Each week in Northern Ireland four babies are stillborn or die within the first four weeks of life. For those who experience this devastating loss help is available. Here local woman Joanne Hampson speaks about her baby son Michael, and how SANDS helped her after his death.
Michael Hampson was born on July 27, 2011. Weighing in at seven pounds, he looked as gorgeous as every other newborn as his parents saw him for the first time.
But new mum Joanne didn’t get handed her new baby after she heard his first cries. Instead she and husband Ciaran watched as baby Michael was taken to a waiting team of paediatricians who intubated their precious son and set about preparing him for intensive care and heart surgery.
“It didn’t seem real to me, not even then,” Joanne recalled. “We had been prepared for the fact he would be ill and would need intubated when he was born. We were shown him. I heard him cry twice and then he was taken to the doctors.”
Joanne and Ciaran had been made aware their son - a younger brother for their daughter Olivia - had a complex heart condition when they attended Joanne’s 20 week scan at Altnagelvin Hospital.
So complex were baby Michael’s needs that Joanne’s care was transferred to the Royal Victoria in Belfast where she was monitored every two weeks.
Even when, at 37 weeks, a decision was made for Joanne’s care to be transferred to Birmingham - where Michael would receive highly specialist heart care once he was born - Joanne said she never expected things to end how they did.
Because five days after he was born - when he had endured more in his tiny life than many of us will in our lifetime - Michael passed away.
“I don’t know if things just didn’t go in through my pregnancy. But I always just kept thinking it was going to be sorted. He would have the surgery he needed and it would be sorted.
“I remember once, close to the end of my pregnancy when I wondered what was the worst thing that could happen. A fleeting thought crossed my mind that he could be still born, but that is all it was. A fleeting thought.”
Indeed when Michael was born his delivery was textbook. Within the hour Joanne recalls she was sitting drinking tea and eating toast “just like you do when you have a baby”.
“Michael wasn’t with me, but I had been prepared for that. It was okay.”
But life was about to turn on its head for the Hampson family. “The consultant came running in asking to do a procedure on him - basically to release pressure in his heart. I suppose at that stage I was pretty frantic.
“The next thing I remember a nurse coming in and shaking her head. I couldn’t get up because I had had an epidural but I asked my husband to just get up and run, and he went over to Michael and they got a minister to baptise him.
“They got me in a wheelchair to go over and see him and I thought I was going over and he would have been gone. I thought I was going to hold him but when I went they were still working on him.
“It was a harrowing scene. There were three doctors around this tiny, tiny baby.”
Joanne and Ciaran were told that their baby had suffered a cardiac arrest. Doctors had been unable to resuscitate him after 20 minutes and they had been waiting for him to pass away when Ciaran had arrived at his son’s bedside.
“Ciaran had asked could he touch him and when he touched his wee arm, a wee heartbeat came back and then they started working on him again.”
The Hampson family then spent the next five days with their infant son as doctors battled to save him. The point came, however, when Joanne and Ciaran had to make the heartbreaking decision to let their son die. “Although it wasn’t really much of a choice in the end. He went through so much - just seeing that. I wouldn’t ever want to go through what he did.”
And while Joanne and Ciaran were overwhelmed by the support of family and friends - many of whom travelled to Birmingham to be with them and Michael - and indeed by the support of the people of Derry upon their return, Joanne found herself seeking an environment where she could meet other parents who had experienced the loss of a child.
It was then she turned to SANDS - which offers support to parents whose child has been lost through stillbirth of neonatal death.
“For me it was a way of meeting other mums who had been in a similar position. It’s an opportunity to go and talk about your baby and what happened, and then you make friendships and it is an outlet.
“I would like to see it as more than a support group but a befriender network. The saving grace for me was to find other women who had been in a similar position.”
The local SANDS group meets once a month, on the first Tuesday of every month at the Foyle Hospice. As Christmas approaches they are also planning their Service of Light on December 11 at 8pm in St. Augustine’s Church on the City Walls.
The service, which is open to all denominations, will give parents the chance to remember their babies, leave cards for their children and, if they wish, leave a gift which can be donated to St. Vincent De Paul or the Salvation Army.
All are welcome to attend and Joanne hopes that by telling Michael’s story she is breaking down some of the taboos which still surround the issue of infant death.
“Our babies were here. They are real.
“It is a different grief because you don’t know your child yet. You don’t have a lifetime full of memories. You don’t have the good times - there were no laughs, no good memories to hold onto - but he was my baby.
“I don’t know if there is much you can do to console someone when their child has died but even if you just raise awareness that it happens.
“Before this happened to me I have known people it has happened to and I don’t really think there is anything else you can say except that you are sorry. There’s no need for anything else.”
For more information on the local branch of SANDS you can visit www.sandsni.org or to speak to someone from the local group call 07801824399.