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Our little miracles who fought back from the brink

As Northern Ireland’s premature baby charity, TinyLife, issues its annual fundraising calendar, Jane Hardy hears the heartwarming stories of the infants who fought back from the brink.

TinyLife is the charity that's tailor-made for Christmas, although naturally its good work goes on all year round. The local organisation that helps premature babies and their parents through the toughest times is again using the symbolism of this period, the birth of a baby, to promote its excellent cause.

This year's calendar, featuring babies and toddlers as models, was photographed by the Lisburn photographers Venture Photography for the fifth year running.

As Julie McBride, Venture MD, says, her team were very happy to support TinyLife's 25th anniversary edition of the calendar.

“We don't just take pictures, we tell stories, and hope this calendar will inspire others with sick premature children. Our aim is to raise more money than ever in 2012 to support TinyLife.”

It's a good aim as every day three premature babies are born in Northern Ireland, and 4% of those born more than seven weeks early have a disability.

The TinyLife philosophy is optimistic, though, and although the calendar is a fundraiser, it also proves that despite the toughest of starts in life, with some of the children featured weighing little more than the proverbial bag of sugar, these babies can go on to flourish.

Valerie Cromie of TinyLife says: “We want to provide some hope and inspiration for families coping with the arrival of a premature or sick baby and show what's possible. All the families involved have really enjoyed taking part and love the final result.”

That's not surprising as the models look beautiful. Valerie adds: “We're really proud of our calendar stars and hope the public will get a lot of enjoyment from the TinyLife calendar which costs £5 and is now on sale.”

We spoke to the parents of some of the children |featured in the new calendar.

‘Abigail turned blue and stopped breathing once’

Angela Moore (35) lives with her husband Michael and twins, Abigail and Finlay (3) in Millisle. She says:

Having an instant family was lovely but Finlay weighed 4lb 4oz and Abigail, 3lb 15oz when they were born at 34 weeks at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

I had an unusual condition affecting my liver. I'd been feeling very itchy at the time, mentioned it to the doctor and she thought that it could be obstetric choleostasis.

So I went into hospital at 30 weeks until the twins were delivered. I read a lot.

Abigail and Finlay were in the neonatal unit for three days then transferred to the Ulster Hospital. After coming home, they caught swine flu after three days which was terrible.

The experience was overwhelming for Michael and me. These were our first children so we had no previous experience of caring for a full-term baby, never mind tiny, fragile ones like Finlay and Abigail.

The worst point was when Abigail turned blue and stopped breathing one time in hospital.

Now they're a lively pair and Abigail, who still has problems with feeding and suffered from reflux from early on, loves Peppa Pig.

The experience of having two very small babies was stressful at times, which is why TinyLife offers family support.

Their breast pump was amazing, enabling me to express milk for the babies while they were being tube fed in hospital away from me — at the time it was the only thing I could do for them which was a great comfort.

We’re thrilled to see them in this year’s calendar and hope that it sells well so that parents like us can continue to benefit from the help and support provided by TinyLife. Christmas will be special as the twins are now aware of Santa, and know he brings presents.

Abigail's condition could mean mild learning difficulties but she's progressing well — and there's nothing wrong with Finlay.

I'm an accountant and I now work for TinyLife — having had the support for them, I was interested when the job came up.

‘Erin was so ill we had her christened in hospital’

Colette McKenna (41) is |married to Francis and lives in south Belfast with her children, two-year-old twins Grace and Erin and son Paul (four months). She says:

My pregnancy went fine for quite a while. My husband Francis and I were delighted when after the 12-week scan, we discovered we were having twins. But the medical staff said that because the girls were identical, there could be problems.

They were concerned one would grow bigger than the other — although they were both in their own wee sacs, one might take more from my placenta, which is what happened.

So I was regularly attended the maternity unit at the Royal Hospitals in Belfast and was closely monitored.

We knew from 26 to 27 weeks that Erin was the smaller. I remember having a scan on the Thursday, then coming in for a Caesarean on the Monday morning. It was very worrying of course and people often ask me how I kept going, but you don't have any option.

When the girls were born, Grace weighed 2lb 5 oz and Erin just 1lb 10oz. My husband's wedding ring reached up as far as Erin's shoulder, she was so tiny. The twins' birthday is December 20, 2010, and I remember that first Christmas was lovely. Francis and I stayed at home by ourselves and took it all in. But Erin was on oxygen, and even looking at the Christmas photos from last year, you can see the difference. She was very small and the improvement now is unbelievable.

The worst moment of all was on May Bank Holiday 2011, when Erin was still in hospital. We were called in and told to come quickly as Erin wasn't developing and the consultant told us her blood tests were poor and so family came in to see her.

We also had the priest come into hospital to christen her, although she had another, proper christening at the Good Shepherd Church in the Ormeau Road.

Fortunately, with great medical treatment, she survived.

TinyLife was a real support from the start. I saw details on a poster in hospital and got in touch. Now we have Tricia, who comes every week to help out. She's a godsend.

The Health Service is always being knocked these days — I'm aware of that as an NHS social worker — but we had wonderful treatment.

Although Erin still has problems — she needs oxygen at night and has chronic lung disease — she's a little fighter. To see the girls together is lovely, Erin often just touches Grace for comfort. We know we nearly lost her and even though I sometimes worry about the future, it's just great she came through.

‘Michael needed help to breathe as his little lungs were struggling’

Michele Clark (32) lives in Ballyhalbert with her husband Campbell and son Michael (4). She says:

Michael was born prematurely and because I'm an insulin dependent diabetic, things were tricky. I developed eclampsia at 30 weeks and my blood pressure became very high. This can result in a coma and in the worst cases, death of the mother and baby.

I remember going up to the Ulster Hospital, where they were fantastic, on a Wednesday and at the clinic they said they had to keep a closer eye on my blood pressure.

I had a dose of steroids for a couple of days to help the baby’s development. Then on Friday morning, I had an emergency C-section.

We went through a cocktail of emotions. I was very happy to have a son but he weighed just 3lb 10 and a half ounces. Fortunately, everything was alright except for his size but for the first few days, he was on a machine that helped with his breathing as his little lungs were struggling.

Michael was in an incubator in intensive care unit for three and a half weeks but he developed very quickly. He was tube fed with my milk for the first three weeks. And then the Tuesday before he came home, he was put in a cot and started feeding normally.

We christened him at Ballywalter Presbyterian Church on the day he should have been born, at the end of November. TinyLife helped me in hospital via their breast pump service. They gave me a pump and information pack with lots of useful contacts. We also got a little blue cardigan that someone had knitted and donated, which was lovely.

Michael represents January in the calendar and he went in with his Fireman Sam figure. He was a wee bit nervous but loved the photo shoot eventually, and enjoyed all the attention.

This Christmas, the three of us will be at home and we’ve bought Michael a Playmobile fire station with bits and pieces. He’s met two Santas and I told him Santa was really busy and needed some extra helpers.

I do quite a bit of fundraising for TinyLife, which is a small charity. Every little contribution really does help.”

The calendar is on sale for £5 and available to buy from Venture Northern Ireland, tel: 02892 662 742 or visit 2 Market Place, Lisburn. To order from TinyLife directly tel: 028 9081 5050

Help when times really get tough

  • TinyLife is Northern Ireland’s only premature and vulnerable baby charity and began life in 1988 as the Northern Ireland Mother and Baby Appeal
  • The charity is self-funded and offers emotional and practical support to families of premature and sick babies. It funds research into premature birth
  • The Family Support Services offers hospital-to-home help plus fathers are supported through a special scheme
  • Premature babies are often subject to medical complications and frequently need extra oxygen and tube feeding. They are also prone to infections like pneumonia, meningitis and necrotising gastroenteritis
  • TinyLife requires around £250,000 annually to maintain its services

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