Around halfway through her pregnancy, expecting Melbourne mum Zoe Schiller started to get nervous about Victoria’s climbing Covid cases. Surely things weren’t that bad. It was March 2020.
Fast forward to Zoe’s final weeks of pregnancy, and the entire world had changed. Then Zoe got a phone call that would derail her birth plans in the blink of an eye. One of her closest friends tested positive for Covid – and they’d had dinner together just days before.
Zoe shared her unique birth story with Mum’s Grapevine.
Natural disasters and a global pandemic
As a first-time mum, Zoe admits she had a pretty cruisy first trimester. Some slight morning sickness, but nothing she couldn’t handle. Things started to change heading into Christmas 2019.
“We had really awful fires and Melbourne CBD was blanketed in smoke – that was stressful as I worked in the CBD and had to mask up for my commute – little did I know what was coming! I remember feeling really silly wearing a mask but other friends who were pregnant were doing it so I thought I better!” Zoe told Mum’s Grapevine.
“I think I was around 22 weeks pregnant when things started to get really serious with Coronavirus. Tuesday 22nd March 2020 was the last time I was in the office – I was at work in the city but so many other businesses had made the call for their staff to work from home. I was pretty frustrated that my organisation was dragging their heels on that decision. Luckily my direct boss told me to head home and work from home. Within days the whole city was doing the same.
“Once I could work from home I felt relieved. I felt generally safe during this time and tried to busy myself with work and walking each day. I would meet my personal trainer once a week in the park and do a work-out. I was enjoying the time at home!”
Zoe had regular appointments with her private obstetrician, her baby always measuring small. At 35 weeks, an ultrasound found that while Zoe’s baby was happy and active, something wasn’t quite right.
“I went in for my ultrasound and the sonographer was very focused, I could tell she kept returning to one part of the ultrasound. I was in there by myself because my partner wasn’t allowed in. She asked me if I had felt the baby move today. ‘Yes’. More fiddling. She then asked me to wait in a small private room so she could call my obstetrician. I was pretty worried at this stage. I called my partner and told him to just come in – stuff the rules. He did and they let him.
“Finally, my obstetrician called me. There was an obstruction to the umbilical cord which was impacting blood flow. She asked me to come back to Frances Perry so they could check the baby with a doppler for a bit and have a chat with me. I went back to the hospital and we could hear and see the baby beating away nicely so that was a relief. My obstetrician explained that we would have another scan in two days and if the obstruction was still there we would need to start talking about inducing. Fast forward two days – obstruction still there – after discussions with her colleagues and myself the decision was made that it would be best to get this bubba out and into the world. I was happy with whatever decision was best for the baby!”
‘It was like a movie scene’
A ball of excitement and nerves, Zoe was told to head home, pack and get ready to meet her baby in the morning – at just over 36 weeks. Zoe and her partner Drew decided to make a quick stop at the shops to grab some premmie baby clothes and labour snacks. Then Zoe’s phone rang.
“It was one of my best friends, she was crying … like really crying. And I thought this is weird, she knows everything that’s happening right now, she knows I’m having this baby tomorrow … she wouldn’t call me like this unless it was something really serious.
“‘I just tested positive for Covid … I am so so sorry.’
“We were between lockdowns in Melbourne during this time. There were five active cases in the whole state. There were some restrictions in place but you were allowed five people to your homes so my friends and I had had a quiet dinner together the Friday before. Sh*t.
“She was beside herself. She didn’t know how she had gotten it. She had felt a slight tickle in her throat the day after our dinner so had gone to get a test. The test had come back positive. DHHS would be calling me shortly but she wanted to call me first. I told her it was ok, maybe I gave it to her! Who knows. I was the one that had been in and out of hospitals!
“I called my obstetrician immediately. I thank the obstetrician gods every day for mine because she was AMAZING. She called the ward and CEO of Frances Perry Hospital. She told me to get to the hospital ASAP and get me into their Covid birthing suite. But, she warned me, Drew might not be able to come with you, she wasn’t sure yet. We drove straight to the hospital. We were in shock.
We parked underneath Frances Perry in the car park and waited for a nurse in full PPE to meet us. It was like a scene out of a movie.
“We were given masks and feet coverings to put on and escorted up the lifts. Each lift we exited was shut down immediately with cleaners standing by to clean them. The foyer of the Royal Women’s was at a standstill while we made our way to another set of lifts. There were people with walkie-talkies yelling at each other. It was crazy.
“We made it upstairs to the Covid birthing suite. Drew was not considered a ‘close contact’ of the positive case and he came in with me. The midwife we had was incredible. She was so easygoing and just chatted away with us. ‘I’m just going to take your temperatures’ she said. She looked concerned… Are you feeling ok? She looked at me through her PPE, mask, hair net, glasses. I had a temperature of 38. I was so sure I had Covid.
“My obstetrician came in – she would test me for Coronavirus, they would fast-track the result and we would know in about two hours. If I tested positive then she would need to isolate for 14 days, so she would have to pass me on to one of her colleagues. Some of the midwives who had seen us earlier in the day were sent home early from their shifts. As a precaution.
“Finally at about 11pm I found out I had tested negative. Phew. But we still needed to stay in the Covid birthing suite. A restless night’s sleep followed.”
Giving birth in isolation
The next morning, Zoe had her water broken, and she was taken through the procedures. She needed to be prepped with an epidural just in case she had to be transferred for an emergency c-section, because getting the birthing team ready in PPE is a long process.
“I wasn’t too fussed, my birth plan was out the window anyway! I had originally thought I’d see how I would go without pain relief but was open to having an epidural. With the recommendation to have the epidural in straight away, the decision was made for me and I was happy to oblige. Took the pressure right off!
“And so my day began! Induced and epidural in. I must admit I felt like the whole day was pretty cruisey in comparison to the lead-up. My epidural was only working on one side of my body so needed to get that fixed, once it was in properly I went from 4cm dilated to 10cm dilated really quickly! I could feel my contractions and still move my legs. When I started pushing I felt really in control and that I could follow the instructions and tips getting thrown my way.
“At about 4pm my obstetrician said it was time to start pushing. Thirty four minutes of pushing and our little tiny Tilly arrived at 4:34pm! She was little: 2.1kg. This posed a problem – a baby of her size should go to the special care nursery – but what if I had Covid? What if she had Covid? They didn’t want her to infect other babies, and if they took her from us we wouldn’t be able to go visit her.
“A pediatrician came in to speak to us and the midwives. She could stay with us but the midwives needed to watch her formula intake and she needed to stay really warm so they would need to check her temp regularly. So from there, we were transferred to a new hospital room. A special room for contagious patients – called a negative pressure room – where our air was circulated outside and separate from the rest of the hospital. It also had an ante-chamber – a small room you would enter before entering our room to put on PPE etc.
“And this small room became our world for the next nine days while we completed our isolation period! (14 days from seeing a positive case). So we lived in a tiny little hospital room. A midwife would be assigned to us, and no one else for that shift. They would come in every three hours in full PPE to help feed Tilly – I was mix feeding, formula, and whatever I could pump (not much!). We kept her warm and she slept away her days. She was a great eater thankfully so no feeding tube was required. She gained weight well.”
Iso life with a newborn
New mum Zoe also recovered well, as the family of three adjusted to their new little universe.
“Drew slept on a reclined chair. Sometimes he would do a workout in the tiny space next to the bed, pushups and situps, and burpees. I don’t know how … the temp in our room was set to 23 degrees! Ultimate comfort for Tilly! This part of the whole experience was amazing, we felt so supported, the one-on-one care we got was incredible. I don’t know how first-time mums go home after just a few days!
“The midwives would bring in our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They would bring us little snacks, presents, and soft drinks. Usually, you have four days in private hospital – so there was a bit of confusion with the hospital as to what to do with us, they talked about sending us home, but then Tilly wasn’t at a good weight yet so she would need to stay. We explained to them that if they did that we wouldn’t be able to visit her because we would still be required to isolate. Our obstetrician spoke to the CEO of Frances Perry and he was very pragmatic. Just let them stay with their baby and complete their isolation period in the hospital.
“I thank my lucky stars every day that he was so on the ball with this. I think we were Frances Perry’s first close contact case of Covid so we really tested their processes.
I definitely felt ready to go home by day nine but the whole experience made us feel confident that we could go home and look after Tilly the best we could.”
Zoe was tested twice more at hospital, returning negative results. She never contracted Covid. And while it wasn’t the start to life as a new mum she’d dreamt of, she is able to see the silver lining.
“It wasn’t ideal but my birth didn’t feel hindered, my baby was healthy. The hospital worked through the complexities of our case and really took a patient-first approach. We were treated with care and respect. Every single midwife was lovely. The weeks and months that followed were ok as well – Drew worked from home and could support me while I navigated new mum life. We just embraced our little family of three for a while and ignored the world. I couldn’t ask for anything more really.”
(Professional images: Melina Takes Photos)
Read next …
Births don’t always go to plan, just like these next incredible stories: