Little Aoife O’Hara from Limavady has been described by doctors as a “tough wee cookie”, and it’s easy to see why.
As the blonde-haired, blue-eyed toddler hurtles towards her second birthday, growing taller and stronger by the day, it’s hard to believe she weighed a doll-like 670 grams - just less than one pound eight ounces when she made her first appearance in the world.
“She was this tootie wee thing,” says adoring mum, Megan, as Aoife tugs on her jeans telling her she wants to go outside.
“She was so small. It was scary.”
Megan, and Aoife’s dad, Eoghan Kelly discovered during a 21-week scan their first child wasn’t growing as she should be and, from 24 weeks on, Megan began her stay in Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry.
Aoife’s arrival should have been a time of celebration for the couple but, born at just 28 weeks into Megan’s pregnancy, it was anything but.
“I was petrified,” said Megan. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, if she was going to make it or not.”
Aoife began her fight for life in the hospital’s Neonatal unit.
“The first time I went in to see Aoife her wee eyes opened and she was hooked up to all these cables. I was so shocked to see her. She was so small,” says Megan.
Aoife made it through those critical first 48 hours, but consequently developed bleeding in her lungs. Clinging on to life, the couple contacted a healer who came to see Aoife and, at just three days old, the infant was baptised in Altnagelvin.
Amazingly, Aoife started to pick up each day from then on and three months after her birth - on August 28, 2011, the day before Megan’s due date - Aoife went home.
“I remember the day as clear as anything, driving down the road with this wee bundle in the back. When we got home I just sat with her and cuddled her. It was the best feeling ever,” recalls Megan.
Eoghan and Megan say the amazing staff in Altnagelvin’s Intensive Care Neonatal Unit were brilliant in preparing them for what to expect and do once Aoife was home.
“It was upsetting saying goodbye
to the staff at Altnagelvin because they were so good to us and to Aoife. They were so patient with us and explained everything to us so we could understand,” said Eoghan.
Megan said they got to know all the staff “so it was tough because we made friends for life there”.
The first few nights and subsequent weeks with Aoife at home were joyous, but also nerve wracking for Megan and Eoghan.
“We didn’t sleep at all and I remember just sitting looking at Aoife all the time. We took it turns to sit up with her!” said Megan.
Two months shy of birthday number two and Aoife is just like any other toddler. Since she left hospital, she has only been back for check ups and regular reviews, which her parents are confident are about to end. Her parents describe their little girl as kind, spirited, vivacious, sociable, always smiling and loves being outdoors. She’s chatting lots, learning new words and sounds all the time, about to start potty training and loves everything pink and sparkly.
“I’m the proudest dad alive,” says Eoghan. “I love her to bits.”
Megan also glows with pride when she speaks about Aoife.
“We are so thankful for the staff at the Neonatal Unit at Altnagelvin and everything they did for Aoife. If it wasn’t for them, she probably wouldn’t be here today,” says Megan. “They saved her life.”
While the couple say they can never thank the hospital and staff enough, they have tried in their own generous way to “give something back”.
Last year, Eoghan ran the Belfast Marathon, and despite the excruciating pain of an inflamed ligament at ‘mile 24’, he ran the 26.2 miles in an impressive time of 4hours 18 minutes. The couple have also drawn on the overwhelming support and kindness of friends to raise funds through a line dancing disco, car boot sales and donations from family and friends. In total, they have raised £4,100 for the Neonatal Unit.
“Everyone in the Unit was so good to us. It’s a vital, life saving service,” says Megan, “and we just want to help other premature babies and their families when they’re in the unit.”
Eoghan added: “We are one of the lucky families and we are so thankful for that.”