When baby Grace O’Reilly came home from the hospital yesterday, for the first time since she was born almost 11 months ago, her doting grandad Freddie said it was like “ten Christmases had come at once”.
“Forget getting your six numbers up on the lottery, this is like getting seven. We just never thought this day would come and that we would see her home.”
Baby Grace was born when her mother, Michaela, was just 24 weeks pregnant and weighed just 1lb 5oz. “She was just 10cms long,” her father Justin explained. “You could hold her in her your hands.”
This miracle baby not only battled her extreme prematurity she also contracted the deadly pseudomonas bacteria - which claimed the lives of four babies between Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital and The Royal in Belfast - when she was just weeks old.
“We didn’t even realise at the time how serious psuedomonas was,” Michaela said. “The first time we realised she was in danger was when we heard about it on the news - when we heard a baby had died.”
Grace did not have a easy start in life - but Michaela said she has always battled the odds - even while in the womb.
“My waters broke at 23 weeks,” Michaela said. “It was terrifying - absolutely horrific.” Aware that the legal age of viability in this country is 24 weeks. Michaela and her partner Justin faced a heartwrenching wait to see if she could hold off the onset of labour for as long as possible.
“I was on bedrest. I was only allowed to get up to go to the bathroom. I was given steroids and then I went into labour, due to an infection in my womb.”
Baby Grace was born on October 28 and was immediately taken to the Neo-natal unit at Altnagelvin. “We didn’t know anything at all about neo-natal,” Justin explained. “We just assumed that when the time came we would go to the hospital, Michaela would have the baby and we would all come home together.”
The days and weeks after Grace’s birth were harrowing for Michaela and Justin. Not only did they have to deal with the knowledge their daughter was critically ill, they were also trying to contend with the waves of emotion which came with being new parents.
“It was horrible,” Michaela said, “to see mammies leaving with their babies while I was without mine. Leaving hospital without her was just horrible.”
Grace spent five weeks in neonatal intensive care in Derry before being transferred to Belfast.
At that stage both Justin and Michaela were told their daughter was critically ill and may not survive the journey to the Royal.
On December 22, three days before her first Christmas, Michaela and Justin were asked by the doctors if they wished to take their daughter off her life support and allow her pass away.
At that stage Grace was suffering from heart problems and Necrotizing Enterocolitis - where parts of her bowel had become so infected due her immaturity that they had started to die off. Grace had undergone surgery to fit her with a stoma bag - and the area around her wound had become infected due to the psuedomonas - and her skin had started to break up.
“She had defied doctors all along and we couldn’t give up on her,” Justin said. Grace was then fitted with a Broviac line to allow to easier administration of her medicines and from that point “she seemed to turn a corner”.
The family continued to face a tough battle. In total Grace had to spend eight months in The Royal. Michaela and Justin stayed with their daughter in the parents’ room of the Royal, miles away from their family.
When news broke of just how serious their daughter’s psuedomonas could be, they said they were terrified. “It was just so, so sad,” Michaela said, “To hear that babies had died. We count ourselves very lucky to have Grace but our thoughts will always be with those people who won’t ever bring their babies home.”
Grace was transferred back to Altnagelvin six weeks ago to Ward Six where her family were able to begin to prepare to bring her home.
Next week Grace will turn 11 months old - and both Michaela and Justin say they intend to celebrate her homecoming over the next few weeks.
Included in their plans are a “massive” first birthday party and a blessing. “Grace was christened in hospital when we didn’t think she would make it. Now we want to have a blessing for everyone to enjoy,” Justin said.
Both parents are aware Grace will need ongoing care. She still requires a low flow of oxygen and is tube fed but they are determined that her future will be very bright. “We are so lucky,” Michaela said. “I can’t describe how happy I am. She is our miracle.”