Laura Herbert was diagnosed with cancer while she was pregnant. Then she was told her newborn baby might not make it. Catherine Scott reports.
Paul and Laura Herbert were looking forward to the birth of their second child.
But on the day of her 20-week scan, Laura found a lump in her breast which turned out to be cancer.
“My first thought was that they would say that I should terminate my pregnancy,” recalls Laura.
“But they didn’t. Instead they gave me a lumpectomy – I didn’t even know you could have a general anaesthetic when you were pregnant, but you can although there is a risk of going in to labour which I was really worried about but when I came round I was still pregnant which was a relief.”
They advised delaying chemotherapy until after their baby was born which happened early at 35 weeks after Laura was induced.
To begin with everything was okay and Paul and Laura got to hold their baby girl, but suddenly 20 minutes later, everything changed when Elodie’s breathing changed.
“Elodie was rushed to the Special Care Baby Unit and I just thought how unfair it was that we had to deal with Laura’s cancer and now had a seriously- ill baby,” says Paul, 41.
“When we went to visit her in SCBU the doctors and nurses left us in no doubt that we may lose her. In the intervening five hours they had been battling to stabilise her enough to transfer her to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.”
Paul and Laura were told an NICU cot had been found for Elodie, but it was at Jessops in Sheffield which would mean a 70-mile journey for the tiny newborn baby and her worried father. Laura had to remain at home in hospital as she had developed post-partum pre-eclampsia.
“Your just have to trust what they are telling you,” says Laura.
“I first arrived at the hospital in Sheffield around 6.30am and I asked at the reception for neonatal intensive care, only I couldn’t get the words ‘intensive care’ out without crying. I was met by one of the nurses, Nina, who’d been looking after Elodie since she arrived,” recalls Paul.
”Nina explained how poorly Elodie was. As soon as I saw her in the incubator, hooked up to the ventilator and other machines sustaining her life I started crying uncontrollably.
“I found myself watching the numbers on Elodie’s monitors more than I was watching her in the incubator, clinging to life.”
Elodie had suspected patent ductus arteriosus which meant her blood was flowing back into her lungs which caused her to have a pulmonary haemorrhage.
“All I really understood at the time was that she had problems with her lungs and blood pressure,” says Paul.
“We were fortunate enough to have both sets of our parents to support us during this period. My mum was mainly looking after our son, Joseph, which meant Laura’s parents could look after her, and I could focus most of my energy on Elodie. I knew I had to focus on Elodie because I was the only person who could.”
The hospital also organised for Elodie to have donated breast milk for a week, something Laura couldn’t find in Leicester, which was important to her.
Just a week after Laura had given birth she began her chemotherapy and later underwent two further operations after it was identified she was carrying the BRCA2 mutation which presents a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. She had both her ovaries removed along with a double mastectomy
Thankfully Elodie soon came off the ventilator and was able to return to hospital near her home where she stayed for a further four days before returning home.
“Having Elodie home brought so much happiness but also a lot of nerves, “ says Paul.
“I was quite scared just in case anything went wrong. The whole experience of having a seriously-ill baby has definitely changed me, and made me more wary than I already was. I try as best I can to not let it affect my parenting, I know I can’t wrap my kids in cotton wool but I find it hard not to worry about one of them getting hurt or falling ill.”
For Laura it has been a mentally as well as physically difficult couple of years.
“Having my ovaries removed has put me into the menopause. I am only 39 and none of my friends are going through it which is hard. I also have two small children and lack of sleep can prove very difficult.”
The cancer has not returned and Laura sees her oncologist every six months. She started a blog when she was first diagnosed, Breast Cancer and
Baby, which she hopes will help other women facing a similar situation.
"When you are pregnant and diagnosed with cancer you think you are the only person in the world, but you aren’t. I couldn’t find anywhere with information and so I started the blog to help others, but also let people know what was happening with us.”
Elodie is now a normal, happy, wilful nearly three year old.
For the last two years the family has come back to Sheffield on her birthday to say thank you to staff for saving Elodie’s life.
And this year the whole family will take part in the Superheroes walk this Sunday to raise money for the Jessop Wing
“The staff at the Jessop Wing not only saved Elodie’s life, but looked after me whilst I was there with her,” says Paul.
“There is nothing I can say to adequately explain my feelings and convey my gratitude for what they have done for us.
“It takes a special kind of person to do the job they do, and I will always be thankful for them and the NHS.
“As Joseph and Elodie get a little older, I want them to start to understand how much we owe the doctors and nurses that saved Elodie’s life and the Superheroes walk will be a great place to start.”
Be a superhero
Jessops Superheroes, sponsored by Dutton Recruitment, is a 2.5k family walk.
It takes place place on Sunday, June 9, at Graves Park at 10:30am.
There is a £15 minimum sponsorship for all who take part.
All who take part will be given a free superhero bib or cape.
For more information, or to register and become superheroes yourselves, visit www.sheffieldhospitalscharity.org.uk/superheroes19
email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0114 226 7351.
To read more about Laura’s journey visit breastcancerandbaby.