Being Mama: Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster
In 2015, Goldman Sachs banker-turned-charity fundraiser Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster’s life couldn’t be more idyllic. A fairytale wedding was followed by an uncomplicated pregnancy and the birth of her first son Andrea, but things took a dramatic turn for the worst when her baby was rushed to hospital with a life-threatening condition at only eight days old. This, and a problematic second pregnancy, taught her that motherhood comes with a multitude of challenges.
In those precious weeks after you welcome your first child, you’re cocooned in a bubble of baby bliss. Life is an endless cycle of feeds, cuddles, diapers and power naps. For Walkabout Foundation founder Carolina Gonzalez-Bunster, this bubble was brutally burst when her 8-day-old baby son Andrea was rushed to hospital.
After her dazzling wedding to Italian businessman Stefano Bonfiglio, Gonzalez-Bunster set off on her journey towards parenthood with the innocent, rose-tinted eyes of a newlywed deeply in love. ”I didn’t prepare at all, I just jumped right into it and got pregnant quite quickly,” she says. The easy road continued, with her describing the pregnancy as “a total breeze, nine months of basking in the euphoria of growing my baby”.
In hindsight, Gonzalez-Bunster reflects that the naivety she approached her first pregnancy with was a blessing. “It was the best way to experience those nine months,” she admits. “Stress-free… happy-go-lucky… as zen as possible for the sake of the baby.” However, she says that she took for granted how precarious pregnancy and labor can be. She says: “I just thought: ‘You get pregnant, carry the baby for nine months, and then out pops your little angel.’”
Although he didn’t exactly ‘pop out’, Andrea’s birth was certainly a whirlwind. Having taken the proverb that first babies always arrive late as gospel, Gonzalez-Bunster was completely unprepared when her waters broke three days before her due date. “I hadn’t even packed our hospital bag,” she says. As she arrived at the hospital, the contractions started coming hard and fast. Gonzalez-Bunster didn’t have a birth plan and simply followed her body’s lead, and with the help of an epidural and ventouse, she welcomed her “precious angel” 24 hours later.
Despite Andrea having jaundice, he was a healthy 3.1 kgs so both the hospital and new mom Gonzalez-Bunster saw no great cause for concern. “We didn’t think anything of it,” she says, “and brought him home to bask in the glory of having him.” As they adjusted to life as parents, everything seemed perfectly normal. “Midwives came and went, Andrea was feeding beautifully, gaining weight and doing everything a newborn should do,” she says.
Then, eight days after his birth, Gonzalez-Bunster went to feed her son but he didn’t want to eat. “I tried breastfeeding every which way, and he simply refused,” she remembers. As family members convinced her that it was probably just reflux or colic, she tried not to worry. But later that afternoon, he vomited. “I immediately panicked,” she says. “I tried to get an appointment with a pediatrician, but no one was able to see our son as it was Easter Monday.” Finally, her husband found a pediatrician on website doctorcall.co.uk who said he would come over that evening. “Thank God for that doctor,” she says. “He saved Andrea’s life.”
The visiting doctor noticed how yellow Andrea’s jaundice was and was concerned that he hadn’t fed all day. He urged the couple to take him for a blood test at their local A&E and, of course, they obeyed. “Upon entering the hospital, life as we knew it was over,” says Gonzalez-Bunster.
On the spot, Andrea was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. Gonzalez-Bunster fainted. Her baby boy had to be resuscitated and doctors prepared to move him to a cardiology unit at another hospital. “Within 12 hours he was not only moved to Great Ormond Street Hospital,” she says, “but he also underwent open heart surgery to correct the coarctation of the aorta he was born with.”
Gonzalez-Bunster remembers the next few months of Andrea’s life as unbelievably stressful. “I was worried every minute and every day,” she says. Immediately putting her career on hold, Gonzalez-Bunster devoted all her time to helping her sick baby recover from his surgery. “I wasn’t afraid to call time on my job,” she says. “And it paid off!” Today, she says Andrea is thriving. “You wouldn’t know he has a congenital heart defect and went through open heart surgery at one week old.” Although her little boy will have medical checks forever, he leads a totally normal life.
Although Andrea made an amazing recovery, it was soon Gonzalez-Bunster’s turn to face a frightening health scare. Eight months ago, she was delighted to discover she was four weeks pregnant with her second child. However, the happiness soon turned to trepidation. “Immediately I felt nauseous [and] tired all the time,” she says. Three weeks later, she suffered a massive bleed while at a restaurant. After being rushed to the hospital, her doctor revealed that she had a subchorionic hematoma, which left her at high risk of losing the baby. “The blood clot, located in the outer fetal membrane next to the placenta, was huge,” she says. After two days being treated in hospital, she was put on bed rest until further notice. Although to many people that might sound like heaven (and Gonzalez-Bunster remembers friends and even her husband expressing envy at her situation), she says that the stress began as soon as she was back home. Bleeding every day for almost two months, she worried constantly that her waters would break. Cabin fever soon set in. “You start to go crazy,” she says, “especially if you’re as restless as I am.” Little Andrea was now one and a half years old and, still celebrating his good health, Gonzalez-Bunster was longing to run around outdoors, play and carry him. ”All that was off limits,” she says. “Instead, I had to throw my rules out the window and allow him on my bed to watch TV with me. We watched more Peppa Pig than I ever wanted him to watch in a lifetime, but a mom has to do what she has to do.”
Eventually, the doctor revealed that the hematoma had absorbed and was no longer life-threatening. Allowed to venture outdoors again (while promising to take it easy), Gonzalez-Bunster admits “he gave me an inch and I took a mile”. She was soon dealt another cruel blow. At 24 weeks pregnant, she discovered that she had a short cervix. “The issue with a short cervix is that you’re in constant danger of preterm labor,” she explains. However, at 24 weeks you are also at a crucial part of your baby’s development. She says: “If the baby is born, he/she typically survives but the chances of disability are very high.” Understandably, Gonzalez-Bunster’s anxiety grew as she panicked about going into labor too early. The weeks crept by at an agonizingly slow pace, but she made sure she ate well and got lots of rest and eventually, as her due date approached, the pregnancy became less high-risk.
Now, at nearly 36 weeks pregnant, Gonzalez-Bunster hopes she has come through the storm. Focussing on the birth of her second child, she says that she wants to take a more natural path this time. “I’m so keen on having a different experience from my first labor that I thought it couldn’t hurt to learn about the different approaches.” For that reason, she has chosen to attend natural birthing classes run by midwives at Chelsea Westminster Hospital. “All the other women in the class laugh at me because they don’t understand why I’m there asking questions as a second-time mom,” she says. “Maybe this time around, I’ll try a water birth!”
Until Baby No. 2 arrives, there’s still time for Gonzalez-Bunster to quietly reflect on all that she has dealt with since her motherhood journey began. “I feel like I’ve made it, having been through so much these last nine months,” she says. “This baby is meant to come into this world, destined to meet us and do great things.” Although she and her husband have chosen not to find out the sex of their new addition, they can’t wait to meet him or her. “I couldn’t be more excited at the prospect of meeting my baby, who I adore so much already,” she says.
Update: Since publishing this piece, we are happy to announce that despite it being a long 9 months and a difficult second pregnancy, Gonzalez-Bunster had the most straightforward labor (lasted less than 2 hours!) and welcomed their precious little angel Delfina on April 14th. It was the biggest shock of their lives as she came as a total surprise because Gonzalez-Bunster and her husband were totally convinced they were having a boy. Delfina is without a doubt the princess of the family as she joins her 5 older brothers.
By Rebecca Nittolo