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Neonatal patient grows up to be a neonatal doctor

Posted on Tuesday 29th October 2019
Sabina Checketts in NICU at Evelina London

Dr Sabina Checketts in our neonatal intensive care unit

A woman who was born two and half months early is now a doctor that cares for premature babies at Evelina London.

Dr Sabina Checketts, 32, from Forest Hill in south east London, works in the neonatal intensive care unit at Evelina London. She was born at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital at 28 weeks, weighing just 2lbs 10oz and was small enough to fit in the palm of her father’s hand.

Sabina said: “Things are very different now, but back then my parents were told there was only a 50/50 chance of my survival and if I did make it, I would likely be left with multiple health problems.”

Parents are now actively encouraged to touch and hold their premature babies, but when Sabina was born, her mother was not allowed to cuddle her for two weeks.

Sabina said: “In the 80s, it was believed that premature babies would have a better chance of survival if they were left alone. When I was first born, my parents were only allowed to see me once a day and other relatives were only allowed once a week.”

Premature babies are at high risk of developing breathing problems because their lungs are not yet mature enough without some extra help. While in hospital, Sabina required intubation, which is the process of inserting a tube through the mouth and then into the airway. The tube is connected to a ventilator to assist breathing.

In her first two weeks in hospital, her mother, Lynda Morris recalls seeing her daughter turn blue.

Lynda, 72, said: “I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure how to sound the alarm so I just began screaming.”

“The nurses rushed over and found that her tube had been dislodged and she wasn’t breathing properly. She was fitted with a new tube and quickly regained her colour, but it was a really scary experience.”

20191023, Sabina Checketts at 3-4 months old (photo provided by Sabina)Sabina remained in hospital for more than three months and went home in February 1987.

Her parents say she first expressed an interest in becoming a doctor at just six years old.

Sabina said: “My school did some fundraising for our local neonatal unit, and because the school knew I was born there prematurely, I went along to visit. After walking on the ward and seeing all of the newborn babies in their cots, I came home and told my mum I wanted to be a doctor.”

“When I was young, we walked to school and we would sometimes see a neonatal consultant who was head of the team that treated me walking towards the hospital. My mum would say to me “that’s the man that saved your life” and I was fascinated from such a young age.”

It wasn’t an easy route for Sabina to become a doctor, but her experiences as a baby only made her more determined.

She said. “I did a three year degree in biomedical sciences and a year working as a healthcare assistant, before embarking on my five year medical degree.

“I knew I needed that human element that being a doctor would give me. Though it was a long and often difficult road, I felt like I wanted to give something back to the NHS that had saved my life.”

Sabina studied at Evelina London at various points throughout her medical degree and has now worked as a doctor for a year.

“There’s a true team mentality here at Evelina London,” she said. “It feels like we’re all in it together and as a result we see some remarkable recoveries. Working for a hospital that has such a history is incredible and it’s extra special to be here as we celebrate Evelina London’s 150th anniversary.”

Sabina feels a particular bond with the babies she cares for that are born at 28 weeks, just like she was.

She said: “I was just like them all those years ago and now I’m helping to look after them. I feel like the NHS did me this huge favour and now I’m helping in my own way to pass that karma on.”

Hearing stories about the care she received as a baby has given Sabina a unique perspective on her role.

“As a doctor, I’m interested in a lot of the technical aspects of my care,” Sabina said. “However, having heard about the emotional side of things from my mum, it’s made me more empathetic to the needs of the parents and more aware of the rollercoaster of emotions that they go through during their stay.”

Seeing her daughter become a neonatal doctor has given Lynda an immense amount of pride. She said: “Sabina’s just absolutely determined. She’s living proof that premature babies are tough little human beings. I couldn’t be prouder of her achievements.” 

Despite it being a difficult and unpredictable job, Sabina couldn’t be happier about her career choice. “I can’t even describe the amount of job satisfaction. One of the best things is seeing the returning babies who come back to the hospital after they’ve been discharged. Seeing how they’re growing and developing and how happy their families are is truly one of the greatest feelings.”

Sabina Checketts in the Atrium at Evelina LondonDr Grenville Fox, consultant neonatologist, said: “Sabina is an extremely valued member of the team at Evelina London, whose passion for the job shines each day. Her empathy and understanding of our patients and their families is evident in all that she does.

“Advances over the last 30 years mean that the outcomes for babies born at 28 weeks is typically far better than when Sabina was born, however her story shows that being born prematurely doesn’t necessarily mean it will hold you back.”

Our neonatal unit cares for more than 1,000 babies a year, and has some of the best survival rates in the UK.

Our Evelina 150 Stories

Sabina's journey is part of a series of Evelina 150 Stories that we are sharing in celebration of our special 150th anniversary year.

150 years ago, Evelina London was born out of love, when Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild founded the hospital in memory of his wife, Evelina. Since 1869, we've been saving lives, improving health and inspiring better futures. 

Find out more about how we are marking our special birthday.