After copious rounds of IVF, Nic Stark was both overjoyed and really cautious when she fell pregnant with her second child, Elly.
While pregnant with Elly, Ms Stark had two bleeds, the second being quite "substantial" at around 23 weeks. She was later told she was fine and stayed at the hospital over the weekend as a precaution.
At 25 weeks, Ms Stark and her husband Leigh decided to visit her parents on the NSW south coast for a few days. But while they were there, her water broke.
"I rang the midwives asking what on earth is going on, what could I do? And they said 'you need to do something straightaway'," Ms Stark recalled to Yahoo News Australia.
"And I thought to myself, I need to get myself to the nearest hospital that's got a neonatal intensive care unit."
Ms Stark and her husband headed to Wollongong Hospital, but after staff assessed Ms Stark and realised how early in the pregnancy she was, they decided she needed to be transported to The Royal Hospital for Women in Randwick.
"That night was horrible because I thought that I honestly was going to lose my daughter," she said.
The whole ambulance trip Ms Stark squeezed her husband's hand every time Elly moved, each movement giving her a little bit of hope.
Ms Stark was told she would likely go into labour within hours and was informed of the survival rates of a child being born that early.
"It was probably one of the most stressful most heartbreaking experiences of my life," she said.
Mum kept baby inside for four weeks
Every hour passed was another milestone and eventually, it had been 24 hours. Ms Stark was then told she could go into labour within 10 days and was put on bed rest.
The couple's daughter Emma thought her mother had moved out and for four weeks the separation was difficult, but she knew it was best for her.
"I started FaceTiming her every single day, but she started getting a bit sick of that. And she said quite a few times, 'I don't want to face time, mummy, I want to see her', which is hard," Ms Stark said.
She stayed in the hospital until Elly was born, while her husband took care of Emma and made trips to the hospital. Mr Stark also had to play 'bad cop' with Emma, a role he was not used to.
Remarkably, she managed to keep Elly inside for another four weeks.
Born at 29 weeks on December 8, 2021, Elly looked straight at her mum and let out a little squeak.
Ms Stark said she let out a sigh of relief knowing her daughter's lungs were working and she was looking around.
Staff whisked Elly away and Ms Stark then noticed more and more hospital personnel were pouring into the room.
"I kept looking over saying 'Is she okay, is she okay?' and they said 'yeah, she's fine, she's fine, we've got the whole team here'," she recalled.
"Then more and more people started piling into that room and then they closed the doors. And I started to become really distressed."
Baby's 75-day hospital battle
Mr Stark went to the NICU to check on Elly, while Ms Stark was taken to the postnatal ward. When the two were reunited again, it was clear Mr Stark had been crying, something he "never" does.
A neonatologist had accompanied her to the postnatal ward. Elly was critical and the doctor couldn't make any promises.
Elly not only survived the night but more than 70 days in the NICU.
Even the smoothest of pregnancies are difficult, Ms Stark said, but having a baby in the NICU and having to deal with such a confronting reality is particularly difficult.
The Starks now have a family of four, with Elly now being six months.
"Now we have a beautiful little girl with beautiful blue eyes," Mrs Stark said.
"She's smiling and chortling and, you know, she's probably going to be a troublemaker when she's older, but I will deal with it."
Mum hails hospital staff's 'amazing' work
Despite the pregnancy, the labour and the 75 days of Elly being in the NICU being incredibly challenging, Mrs Stark is hopeful and so grateful to all the staff who supported her along the way.
"I had such an incredible team surrounding me, all with so much professionalism, expertise, love and compassion, it was almost overwhelming just how amazing this team was," she said.
Ms Stark has retold her story as part of the Heart for Her campaign, which helps the Royal Hospital for Women Foundation to provide essential care to mothers and newborns.
The Starks also shared their journey on social media and how Elly had come early with the response they received offering plenty of comfort.
People reached out to say they or someone they knew was born prematurely. Seeing other premature babies grow up to live happy and healthy lives gave Ms Stark hope.
She hopes her story will encourage other families going through something similar to reach out and get that support and she wants people to know premature babies might be tiny, but they're so strong.
"They look so fragile, but holy moly, they are the most strong, resilient little humans that you can ever imagine," she said.
"It's just incredible just how much they can have, how much they can achieve, and how much they can pull through and face all the obstacles that are held their way."
You can donate to Heart for Her before June 30 and help transform the lifelong health of women and newborns.
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