Why David Baker gave up his job as a top chef to nurse his twin boys born 15 weeks premature
Ahead of Father's Day on Sunday, Stephanie Bell talks to Bangor dad David Baker, who gave up his job as a top chef to care for his beloved twin boys when they were born 15 weeks premature and given little chance of surviving
Bangor man David Baker is the doting dad who refused to give up. Horrified to be told his tiny premature twin boys had little or no hope of survival when they were born, he was determined they would be given every chance.
The boys, who medical staff dubbed "the miracle twins", put up a brave fight, astonishing everyone.
However, when David (45) and wife Milena (37) finally got their sons, Michael and Scott, home, their babies faced a lifelong list of medical complications.
With no hesitation, David gave up his career as an executive chef in a top hotel to devote his life to caring for his boys. Now aged nine, against all odds and thanks to their parents' devotion, Michael and Scott are healthy, intelligent, fun-loving boys.
And no one is prouder this Father's Day than David as he talks about the twins and the obstacles they have had to overcome since birth.
As the boys are flourishing and no longer need the same level of care, David has decided to give something back. He has become the first male family support volunteer with the premature baby charity TinyLife, to help other families in the same position as him.
David has discovered he has a lot to give - and the Baker family continue to face daily challenges.
The twin boys' proud parents were terrified when their boys were born at 25 weeks on October 2, 2006 - 15 weeks before their January 10, 2007, due date.
At the time, they were the smallest newborns in the UK; Scott weighed just 1lb 10oz (less than a bag of sugar) and was given no chance of survival and brother, Michael, at just 2lbs, was given a slight 10% chance of making it. David says that his boys, including youngest son Jake (6) and wife, Milena, who is from Poland, are the centre of his universe.
The couple met through his work 10 years ago and were overjoyed to be expecting twins.
And when Milena took mild stomach pains in the 25th week of her pregnancy, they had no reason to be concerned. As the pains got stronger, though, they decided to take no chances and called for an ambulance.
The pair just about made it to hospital when the boys were born - two very small and very sick babies.
Michael was born unresponsive and had to be resuscitated. As medical staff worked to save the babies, the couple had an anxious four-hour wait, not knowing if they would ever see their sons alive.
David recalls: "You just go into shock. We were sitting in this room and a nurse brought us photographs in and told us we couldn't see them yet.
"She explained that we might not see them alive, which is why she brought the photographs. We had to sit for four hours in that room waiting and it is hard to explain, but you don't think of yourself, you are thinking of your children.
"You don't fully understand what is going on."
The shocking news about the twins' plight was devastating, with little room for hope.
David explains: "They told us the boys were the smallest surviving identical male twins in the UK at the time. They gave Michael a 10% chance of survival and Scott 0%. They told us that if they did make it, they would be wheelchair-bound and life expectancy would be short."
When Scott was four days old, there was more bad news; they were told he had less than an hour to live, and decided to have him baptised in hospital.
On numerous occasions in the next few months and years, Scott's life hung in the balance.
David and Milena spent the first four months of their boys' lives virtually living in the hospital beside two incubators, willing their babies to survive.
After two months in the Royal Victoria Hospital's intensive care unit, the boys were moved to the special care unit, where they spent another two months.
Despite the heartbreaking prognosis, a very special relationship between the twins was apparent even then, as David explains: "People think that the special bond between identical twins is a myth, but we see it every day.
"The medical staff at the hospital was amazed by it. The closer their incubators were, the more stable Scott's vital statistics became.
"His heartbeat would be going wild and as soon as they put him beside Michael, it calmed again. There was one time when they were separated for five days and Scott was very ill. And as soon as they put Michael beside him again, within seconds he was able to come off the ventilator. The nurse said in 30 years she had never seen anything like it."
The twins put up brave battles and as they grew stronger, the realisation of taking home two sick babies began to sink in. There were risks of medical complications and the boys would need round-the-clock-care.
David made the brave decision to quit his job and care for the children, alongside Milena, who had been providing 24-hour care for them alone.
Since then, the couple has worked tirelessly with the boys to ensure they reached their full potential.
"Obviously we wanted to take the boys home to start living a normal family life, but we were intimidated. We had no support, no one to turn to and no family on hand to help out if things got really tough. It was scary.
"For the next 18 months, we just spent the time taking them constantly to hospital appointments - sometimes twice in one day, and they had to feed every two hours during the night and day."
The devoted parents were also given a frightening list of possible medical problems that their boys were at risk from, and tragically, little Scott has had to face them all.
He is deaf, partially sighted and autistic, has liver disease, kidney failure, heart problems, food aversions and has been through six operations, all of which carried risks.
When he was only eight weeks old, doctors used a pioneering medication to save him.
David explains: "He needed a heart operation and his kidneys were failing, which is why he couldn't have surgery. We were told he had hours to live. There was one study in America, where seven of the eight children who took part had died, but one little girl survived after being given the medication.
"We were told he would die without it and might also die if they gave it to him - but there was no choice. There was nothing and everything to lose. It was a tough decision."
Being the boys full-time carers meant that David and Milena were dedicated to helping both boys achieve active lives.
He says: "We just became sick of everyone telling us what Scott couldn't do, so we focused on what he could do. We wanted him to realise his full potential.
"We had been told that Scott won't go to mainstream school, as he was diagnosed with autism just three months before starting P1.
"We had to fight, but now Scott is doing all the things they said he wouldn't and Michael has outgrown any complications he had.
"Academically, they are in the top third of their class in all subjects, including reading, at Bloomfield Primary School. They are taking part in swimming, which is extremely good for Scott's hips, and when they were five, they got their one-mile badge.
"Every day life does bring its challenges, but there are people who are a lot worse off and our boys are alive. And they are both happy children doing well at school and that's what matters."
As the boys needed David less and less, two years ago he began an Access course to qualify for university. He has just finished and is awaiting his results and hopes to start a history degree at Queen's University, Belfast, in September. While studying, he has also been volunteering with TinyLife, to help other parents with premature babies.
He says: "I knew that the boys would still need me, but to a lesser extent. Going back to the kitchen was unrealistic with long hours and evening work, so I started to explore other options. I've been studying in the evenings and was looking for something to do during the day when Milena suggested volunteering for TinyLife."
TinyLife offer a wide range of support services to local families who have experienced premature birth or sickness at birth.
One of its unique services is a hospital-to-home programme, where a fully-trained volunteer is placed with a family after their discharge from the safety of a hospital setting. Often it is a lifeline for those who feel they have no one else to turn to.
"It was a good fit, given all of our experience with the boys, but I thought, 'I'm a man, surely they wouldn't be interested in me'.
"The charity was delighted and I was very quickly placed with a local family who had two premature twin girls who had similar complications to Scott and Michael. Their father was also a stay-at-home dad. I was able to call on my own experiences and quickly we formed a close friendship."
Most recently, David has been working with another local family, again with premature twin girls who have heart conditions. Their mum has been overwhelmed by David's continuing support, even something as simple as being a listening ear has made a huge difference.
He says: "I always feel like I can make a difference to someone else's life and I know I am.
"I have had a really positive experience at TinyLife and it is good to help other people in need. Being the parent of premature and sick babies changed my life completely, but I am turning the experience into a positive one.
"Every day is different, every day can be a nightmare - but you have to share your story. How else would others know that it will be okay?
"The difference a volunteer can make - and would have made to us nine years ago - is incredible. Just being present to help in any way to lessen the burden is great. There are so many benefits to you as a volunteer, in fact, they outweigh everything else. I have gained great friendships and you can't put a price on what it means to help someone else."