A woman who thought she had appendicitis and had no idea she was pregnant left paramedics shocked when she gave birth in the ambulance on the way to hospital.
Chelsea Keenan’s baby boy, Elliot, was born with his internal organs outside his body, which left him fighting for his life.
“It has been a huge emotional rollercoaster ever since Elliot was born in the back of an ambulance,” the mum-of-five explains.
“I have learned that your life can be turned upside down in just five minutes.”
Keenan, 27, from Halifax, West Yorkshire, woke up with agonising backache in the early hours of 15 August. She called 999 after the pain became too much to bear.
Having not realised she was pregnant with her fourth child, Riley, one, until 32 weeks in, and with the pain strongly resembling her previous labour, Keenan, who is also mum to Finley, eight, Esmae, three, and Lilly, two, mentioned her concern to paramedics.
But as she was still having periods and had no other signs she was expecting, they believed the pain was coming from her appendix.
Halfway through the journey to hospital, however, Keenan screamed to ambulance staff that she could feel the baby’s head popping out.
“I rang the ambulance but when the paramedics arrived, they thought I must have a problem with my appendix,” she recalls.
“They wouldn’t believe me when I said I felt like I was having a baby and needed to push.
“My only inkling came because I hadn’t known I was pregnant with Riley until 32 weeks in, either.
“To be fair, though, there were no signs I was pregnant at all.
“I’d been having periods, I wasn’t unwell and I was still wearing my size 12 jeans right up to the day when he was born. I tell people now that he must have been hiding!
“As a mum already, when I’d read stories about women who didn’t know they were pregnant until they gave birth I used to think, ‘Give over, don’t be daft,’ until it happened to me.”
When the ambulance arrived at about 6.45am, Keenan’s partner, Ryan Griffiths, 26, was not allowed to join her because of COVID-19 restrictions, so stayed behind with their children.
The only people with Keenan when she gave birth were the paramedics, but soon after having her newborn placed on her chest, the mum realised something was drastically wrong.
She recalls that the baby’s left leg did not look right, and where his tummy should have been there seemed to be unprotected internal organs on the outside of his body.
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Arriving at Halifax’s Calderdale Royal Hospital, Elliot was admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) where doctors recorded his weight as 5lb 2oz, estimating that he had been born at 35 weeks.
“I’d never given birth and had my baby taken away from me before – it was awful,” Keenan recalls.
“All I wanted to do was get to him, but I knew he had serious problems and was told the doctors needed to check him over and stabilise him.
“They wrapped him in cling film to protect the organs that were on the outside of his body and my heart sank when they told me he might not make it through the next 24 hours.”
Thankfully Elliot survived the night and was transferred to Leeds General Infirmary to wait for a free bed at either Manchester Children’s Hospital or London’s Great Ormond Street, where he could receive specialist care.
After admitting Elliott to the baby unit, Keenan was told her son was critically ill, with the nurse caring for him explaining that his bowel and bladder were in the wrong place.
Having survived a second night, the following day Elliot was transferred to Manchester Children’s Hospital, where his dad was able to meet him for the first time.
There, doctors told the couple that Elliot’s abdominal wall had failed to form properly during the first month of pregnancy – resulting in conditions known as bladder extrophy and cloacal extrophy – where the bladder and bowel are on the outside of the body.
“We were told the condition was so rare it only affects one in 400,000 babies,” Keenan explains.
They also received the devastating news that Elliot would need a stoma operation and a colostomy bag for the rest of his life.
“Elliot was born without a rectum and so will never be able to poo normally,” Keenan says.
Just a month old when he had the operation, the couple also learned Elliot’s malformed leg would have to be amputated before his first birthday.
After being shown how to care for Elliot, his parents were thrilled when their baby was finally allowed home on 21 August.
But their joy was short-lived as, less than 24 hours later, the community midwife visited and was so concerned about Elliot’s weight loss that he was returned to hospital in Halifax for another week.
Then, just before he was due to be discharged, doctors in Manchester advised Elliot would need to be readmitted as a matter of urgency following further test results.
With the exception of one short visit home when her grandmother died in September, Keenan has been living in the parents’ accommodation attached to the Manchester hospital and is by her son’s side every day.
Elliot is tube fed to build his weight up and has already had multiple operations.
Two have been emergency procedures to save him after the contents of his stomach spilled through an unhealed surgical wound and out into his nappy.
“That was horrific,” Keenan recalls. “But Elliot is a fighter and for as long as he fights on, so will we.”
The family hope to have baby Elliot back home in time for Christmas this year and have launched a GoFundMe page, through which they hope to raise £1,000 to take the whole family on a bonding holiday when it is safe to do so.
“When Elliot does come home, I will be his full-time carer,” Keenan adds. “He has been through hell and back, but he is a fighter, not a quitter.
“He has stolen the hearts of everyone who’s looked after him and at the moment, after 10 long weeks, he is finally doing well.”
Additional reporting PA Real Life.