‘It was a shock as Fianna was born at 23 weeks and weighed just over a pound ... we prayed for her to live’
Co Down parents Aurla and Feargal Ward hoped for a miracle when their baby daughter was born very early. Despite needing 19 blood transfusions and sight-saving operations, her mum and dad are grateful she is now a thriving toddler.
When baby Fianna was born at 23 weeks in December 2014 she was given just a 20% chance of survival and doctors warned her parents to be prepared for the worst. But the little girl from Downpatrick has defied the odds and astounded the medics to grow into a thriving and happy toddler.
Mum Aurla and dad Feargal Ward, both 31, were newly married and delighted to discover they were expecting a honeymoon baby in the summer of 2014. But their joy turned to devastation when Aurla, a civil servant in Belfast, began having severe pains at just six months pregnant.
“Fianna was due to be born in April and we were really looking forward to starting a family,” says Aurla.
“Everything with the pregnancy had gone really smoothly, until this point. I had gone to work as normal that morning and I noticed I was having a few pains but thought they were nothing.
“But as it was the day before New Year’s Eve I thought I would be better getting things checked out, so I called my husband who drove up and took me to the Ulster Hospital in Belfast.”
When Aurla was examined, doctors found she was in labour and they would be unable to prevent an early birth. The mum-to-be was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where staff are trained to treat extremely premature babies.
Baby Fianna was born a few hours later, at just 23 weeks and four days, one of around 60,000 babies born prematurely in the UK every year.
Devastatingly, the odds weren’t good. According to the NHS, most babies born before 24 weeks sadly won’t survive.
“It was such a shock,” recalls Aurla. “Fianna was only given a 20% chance of survival when she was born. She weighed just 1lb and 2oz.
“When we arrived at the Royal the staff told me and Feargal that they would not work on her if she looked too immature and that they would only whisk her away from us if they believed she had a chance of survival.
“So it was such a relief when the staff rushed Fianna to intensive care immediately after the birth.
“I was so glad they had not handed her straight to me because I knew what that would have meant.
“Although she was very immature, they went ahead and tried to keep her alive. The next days and weeks were so hard because we didn’t dare to think she might be okay.”
Baby Fianna was too sick for the new parents to bring her home as she needed specialist care in hospital and throughout this traumatic time, Aurla and Feargal received support from TinyLife, the charity for premature and sick babies.
The charity recently received National Lottery funding from Big Lottery Fund to enable it to provide more support to families like theirs.
“Because of the risk of infection to Fianna only Feargal and I and our parents were allowed to see her. However, Helen the family support officer from TinyLife was there too as she was allowed on the unit,” Aurla says.
“Helen came in every Tuesday and she was there for us. She was able to offer so much support, both practical and emotional.
“It was great to have someone else there to talk to and to reassure us. She knew the things that were running through our minds and the right things to say. TinyLife was invaluable to us.”
Fianna spent 128 days in hospital, with her parents going through a roller coaster of emotions as they dealt with numerous challenges in her bid for survival.
Fianna means Celtic warrior huntress and Aurla’s baby girl lived up to her name as she battled to live, undergoing a staggering 19 blood transfusions.
“Fianna was so tiny she hardly had any blood running through her body,” says Aurla.
“She was so sick they had to check her blood all the time. But every time they took some out, they’d have to replace it because she had so little. We didn’t get to hold her until she was about a month old, and even then it was for a very short time, just for a photo.”
As they watched their daughter gradually make a little progress, Aurla and Feargal were hit with another blow — Fianna had an eye condition and there was an 80% chance she could lose her sight.
“When she was born we didn’t know if she would survive or not and then when we got through to March we thought she was doing well as she was moved into the high dependency unit which was brilliant. Then she developed a condition called retinopathy of prematurity which occurs in babies born at 31 weeks or earlier and that could have led to her going blind.
“We were told about it on the Wednesday and she had to undergo an operation on the Thursday to save her vision and thankfully it worked.”
Living day by day, holding onto each tiny sign of progress, in May 2015 Feargal and Aurla finally got the news they had dreamed of when doctors told them they could bring their daughter home.
“Looking back I don’t know how we did it but we did,” says Aurla. “From the day after she was born they told me to get her baptised and be prepared. Even after a while you still didn’t dare to hope but we finally got there and got to bring her home.”
But there were still challenges to face and the family were so grateful for the support TinyLife continued to give them.
“When Fianna got out of hospital TinyLife were great because at first we weren’t allowed to take her out near anyone and people weren’t allowed to lift her up,” adds Aurla.
“After all we had been through and having her home I just wanted to be like a normal mum and take her out and about but I couldn’t.
“TinyLife then offered us lots of support and now two years on we are still involved as we take part in their new TinyStart project.”
Thanks to the generosity of National Lottery players, the Big Lottery Fund awarded TinyLife almost £620,000 to the TinyStart project in 2015. The charity is working with Lifestart to offer support and child development activities for premature babies and their families from birth up to age three in the Belfast, South Eastern and part of the Western Trust areas.
“Claire from the project comes out to the house every month to see how Fianna is developing — they just can’t do enough. The support is always there when we need it, they are so reassuring.”
Fianna is now 28-months-old and although she has some issues as a result of her prematurity, she is thriving.
“Fianna should have been two on April 24 but she is doing brilliantly. Even the consultants think she is a miracle,” says Aurla. “She has moderate hearing loss as a result of being premature but now she has hearing aids and they have made a tremendous difference to her life. Now she is trying to talk and she goes to creche like all the other kids.
“She also has to wear glasses because of the eye condition, however, she is just fantastic and has thrived since she left hospital.”
Aurla is in no doubt they wouldn’t be where they are today without the medics, and the support of TinyLife.
“When you are in the neonatal unit the staff never tell you that your child will survive. When you are in there you can understand why — things can change so quickly,” she says.
“The hard thing for Feargal and me was that we built relationships with people and then they lost their baby and I’ll never forget that.
“The medical staff are amazing, I owe them and TinyLife everything.
“We were very fortunate to have a positive outcome, but sadly not everyone does. Thankfully we are at the other end now and can now look forward.”
- For more information on TinyLife or the National Lottery funded TinyStart project, tel: 028 9081 5050 or visit tinylife.org.uk. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Facebook & Twitter: @tinylifecharity