In March 2012, Dean and Jodie Rogut’s son, Max, was born at 24 weeks gestation – almost four months early. As the father of a preemie baby, Dean was experiencing his own mental health challenges, while trying to support his wife through her own perinatal depression.
Dean is sharing his story this Perinatal Mental Health Week (November 7-13) to encourage parents who may be struggling with the arrival of a new baby to reach out for support. Both mums and dads need to know they are not alone and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed at this time.
*Trigger warning: this article mentions suicide*
In 2011, my wife Jodie and I decided that it was time to start trying for our first child – it was that or a kitten and we went with the child – and this was the start of an enlightening, harrowing, exciting, scary but above all fulfilling experience.
When we found out that Jodie was pregnant I was completing my Diploma in Nursing and we thought this was great timing as I was about to start a new career. We – well I – I even remember the day she told me she was pregnant as I said the cliched thing of, ‘What? Are you sure?’.
The first few weeks were normal. The early scans and doctor appointments were all good and then we got to the 11 week scan.
We were at the ultrasound and the baby wasn’t in a position where he could be seen (very different from now where he often is the centre of attention!) so the sonographer had to adjust her scan. That’s when we found that Jodie had a shortened cervix. The sonographer called our obstetrician to tell her the situation. It was suggested that she now had fortnightly scans to monitor the issue, as this is a cause of miscarriage.
At Jodie’s 13 week scan, it was noticed that her cervix had shortened even more. The sonographer contacted our obstetrician. We got to her office (no wait this time) and she advised that she does not treat “high-risk” pregnancies, and her colleague would see Jodie NOW. Little did we know he was one of the top specialists in Victoria at the time. We rushed over to his offices at the Royal Women’s Hospital.
He had a look at everything and told us Jodie had an incompetent cervix – such a lovely and confidence-building term – and he would need to do a procedure called a cerclage. Essentially, this is where they put a stitch in and around the cervix to keep the baby in the womb for as long as possible.
This was done the next day and Jodie was then out on bed rest, and essentially couldn’t move off the bed except for essential activities (toilet, shower… that kind of thing). Our dog would watch over her and anytime she moved he would come to me and give me a look to say she had moved again.
This was around the middle of January and I got my first nursing job as a casual mental health nurse. Just after my second shift, Jodie wasn’t feeling too well so we saw the obstetrician and she decided that Jodie needed to be in hospital for a few days just to monitor things. Jodie came home after a week but the stress of the pregnancy and the fact that she is an active person who gets bored easily started taking its toll on her mental health. At this point I should say that I have a background in mental health having been a youth worker/counsellor and also working in the drug and alcohol sector, coupled with my own diagnosis of depression… yet I had no idea how to help my wife. So I contacted Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) through their helpline. The person who took my call was great, helped to calm me down and offered some advice.
Unfortunately, Jodie doesn’t like getting help and as she’d never had a mental health issue in the past, she flatly refused help. Being the dutiful husband, I left it at that. I still watched over her and made sure she was okay but just didn’t know how to help her.
A few days later, issues with the pregnancy started again and this time the decision was made that she go back into hospital for the rest of the pregnancy, and for the next 12 weeks, Jodie was on bed rest in hospital unable to move off the bed. She was able to go out for a weekly scan (her sonographer was across the road) but was escorted in a taxi with a nurse to the ultrasound and I met her there.
During this time, I didn’t work too much, and within a week or so I stopped altogether. I was thankful for my parents’ support as we wouldn’t have been able to pay rent without them – and spent pretty much everyday at the hospital with Jodie. I could see her mental health slowly deteriorating. She did get support from the nurses and social workers at the hospital, but what I didn’t notice at the time was that my own mental health was also worsening.
At 23 weeks, during her weekly ultrasound, we were told that her waters were bulging. This meant that she was about to go into labour. No other hospital would admit her, as she was only 23 weeks. And in Victoria, viability is at 24 weeks. This meant that no hospital would be able to resuscitate the baby if he was born.
At her 24 week scan, we could see that Jodie was already 1cm dilated. The baby was going to be here soon. The only hospital in Victoria on that day that had a NICU and a maternity bed available was the Mercy Hospital for Women in Heidelberg. She was transferred that afternoon.
Jodie was there for a week and again her mental health deteriorated as she had gone from a private room in a major hospital. Again I would visit everyday and, on the Friday before I left, Jodie said she was a bit uncomfortable. Jodie called me around 9pm to say she was still feeling a bit off but the nurses had given her something and was improving. The next morning at 6am I got the call from the duty obstetrician that she was in labor – it had started the night before!
So I rushed from our house in Chadstone to Heidelberg in record time, and to this day I don’t know how I didn’t get a ticket for speeding. I walked into the birthing suite and there she was on the bed ready for our son to be born. Eventually after a few hours of walking around the room, getting some pain relief and throwing up on me at least once, the baby started coming out.
The room filled up with a half a dozen people and emergency equipment including a humidicrib – a special bed with all the bits and pieces to get him started in life.
Max was born at 5.35pm on Saturday 17 March 2012 (we joke that he wanted to have a Guinness with his dad), weighing 821 grams. I’m not even sure exactly when he started breathing.
The doctors and nurses were incredible. They placed him in a bag (premature babies can not regulate their temperature), intubated him (a breathing tube placed down his throat) and he started his long fight.
He was then rushed upstairs to the NICU and put in the humidicrib. Strangely one of my strongest memories of him is laying under a heat lamp wearing sunglasses, just kicking back waiting for his cocktail to arrive.
Jodie was able to leave the hospital on Tuesday afternoon, so we spent all day Tuesday at the hospital, and whilst he wasn’t doing well – he wasn’t too bad either. Then on Tuesday night we got the call to come back in… the doctors weren’t sure he would make it to the next day. We rushed in to see him. When we got there, the doctors looked at us, and were slightly embarrassed as he had improved. Max looked up at us (eyes still fused together) and it looked like he was saying, ‘Hey sucker, don’t leave me again!’.
On the Wednesday morning, we went in to see Max, as was the start of our routine for the next few months. This time when we arrived, the doctors looked at us and told us that Max was not doing well, and there was some bloating in his belly (this turned out to be NEC – necrotizing enterocolitis). How do you know you are the parent of a NICU bub? Your medical knowledge is that of an experienced medical professional!
Two surgeons were on their way from the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) to stabilise him and to take him to the RCH for surgery.
We spent nearly every one of those 120+ days on the Butterfly Ward at RCH. I got a new job whilst he was there but couldn’t keep going to work, back to the hospital and then home – it was just too much so I had to resign. The odd day we didn’t go in we felt so guilty but we needed to get out of there when we could.
During this time, Jodie’s mental health issues became more and more apparent and one day I finally convinced her to see someone at the Royal Women’s Hospital. She was diagnosed with postnatal depression. I was also going downhill but no one saw it because I was being strong for everyone else.
After 120+ days, a number of scares, a long bout of sepsis and two surgeries, Max finally came home. This was July and I secured a new job as a mental health nurse in a graduate enrolled nurse program at a major hospital in the eastern suburbs. I started in August in a community mental health unit and everything was going well – at least on the surface.
I had two rotations as part of the program and in February I started my second rotation on the inpatient unit at the hospital. By this time Max was doing well, Jodie was seeing her psychiatrist and we were like any other family with a newborn. We had ups and downs, especially when Jodie had trouble breastfeeding, and was pumping every day. The upshot for me was that I got to do the midnight feed which gave me some great one-on-one time with Max.
Then my issues started to surface. I ignored them and didn’t seek any help despite knowing who I could turn to, including my old psychologist. Strangely though, I didn’t think of PANDA. To me it was for mothers – not fathers.
As the weeks went on, work took its toll and I got worse and worse, eventually ending up in the emergency room of the local hospital at least once. I contemplated suicide and spent time in a private psychiatric hospital.
It was then I started to see my psychologist and psychiatrist again and got myself back on track. I worked out that whilst trying to be strong for everyone else I didn’t think of myself. I stopped doing things I enjoyed, didn’t really see my friends, stopped sleeping – all signs of something being wrong… but avoided getting help until it was almost too late. It took me a while but I got back to work, completed my graduate program and started working as a nurse full time.
Max has thrived – he’s now nine, almost 10 – and is incredibly smart, funny and loved by everyone who meets him.
All of this has led me to become a community champion with PANDA and try to reach other men experiencing what I experienced. Often we are seen as the strong one, or feel we need to be, and forget about ourselves. Through PANDA I’ve been able to take part in advisory groups aimed at promoting the notion that it is okay to ask for help. I also gave evidence at the Royal Commission on Mental Health around the lack of help, both for men and women, when it comes to perinatal mental health and was given the chance to tell my story.
Hopefully my story will enable other men to see that we can reach out and get help without being seen as a lesser man – especially before it’s too late.
Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) has witnessed a 51% increase in calls to its national helpline over the last 12 months, and is commending parents for seeking support and starting an important conversation.
PANDA CEO Julie Borninkhof said 57% of callers in 2020-21 cited stressful life events as one of the reasons for reaching out for help.
“There is no doubt COVID-19 has contributed to the increase in stress felt by expecting and new parents. We have heard from many mums and dads that having less support available has put pressure on families facing isolation, home schooling and separation from loved ones,” Ms Borninkhof said.
“We have also seen more discussion about mental wellness and looking after yourself which has helped mums and dads recognise they may need help – and that’s a good thing.” Over the last year, PANDA has had more than 40,000 conversations with mums and dads who reached out for help. “We are so proud to see more callers to the PANDA Helpline and people reaching out for help earlier. They want to make their parenting experience the best it can be, and be there for their bubs at a time when they’re struggling.”
Anyone having trouble coping with pregnancy or post childbirth can visit or call the PANDA Helpline on 1300 726 306 Mon to Fri, 9am – 7.30pm AEST/AEDT. For information about Perinatal Mental Health Week, visit www.panda.org.au/awareness/perinatal-mental-health-week.