Former Olympian Jana Pittman has opened up on the ‘heartbreaking’ moment her newborn twins were forced to go into special care after arriving into the world six weeks early.
The 40-year-old shared her story for World Prematurity Day on Thursday, revealing the anxiety she experienced when she wasn’t able to hold her newborn babies after their birth in April this year.
“The twins have been a beautiful addition, but there’s no doubt it was tough when they first arrived,” she told Channel 7’s The Morning Show.
“They were going into special care, and you don’t know what’s going to happen when these babies come early.
“At 34 weeks you think they’re going to be fine to come home with you, so it was heartbreaking to watch them in those cribs and not be able to touch them as much as you want.
“Then there are the feeding tubes, and the stress and anxiety of not being the mother you think you want to be.”
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Pittman, who has four other children, said she was left in tears by the agonising situation.
“I thought it was all going to be to plan, they’d go straight onto my chest and come home the next day,” she said.
“I cried so much and was just completely at a loss as to how to be the mum I wanted to be – even just from a breastfeeding perspective, it was tough.”
After two weeks in a special care unit, twins Quinlan and Willow were finally able to come home to be part of Pittman’s family.
Now, Pittman is sharing her story to raise awareness and ensure other parents going through similar situations don’t feel alone.
“You will feel incredibly vulnerable, but the more people you have around you, and the more you talk about the situation, the better you’ll deal with it,” she said.
Pittman won two world championships and two Commonwealth Games gold medals in the 400 metres hurdles during her rollercoaster sporting career.
However her Olympic career was famously cruelled by injury. She went into both the 2004 and 2008 Games as the reigning world champion but tore cartilage in her knee in the lead-up to Athens, making a miraculous recovery to compete and finish fifth, while a toe injury on the eve of the Beijing Olympics forced her to pull out of the Games.
After retiring in 2012, Pittman began studying medicine at Western Sydney University and she became a qualified doctor in 2019.
“I sat the entrance exam to get in to medicine, failed the first time but I tried again the next year and the day I received that email saying, ‘Congratulations, you’ve got in to medical school’, I bawled my eyes out,” Pittman told the ABC’s Australian Story program.
“I cried for all the years and all failures and everything I’d done not well in life and I remember going upstairs and looking in the mirror and going, ‘You’re OK Jana, you’ve done a good job’.”
Pittman was Dux of her cohort at medical school and said it has helped fill the void left by her athletics career.
“For me, being a doctor is like my new Olympics because the adrenaline’s through the roof, the pressure’s there, your abilities are on the line, you need to not make a mistake,” she said.
“I feel very grateful being an athlete with something that they love as much if not more than their previous sport because I know a lot of my friends post-sport really struggled in that area.”
“One of her goals was to win the university medal for medicine and I think that was a big driver,” her brother Ryan added.
“Maybe it was the medal she was never able to win at the Olympics, I don’t know, but she was able to get that one at least.”
In the program, Pittman explained the intriguing story behind her large family.
She had her first child Conerlis with former English athlete Chris Rawlinson, who she married in 2006.
Years later, a brush with cervical cancer raised concerns about her reproductive health and caused her to explore options to have more children sooner.
“Medicine got very real for me when I had a cancer scare and I became a patient,” Pittman said.
“I was diagnosed with CIN-3, which is basically one step away from stage four cervical cancer and certainly needed treatment.
“It was a pretty scary moment think you might have cancer and to have a child at home.
“I already knew I wanted to have more children but this cervical cancer scare really made me think, ‘I need to do it now’, because the chances are treatment down the track if needed, would mean I could lose my uterus and it could affect me having more children.
“So all of a sudden, I was a single mum of one already and I thought, ‘Why not look at the he options of having children on my own’.
“I actually went home to my speak to my mum about the option of using an anonymous sperm donor.
“We actually went and looked at the donor list together and selected who we thought would be a good match for what we look like so that the children would resemble each other.”
The process was successful and daughters Emily and Jemima were born in 2015 and 2016 respectively to the same anonymous sperm donor.
“A bit down the track my daughter Emily was born and it went so well and I loved it so much I thought, ‘Why not have another one?’ and thankfully the next time we tried, along came Jemima,” Pittman explained.
“I used the same donor as with Emily, so Emily and Jemima are full-blood siblings.
“The girls would definitely have the option down the track to contact their donor and get to know who he is.
“I’m very, very grateful to that man for donating his sperm.”
Pittman’s family has kept growing. She gave birth to baby Charles after marrying her second husband, Paul Gatward.
“It was certainly a surprise, thinking I’d finished my family and I had my three beautiful children to meet someone wonderful who actually still wanted to have more kids,” she said.
“So now I’ve been married for just about a year and we have a beautiful little boy together and I couldn’t be happier.”
But her reproductive story doesn’t end there.
In 2018, Pittman offered to donate her eggs to her friend and former massage therapist Brad Foster, who wanted children but was in a same-sex relationship.
“There’s actually another twist in my journey into reproductive medicine and it’s one that most people don’t know about,” she explained.
“Because I had a wonderful person donate sperm to my daughters I really wanted to pay it forward for someone else.”
Foster recounted Pittman’s act of generosity that led to Màili being born after a surrogate carried the baby.
“Jana came up to visit us in late 2018 and while we were out to dinner, she just dropped a bombshell on us,” he said.
“She said, ‘I want to know if you want to have a family and I want to give you some eggs’. “Well you could have picked my jaw up off the floor. I’m like, ‘Are you for real?’
“We fertilised one of Jana’s eggs via IVF and we met a surrogate who offered to carry for us.
“Fast forward to the 5th of November 2019 and our beautiful daughter was born.”
“I’m known to Màili as ‘Aunty Jana’,” Pittman said.
“I’m obviously her biological parent and we see each other, Covid pending, as often as possible.
“To think that I have the opportunity to be involved in their family, we call it our ‘rainbow family’, is quite a privilege.”
After a sporting career in which she was one of Australia’s most scrutinised athletes, Pittman said she has found a new purpose in life and wants to spend the rest of her medicine career “in women’s health and, particularly, in gynaecology”.