Nursery one was starting to get a little easier.  I refused to leave Betty when there were certain visitors around, I wouldn’t leave her when there were screaming toddlers running around and I would make sure that the nurse with Betty for each day knew how I felt.  They were really understanding and they did all they could to keep the nursery quiet, but it was not easy.  Week three I started to notice my boobs felt a bit sore. I didn’t think much of it to start with, I had heard the nurses warn me about mastitis but I didn’t actually know what that was and I just sort of nodded at them.  One day I noticed my left boob looked a bit pink and James agreed that it did, but I carried on expressing and ignoring it.  I ignored it until I woke in the night in agony, unable to even touch my left boob.  I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror.  It was bright red!  It looked really really angry.  I googled mastitis and thought, shit it!  Now I have this to deal with!  Thank you universe, like I didn’t have quite enough to deal with as it was…

Over on the NICU that day I showed my boob to the family support nurse.  I could tell by the look on her face that my boobs, my left one in particular,did not look good.  Now my friends will know that my boobs have always been funny! I am not ashamed of them, they are what they are, and they’re just not very nice!  But being pregnant gave me boobs!  Actual boobs that required a bra and proper support!  I even had a cleavage!  All of my friends have big boobs, literally all of them!  So when I finally got some I was like, wow!  They look quite nice for a change!  I mean, they got in the way at the gym and I found them a bit irritating and expensive as I had to buy actual grown up bras instead of my little cheap A cups.  So all of a sudden, my new full boobs turned on me.  As Betty was in the NICU, the PAH looked after me, so I went across the corridor (reluctantly leaving Betty withjust James) and was seen by a midwife. She did the same face.  The face a mechanic gives you if your brakes are shot or you need a new engine…’s a wince sort of a face.  Ok, I got it, it was bad.  I was in agony.  Anyone that has had mastitis will know the pain.  For any men that are reading, imagine you’ve been punched in the balls by Anthony Joshua, had them waxed and then dipped in sea salt, and then imagine tiny shards of broken glass being forced out of the most painful part of your newly damaged balls.  This is the only way I can describe it for you men!  I was told to express through it, I had to try to unblock the ducts.  I felt like I was squeezing broken glass through my nipple!  The left one was so bad that the breast lady (another team of people at PAH) said that the tissue damage was extensive and it may not produce much milk, if any, ever again. 

By this point in time, I had come toaccept whatever blows came next.  If I couldn’t breastfeed, then my baby would have formula and I had no worries about that.  Except I did have worries and guilt and self-loathing…..!  Betty wasn’t due to start having my milk again for about another week and so all of this was pretty ok in terms of timing.  I was prescribed a ten day course of Flucloxacillin and advised to warm my boobs before expressing, but to continue expressing through the pain.  The ducts were blocked and the only way to unblock them is to force milk through them. It was agony.  I then realised why I would see other mums walking around the unit with the blue hospital gloves full of water, shoved down their bras.  They were treating blocked ducts!  As well as this I was told a few old wives tales, one of them by an Indian nurse who advised me to get Fenugreek and take capsules of it, but then I read that this can reduce milk production and I was starting to lose all hope for my boobs and Betty ever having my milk.  I stopped the fenugreek after about a day! 

 Then mum arrived with a large savoy cabbage….She put it in the fridge in the family room and told the other mums to help themselves.  This likely sounded completely bonkers but the mums who knew, knew!  There was a mum opposite Betty in nursery 1 (we were moved a lot and thankfully placed near some really wonderful people) who jumped at the chance for a savoy cabbage leaf around her boob.  She was one I had seen with the blue glove down her bra and I noticed she had actual boobs, not like mine.  We got talking and she told us that she had a blocked duct and was desperately trying to avoid mastitis.  Her baby was thriving by this time and was actually feeding from her which was so so lovely.  I remember one day this mum went to have her dinner, I think she’d ordered Chinese or had something nice to eat.  Well, her baby obviously got wind of this and he screamed for her boob!  Bless her, a nurse had to go and get her so she could feed her darling boy.  I would have a sneaky peek at her feeding and hold onto a slither of hope that I too may be able to do this. 

Once the fluclox had kicked in and I had had many a hot bath, dangling my boobs in red hot water and squeezing with as much force as I could muster, I gave in. I turned to James.  I told him that one of the boob ladies had suggested the ‘dangle theory’ which basically involved me on all fours, boobs a dangling, pumps attached and pumping, we were trying to let gravity do its thing.  But the pain was just too much to bear.  I couldn’t inflict this pain on myself.  So I told James to use his thumb and forefinger and gently (VERY GENTLY) pulse them in and outon each boob.  For some reason, I was able to let him do this, but I could not even touch my own boobs by this point.  So, back in our room at the House, we started.  James was nervous, he knows me!  He knew if he squeezed too hard I would launch him into next week!  But, he started and he did so very well.  He responded to my commands of ‘harder, slower, faster’ with apparent ease and at this point, we both burst into absolute hysterics! For the first time in 3 weeks we were laughing!  Proper belly laughing, tears and all.  God knows what the people next to us must have thought, with my commands……I guess the laughter made it clear we were not indulging in anything naughty!  I think that by James doing this though, he was able to sort of, crunch up the massive lumps that had formed and the next day, although still very painful, my left boob started to produce more milk.  Things started to flow, albeit very slowly and it still felt like passing shards of salt laced glass through my nipples, but it was moving!!!  Every time my boobs went ‘ZING’ from this point, I was able to get a little something from my left and an ok amount from the right. 

It’s funny you know, my sister was asking about boob things the other day and I said to her, I wish I had taken photos of my boobs back then, that would be so useful to have and to show people what mastitis looks like.  She replied“you did”…..followed by a photo of my left, red raw, lumpy, oozing boob!  Seeing that image brought it all back.  I showed James and he literally shuddered at the memory of my boobs.  I have considered sharing that image, but I have decided not to!  It is not a nice image, but if any of you are intrigued, I am happy to share individually as it may help others to know that someone else’s boob looked rank! 

The photo of me on all fours……yes it was a selfie.  I took it to send to James and Carol.  To lighten the mood, to bring a smile to their faces, or rather an eye roll from them both!  But this is the reality of NICU life, mastitis when it is really severe and it is a snippet of my zany yet charming personality.  I am not shy!  Neither am I a fool though, and this image is not to make light of our, nor anyone’s NICU journey.  It is about being real.  Remembering who we are.  Despite the trauma, the heartache, the not knowing (which continues to this day).  We are still us.  And yes, these events have changed me for sure, but I am still Mandi. I still insist on my name being spelled with an I….I am moody, I take the piss way too much, I am loud, I am way too honest (apparently) I am ‘weird’, but above all, I am unapologetically me. And this kick in the tits was just another twist in our turbulent tale.  And I own it.

Ladies, if you have, have had, or ever do have, mastitis… is a bitch!  I strongly recommend savoy cabbage leaves.  Put it in the fridge, get that chill factor, trust me, you red boob/boobs will appreciate it.  The cooling effect lasts hours, and if you’re in hospital and can’t easily access a fridge, just turn it around, trust me, it’s like a whole new leaf on your boob!

Another nugget of wisdom that was bestowed upon me during our stay in Southampton NICU, was the magic, self-made expressing bra!  One of the mums in nursery 3 (intensive care) told me about this and it sounded so simple.  Literally cut a hole in your bra, around about where your nipple is.  Boom, done!  Instead of paying ridiculous money for an expressing bra (naming no names…).  So I did this, which meant that I could cling onto a little bit of dignity while expressing. In the photo, I am wearing one of said home-made bras.

This chapter makes me smile, which is strange because it was, at the time, such an enormous blow to me.  But I just rolled with it and I did that thing that I hated people saying at the time……I took each day at a time.  And when you’re in NICU as a parent, this really is all you can do.  Each hour that passes turns into a day, then it rolls again, and again…..and for some the time  stops and their baby becomes an angel.  And for these babies and these parents, I send you my love. These tiny babies leave tiny footprints that leave an imprint on this world.