On the wall next to his wife’s hospital bed, Andres Hernandez stuck dozens of ultrasound pictures of their unborn son. She stared at them for hours, and they gave her strength.
And each night – for four long months – Andres slept on the floor next to her bed as they counted every day, every week, their baby slowly grew.
It was the ninth time that Maria Herrera, 36, had been pregnant, and she was yet to feel the gentle weight of a healthy baby in her arms.
The couple, who moved to Melbourne from Colombia six years ago, had endured a heart-rending litany of bad luck: miscarriages, ectopic pregnancy, failed IVF and the loss last year of a baby girl they called Sofia, at 16 weeks.
Maria has a condition called “cervical incompetence”, where the uterus begins to dilate and thin before the pregnancy has reached full term.
Some women have this for no obvious reason; others develop it after multiple miscarriages or IVF attempts.
So when Maria became pregnant for the ninth time, Vicki Nott, a consultant obstetrician at St Vincent’s Private, treated her with progesterone and a stitch at the entrance of her uterus.
Despite this, at 15 weeks, Maria started feeling contractions. Dr Nott decided her distraught patient should assume the Trendelenburg position (also known as “head down, bum up”), where the person lies on their back at a 30-degree tilt.
For six weeks Maria lay on her back, with only quick breaks to visit the bathroom. She ate lying down, gravity forcing the acid of indigestion into her throat and the blood to throb in her head.
The time crawled by, but she was determined. “I would do it again, I would do it all again,” she said.
Maria developed gestational diabetes. During the day Andres went to Richmond to work and she read and watched television and slept so that she could talk with her family in Colombia at night. She took 20 pills a day. Sometimes it felt as if time had stopped.
Then something terrible happened.
At 21 weeks, Maria felt pressure in her cervix and realised she was going into labour. When Dr Nott saw her, Maria’s uterus was three centimetres dilated and her membranes were bulging.
At 21 weeks, a premature baby cannot survive. At 24 or 25, there is a slim chance, but even then Dr Nott knew it was a boy, and boys are more likely to die prematurely. “She had just had the worst run of luck – every time I walked into her room it was to deliver more bad news,” she said.
Maria’s uterus was stitched a second time, but medical staff were not hopeful – usually the patient will go into labour again a few days later because of infection.
But one week passed, and then another, and Maria was still pregnant. No longer allowed to move at all from her elevated position, her bed became her toilet, shower and dinner table.
The whole ward wanted to know how Maria was feeling. The cleaners, staff who deliver food, the midwives, all kept asking Dr Nott about her patient.
And at 32 weeks, after about four months in the elevated position, she was so well that she and Andres were able to return home for a month.
On Tuesday morning, Pablo Hernandez was born by caesarean section at 36 weeks, weighing 2.8 kilograms. “He was so perfect from the beginning, I saw my miracle, my dream come true from that moment,” Maria said.
Healthy, with a velvet cap of hair and exquisitely tapered fingers, he seems most content with his head in the curve of his mother’s neck, an ear to the percussion of her heartbeat.
Maria said she loves this hospital and its staff, the care that was taken with the shell-shocked couple after each blow they were dealt. “It was a horrible story with a happy ending,” she said.