At 27 weeks pregnant, Chelsea’s doctor’s words cut her: “One twin looks like he’s dying.”

 

Thirty-year-old Chelsea Madeira Da Silva can distinctly remember the devastating words her obstetrician uttered when she was 27 weeks and two days pregnant.

After performing the usual ultrasound, he turned to her and said: “It doesn’t look great. One looks like he’s dying. You’re not going home, you need to go to hospital.”

Shaken, the West Australian mum did exactly as he instructed. She was given steroid injections to help the boys’ lungs, but the next morning an ultrasound showed their condition had worsened. Both her sons were at risk of death. She had to go in for an emergency c-section.

“I was in absolute shock. I didn’t know anything about premature babies… I kept saying ‘They’re staying in. I want them in’,” she said.

“It was really scary. I didn’t know if they’d come out alive or dead. I was asking so many questions but I didn’t really want to hear the answers.”

Genesis and Elijah, now 16 months old, were born weighing just 890g and 940g respectively. Immediately after their delivery, they were wrapped in plastic and taken away.

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Genesis and Elijah. Images: Supplied.

It would be another two weeks before their parents could cradle them in their arms.

The boys needed constant monitoring and support to stay alive, unable to breathe without the aid of a machine. Meanwhile Mrs Madeira Da Silva was dealing with PTSD from the birth.

After 14 weeks in hospital - during which time their mother visited every single day, often twice a day - they were finally strong enough to go home. Their older brother Jeremiah, now age three, was at last allowed to meet his siblings.

Mrs Madeira Da Silva said she was enormously grateful the twins had overcome their initial struggle. They continue to undergo various therapies and Genesis is suspected of having cerebral palsy.

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Genesis and Elijah are now 16 months old. Image: Supplied.

She said she would never wish upon anyone the ordeal of a preterm birth, calling it "the worst experience of my life".

And it's for this reason she vehemently welcomes the announcement that a landmark program, which could prevent thousands of Australian babies from being born prematurely, is being rolled out nationally after securing $1.2 million in Federal Government funding.

The Perth-based initiative was first launched by the state's Women and Infants Research Foundation in 2014 and it reduced the rate of preterm births in WA by eight per cent in its first year. That means 200 babies that would have been born prematurely were delivered at full-term age.

With 10 per cent of births in Australia being premature, and this being the primary cause of death and disability in children up to five years old, the WA program could be life-changing for many families.

"If we can reduce the rate of premature babies it would be incredible, because I don't want anyone to have to go through a premature birth. It's a journey you don't want to be on and if we can help future babies, that's brilliant," Mrs Madeira Da Silva said.

WA's world-first program combines a statewide obstetric outreach service with a public health and social media campaign called 'The Whole Nine Months'.

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Tiny Sparks WA founder Amber Bates and her son Adison celebrate the WIRF program's nationwide roll-out. Image: Supplied.

Most crucially, the team of researchers - led by King Edward Memorial Hospital consultant obstetrician John Newnham - established a new method of prevention after discovering a shortened cervix is a crucial sign a woman might have an early labour.

Under the program, every expectant mother now has her cervix measured mid-pregnancy. If it shortened, all that is needed for treatment is a prescription for natural vaginal progesterone. Taking this tablet nightly will halve the chances of a mum going into labour dangerously early.

The program will first be introduced in Victoria and New South Wales. Parallel programs will also be established in New Zealand and Canada.

WA Health Minister Roger Cook commended Prof Newnham and his team for pioneering such an important initiative.

"Delaying the birth of a newborn baby by approximately seven weeks, from 24 weeks to 31 weeks' gestation, saves the health system over $150,000, but the human cost is even greater with complications from preterm birth often resulting in lifelong health problems," Mr Cook said.

Tiny Sparks WA founder Amber Bates said her charity had been working closely with the WIRF and was amazed by the results.

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Adison grabs his mother's finger. Image: Supplied.

The 36-year-old mum, whose seven-year-old son was born weighing just 865g during the 24th week of pregnancy, said prevention of preterm birth was "vital".

"Setting aside the financial cost to government, the emotional trauma to families can be lifelong," Ms Bates said.

"The journey of preterm birth doesn't end when you leave the neonatal unit. Many children go on to require significant early intervention therapies and remain medically fragile throughout early childhood.

"Every day that we can prolong a pregnancy is a day less of worrying in the nursery."

Ms Bates said while her son Adison was now healthy, watching her newborn fight for life for 100 days in hospital was "truly heartbreaking".

"It was 18 long days before we were able to hold him for the first time and three months before he met his siblings. Adison remained medically fragile for his first two years of life requiring heart surgery, home oxygen and numerous other hospital admissions."

The experiences of both Ms Bates and Mrs Madeira Da Silva are painful for any parent to have to endure.

And it's deeply encouraging to know that Australia is leading the way to ensure more and more pregnancies are prolonged, to save countless little, growing lives.

For more information about the Women and Infants Research Foundation's program The Whole Nine Months, click here.

Any families touched by preterm births can access support from the Miracle Babies Foundation on their website, or call the 24-hour helpline on 1300 622 243 (1300 MBABIES).

You can follow Sophie Aubrey on Twitter.

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