by emergency Cesarean. It was a lot to take in.
"When Sam was in pain and feeling it, I felt helpless. I was just talking to her, telling her it was alright, that Maddy was on her way out."
After cutting the umbilical cords of each child, Ethan spent precious moments with his newborn daughter and son, quietly reassuring them that everything would turn out fine.
"I stayed with Levi for about 40 minutes," he shares. "The first thing I did was gently touch my son's little hand and he held on so tight to my finger. That was a really special moment. I just kept saying, 'Daddy's here, Dad loves you, I've got you and your mum will be alright.'"
After her traumatic experience, the weary mum had no idea that what had happened that night in the operating theatre was out of the ordinary.
"I didn't know what was right and wrong, so I didn't ask the questions while I was there," she explains. "But they all came in the next day and apologised for what had happened, so I sort of gathered that something wasn't quite normal.
"They said there is a certain percentage of people who don't have their epidural put in correctly and from everything I can gather, it started with the epidural not being put in correctly."
Samantha is now considering outlining her concerns to the Lakes District Health Board, hoping to spare anyone else from a similar nightmare.
The couple say they hold no animosity towards the surgical team, knowing Madison's life was in the balance.
With her twins sleeping soundly in their bassinets beside her bed, Samantha is relishing her instant family and already noticing their personalities shine through.
"They're their own little people really," she coos. "Levi is definitely the sooky baby and the attention-seeker, while Madison is very cruisy. She's a very happy-go-lucky little baby. I'm lucky I've got the best of both worlds with one that requires a bit more attention and one that is happy to lay there for a bit while I sort the other out."
Remarkably, despite the horrific ordeal, it hasn't put her off having more children.
"I really do want another kid, but I've said to Ethan it would have to be a complete natural birth because I'm too scared of an epidural now. If it turned into an emergency C-section, I would have to be knocked out cold!
"But I would never change the way things have panned out because I wouldn't have my babies in the end – and I couldn't imagine life without them now."
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