I wanted to be a paediatrician. I wanted to so badly that I took A levels in subjects I didn’t even like to enable my entry into medical school. I didn’t get the grades. So I had a re-think and applied to Kings College London for their children’s nursing degree instead. My practical placements were at Kings College Hospital – one of the finest hospitals in England and a World leader on liver disease. At the time it felt like a huge disappointment and downgrade. And breasts were still nowhere in sight!
All through that grueling 3-year degree I slogged away on various children’s wards. With Kings being a major London teaching hospital I saw some incredible things. I watched children’s liver transplants, I saw an intoxicated 4 year old in A&E resus (she’d drunk her parents left-over wine thinking it was ribena), I sat up all night holding the hand of a 15 year old who wasn’t expected to live 24 hours (she did!), I nursed a toddler with only about ¼ of her gut, and I squirted several hundred mililitres of calpol down hundreds of throats! But most of all I saw babies. Hundreds of babies. Most of them had been discharged form the postnatal ward just a day or so before and had been re-admitted into the children’s ward. Why was feeding such a big issue? How hard could it be?!
I remember distinctly being out with a health visitor who had been diligently following up an exclusively breastfed baby who wasn’t thriving. The health visitor had been trying to get that mother to top up with formula, and the mother didn’t want to. I can’t remember having any real opinion on it. I was 20 years old and what did I know about breastfeeding and babies? Not a lot really!
Then, about 14 years ago, I began to get very frustrated with the constant admission of babies with gastroenteritis. And tonsillitis. And febrile convulsions caused by ear infections. They were all babies under 1 year, and all formula fed. My breastfed patients tended to be on the ward for jaundice, or a surgical problem. The formula-fed babies were sick. A lot. This wasn’t my opinion; it wasn’t anything I learnt from textbooks or articles. It was just my lived experience. For me, the statistics matched my casual observations.
And then, one night shift soon after I remember sitting up most of the night rubbing the back of a lady who was trying to express milk for her 3 day-old baby having phototherapy. We laughed and cried together when she sat down on her bed and knocked over the precious 10ml that she’d pumped. We smiled together at this baby licking her lips when her mother carefully dripped her milk into her baby’s mouth via a syringe. I fought the temptation to do it for her – knowing I’d be faster, but somehow knowing that this would be the wrong thing to do. I fumbled my way through trying to help her attach her baby to her breast when she was allowed a break from phototherapy. I wasn’t very good! But that lady trusted me. Even though I’m sure I wasn’t the most capable person on the ward, we had bonded, and she requested me to be her baby’s nurse the next night. I had gone home pumped and hadn’t slept. I was too busy reading……
My obsession had been born.