Mum who believes sweetener saved her unborn baby ditches criminology degree to retrain as a nurse

Lois Sheppard, 24, was so impressed by her NHS care that she quit studying criminology to train as a neonatal nurse.

A young mum who swears a sweetener saved her unborn baby – after coating her sandwiches in it when her waters broke at 20 weeks – was so impressed by her NHS care that she quit studying criminology to train as a neonatal nurse and aims to work at the hospital that treated her premature daughter.

When Lois Sheppard, 24, enrolled at Swansea University, in South Wales, her ambition was to become a forensic scientist and, finding out she was pregnant in October 2016 – the start of her second year – by her boyfriend-of-four-months, she refused to give up on her baby or her dreams.

But, after being told her waters had “effectively broken” at 20 weeks – four weeks before the NHS considers a pregnancy to be viable –  asked to consider a termination, instead, Lois scoured the internet for ways to build up her amniotic fluid and found positive testimonies from women who swore by the natural sweetener, Stevia.

Lois in her nursing uniform (PA Real Life/Collect)

Derived from plant leaves native to Brazil and Paraguay, she devoured a tub of Stevia every fortnight – dousing her breakfast cereal and sandwiches in it –  and, to her doctors’ amazement, making it to 32 weeks, when her baby, Maisie, was born on April 24, 2017, weighing 4lb at Swansea’s Singleton Hospital.

Lois, who is no longer with Maisie’s father, said:  “I did lots of research and kept coming across this sweetener, Stevia, and how it could build up the amniotic fluid.

“I started putting it in every drink and on every meal. I would put three tablespoons in my squash, on my cereal and even in my sandwiches.”

Maisie aged two-and-a-half (PA Real Life/Collect)

She continued: “It wasn’t the nicest of diets, but I figured there was nothing to lose.

“I’ve always said that the Stevia saved my pregnancy. If I hadn’t had it as often, I really don’t think I would have built up as much fluid as I did.”

Putting two tablespoons in anything and everything she ate – from her squash to her cheese and ham sandwiches – Lois got through the best part of an entire 75g tub in her first week.

And, much to her doctors’ surprise at the 21-week scan, Lois’ amniotic fluid had slightly increased, with the consultant asking: “How on earth have you managed this?”

At her two subsequent weekly check-ups, medics were shocked to see the amniotic fluid was either increasing or maintaining its levels.

And Lois, who followed her unusual diet throughout her pregnancy, felt like she had passed the “finish line” when she reached 24 weeks.

A tub of Stevia (PA Real Life/Collect)

She said:  “It felt absolutely amazing getting to that point of my pregnancy, even though it was so scary to be in that situation. It was just such a relief.

“If anything went wrong from that point, I knew that I’d be given treatment because the baby was viable – it was such a weight off my shoulders.”

But it was the exceptional care given to her premature baby during her five-week stint in hospital after her birth, that persuaded Lois to transfer from the criminology course that had been her dream in September 2018 to train as a neonatal nurse.

Maisie on the day she was born (PA Real Life/Collect)

Now, determined to work at the hospital that she believes saved Maisie’s life, she said: “My ultimate dream is to go back to the Singleton Hospital as a full time neonatal nurse – and one day to become a specialist there.

“They saved my daughter and, therefore, gave me the most important thing I have in my life. Now I want to help them carry on that work.

“I feel a true affinity with the nurses and the wards there.”

But, back in October 2016, when Lois was told by her student housemates to take a pregnancy test, after being plagued with sickness every morning for a week, she thought they were being ridiculous, as she was positive she just had a bad hangover.

When she finally agreed to take a test, Lois, was horrified to discover it was positive, saying: “When my housemates suggested it, I told them not to be silly.

“Later that morning we were all huddled in the toilet and the test must have turned positive in 0.01 seconds, sending my mind into complete overdrive.”

Maisie on the neonatal ward (PA Real Life/Collect)

She continued: “I had no idea what I was going to do.”

Deciding she could have her baby and complete her criminology course, she carried on as usual until that November when, finding life in a student household with its dirty dishes and late nights too much, by then 12 weeks pregnant, she moved in with her nan, Susanne, 60, in Bridgend – making the 47 mile round trip to university up to three times a week.

“I knew I wanted to keep my baby and carry on  with my studies, but uni life wasn’t working out well for me,” she recalled. “I think everybody should experience it, but not when you’re pregnant. The house was dirty and messy and everyone was always coming home drunk.”

Lois and Maisie in hospital (PA Real Life/Collect)

She continued: “That lifestyle wasn’t for me anymore.”

Successfully juggling her studies and her pregnancy after settling back in Bridgend, in January 2017, at her 20 week scan at Singleton Hospital, everything changed for Lois.

One moment she received the news that she was expecting a baby girl, but the next she was told her amniotic sac – where the baby develops – had ruptured.

As a result, the amniotic fluid – a clear liquid in which the unborn baby floats and moves around – had been slowly leaking, effectively meaning that her waters had broken at 20 weeks.

Lois said: “The 20-week scan is when everything changed. We were so excited to find out the sex of the baby. Would it be team pink or team blue?

“Just a few seconds in and the sonographer was calling her colleagues into the room, so I knew something was wrong.”

Lois feeding Maisie for the first time (PA Real Life/Collect)

She continued: “They told me my waters had already broken, then they took me into a side room and all I could see was a box of tissues lying in the middle of the table.

“The consultant came in and said they weren’t confident I could carry on until 24 weeks and offered me the choice of a termination.

“I knew straight away I couldn’t do that. A fight had already woken in me to see my baby through this.”

Maisie’s first day at home (PA Real Life/Collect)

Also known as preterm prelabour rupture of the membranes (PPROM), according to baby charity Tommy’s, a ruptured amniotic sac occurs in just two per cent of pregnancies and if you are under 24 weeks pregnant and the baby is born, sadly, it is unlikely the baby will survive.

But, rather than terminating her pregnancy, Lois searched the internet for advice from other mums on ways to build up her amniotic fluid – finding repeated posts and articles about Stevia.

Testimonies claiming it could actually help to increase the volume of amniotic fluid persuaded her that “doing something was better than doing nothing,” so, the next day, she bought two tubs of Stevia-based sweetener at her local supermarket.

While she believes the sweetener helped to replenish it, the fluid continued to leak and, at 27 weeks, embarrassed by “getting through six Tena ladies pads” for incontinence a day, Lois decided to study remotely from her nan’s.

Then, as she lay in bed eating Dairylea Dunkers and Quavers, at 32 weeks pregnant, she felt a sudden pain in her stomach and, to her horror, the leaking amniotic fluid turned pink.

She said: “I got up to use the loo and rushed to the toilet when I noticed I was leaking a pinky fluid, and I knew something wasn’t right.”

Lois and Maisie on Halloween 2019 (PA Real Life/Collect)

She continued: “Doctors had told me to prepare for a premature birth, but I guess I thought I’d somehow make it to full term.”

Rushed to Singleton Hospital that morning, just 1cm dilated, it was not until 5am the following day, on April 24, 2017, that Lois finally gave birth naturally to Maisie, weighing just 4lb, after a four-hour labour.

“The whole experience was insane,” she explained. “Midwives had sent everybody home, because they thought the baby had no chance of turning up and then the next moment I was holding Maisie.”

Lois and Maisie on Halloween 2018 (PA Real Life/Collect)

She continued: “She was so tiny and perfect, but as soon as they took her away the room went silent.”

When the umbilical cord was cut, Maisie could not breathe unaided and needed to be resuscitated, before being rushed to intensive care, where she was put on ventilation and fed through a tube.

Taken off her ventilator after a week, when she was three weeks old, Maisie was transferred to the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend, where, after two weeks, she was able to be bottle fed – finally returning home at five weeks old in June 2017.

Lois said: “Taking Maisie home was such a milestone. When you’re in that situation you never think it will happen, that there’ll actually be a light at the end of the tunnel.”

With no apparent problems with Maisie’s development, Lois could not stop thinking about the incredible nurses who had helped save her little girl.

In August that year she began volunteering as a veteran parent at the Singleton Hospital, which involved helping other parents of premature babies by talking about her own experiences.

Maisie aged one (PA Real Life/Collect)

Returning to her third and final year of criminology studies, in September 2017,  having parted from Maisie’s father,  she knew, without doubt, that she no longer wanted to be a forensic scientist but, instead, was determined to study paediatric nursing and she applied to transfer courses at her university.

“When I was in the hospital seeing nurses working to save my baby, every day, all I could think was that it was what I wanted to do, too,” said Lois.

“I want to help other families, the way doctors and nurses have helped mine.”

Maisie and a tub of Stevia (PA Real Life/Collect)

Submitting her application in April 2018, by July that year she was given an interview and a month later, in August, after initially being told she was being put on a reserve list, she became one of just 28 people admitted onto the course.

Taking to the academic side like a duck to water, Lois excelled in her theoretical studies and, before long, was being fitted with purple scrubs, in preparation for the practical element, which would begin the following term.

But, during a placement at the Princess of Wales Hospital, where Maisie had also been treated, when she learned how to tube feed a premature baby, it brought back painful memories of her own experience – leading to her taking a break from her practical studies for the rest of the six-week term.

“I was juggling 12.5 hours shifts, being a single mum and studying to be a nurse,” Lois said.

“One day I was practising fitting a feeding tube and it all became too much, as the memories of Masie’s birth came flooding back and I knew I needed a break.”

After passing the first year of her degree with flying colours, Lois agreed with her tutor that she would take a year out – working as a health care assistant at the Princess of Wales Hospital, to build up her practical confidence, before returning to her second year of studies in September this year.

Now, she is more determined than ever that she will become a neonatal nurse, and hopes to save lives on the wards that helped save her precious daughter, now two.

Lois, who is speaking out to raise awareness, on behalf of the sick and premature baby charity, Bliss, added: “I’m not kicking myself for taking a year out. I’ve been through so much and I know I’ll be fully rested and recharged to start my second year.

“My heart leaps with pride every time I look at Maisie and now I can’t wait to know, by becoming a nurse, that I’ve given that feeling to other mums and dads who find themselves in situations like mine.”

Lois in her nursing uniform (PA Real Life/Collect)

Asked if there was any proof that Stevia could, indeed, help to build up amniotic fluid, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, Dr Frankie Phillips, said: “Despite some anecdotal chat about Stevia being helpful, there is absolutely no scientific evidence basis for recommending Stevia as a means to build up amniotic fluid.

“Whilst maintaining a healthy diet and good levels of hydration are important throughout pregnancy, the advice of obstetricians , usually bed rest is of paramount importance.”

For more information about Bliss, visit bliss.org.uk