Daniel O’Brien was so tiny when he was born that his father’s wedding ring could fit all the way up to his arm.
He had entered the world unexpectedly on August 8 2007 more than three months before he was due, weighing 2lbs 7oz. His mother Arlene had been attending a function with his father Paul when she began to feel unwell. Within hours, the six months pregnant mother of one was hospitalised.
“Nothing prepared us for what was around the corner,” recalls Paul of O’Brien’s Newsagents in William Street. “Suddenly it had become a matter of ‘when’ he would be delivered rather than ‘if’. Eight days later she had an emergency delivery and Daniel entered the world abruptly 13 weeks before he was due.”
The city couple had been “cautiously excited” when they first discovered they were going to have a sibling for their daughter Tara.
Seven weeks before Tara was due to be born Arlene developed a pregnancy-related complication and was admitted to University Hospital Galway. Three weeks later Tara was born. She spent 11 days in the special care baby unit - a “traumatic” time which felt “like an eternity” recalls Paul in a book entitled Tiny Footsteps which recounts the stories of more than 80 families and their premature babies in Ireland and will raise funds for the charity Irish Premature Babies.
After Daniel was born he was wrapped in plastic and looked so delicate, says Paul. “He was sent immediately to intensive care. I was given a very brief opportunity to take a photograph of him as there was a very real chance that we would never see him alive again.”
Hours later one of his lungs collapsed and his parents were told their son might not survive. “Daniel was fighting to breathe. Arlene’s condition had worsened so she was transferred to the High Dependency Unit at the other end of the hospital. She physically couldn’t be with her newborn baby at a time when he really needed his mother.”
Paul says Daniel “fought hard” and defied the odds, even though he remained critical. “I gained a whole new understanding of the word ‘critical’. The hospital chaplain administered what only can be described as an ‘emergency baptism’ whereby he used a syringe and tap water to christen him. There were no godparents present just a team of nurses who had seen it all before and will see it all again. Yet still there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”
Daniel O’Brien’s first babysitter was a computer and an “army of nurses”, his father outlines. He needed constant monitoring and intervention. He was “wired, plumbed and tubed”.
A “handsome little man” with a steely determination he fought to survive. Some days he made progress, others he relapsed.
Signs of improvement
“It was one step forward and two steps back,” says Paul. “Sometimes 20 steps back and one step forward. Some days he would show signs of improvement but then an alarm would trigger a stampede of medics to resuscitate him.”
Paul says the whole experience gave him a new perspective on life. “What used to be important had become insignificant. We prayed that time would speed up rather than pass by at a snail’s pace. I would jump frantically if the phone rang and I was forever checking the battery levels and strength of [my mobile phone] signal.”
A month after Daniel was born his mother Arlene held him for the first time. He was still attached to a number of machines but Paul and Arlene treasured the moment.
Whenever their baby got blood transfusions they would “watch in awe” as he changed colour from grey to blue to rosy pink.
“Weeks passed and he graduated from the incubator to a little plastic cot that resembled a basin,” recalls Paul. “He still couldn’t breathe on his own but he was making great progress on the continuous positive airway pressure machine. Other babies came and went but our little man had settled in. Before we knew it Daniel was a whopping 100 days old.”
By then his status had been downgraded from “critical” to “stable” to “go home”. After 105 days the O’Briens, who live on the Barna Road, took their son home to meet his then two-year-old sister, Tara. It was a joyous occasion.
“For Daniel’s first birthday he had a big party even though as host he was totally oblivious. Deep down he must know that he is special,” says Paul. “He has a permanent smile and a wicked sense of humour. He is mischevious and robust yet loving and affectionate. He has enriched our lives beyond words.
“There is an ongoing array of appointments from physiotherapists to nutritionists to speech therapists to name just three, but Daniel has punched above his weight since the day he was born and will undoubtedly do so for the rest of his life.”
Paul was so impressed with the care and attention his son received at University Hospital Galway that he wrote to the then minister for health Mary Harney to thank her. He enclosed a photograph of Daniel.
“I’m not political at all but I wanted to say thanks because everything had gone right for us. The head of the unit [at UHG] got a letter back praising the hospital for a job well done.”
Other patients were equally complimentary about the service. A German woman who had been holidaying here when she went into labour early and whom the O’Briens befriended described the care as first class. Her daughter weighed less than a pound when she was born at 25 weeks.
“She compared the system here to Germany and said it was far better in Galway. Here you have one nurse per baby while in Germany it is one nurse to three babies.”
The local branch of the Irish Premature Babies organisation known as Galway Special Babies, of which the O’Briens are members, recently held a fashion show which raised €18,000. The money will be used this year to help build a parents’ room for those with babies at the neo-natal intensive care unit at UHG. Paul O’Brien singles out Paula Flanagan of Flanagan’s shoe store in the Eyre Square Centre for special praise for her involvement with the fashion show. He says she did trojan work.
Raising awareness about premature births
Tiny Footprints tells stories of sadness, loss, inspiration, courage and hope and is dedicated to the 12 million babies worldwide who arrive too early every year.
The book, which will raise funds for Irish Premature Babies, is also dedicated to the memory of the one million babies worldwide who die annually as a result of complications following their preterm births.
The charity hopes the book will heighten awareness about prematurity. “We fully understand that unless you have had a premature baby it can be very difficult to comprehend what it would be like. When you have a healthy term baby life revolves around feeding, changing and catching the odd hour of sleep. When you have a premature baby your life revolves around the hospital dealing with medical and often life-threatening conditions that you never believed a tiny, innocent little baby would be subjected to.
“For the family there is unsurmountable stress, exhaustion, fear, isolation and helplessness. Despite the trojan work of the neonatal staff there are, sadly many families who also experience the tragic and heartbreaking loss of their little baby.”
Even when a premature baby is discharged from the neonatal ward parents often have to contend with juggling work and home responsibilities alongside numerous therapies, hospital appointments and long-term complications.
Premature babies can experience delays in reaching developmental milestones, such as talking and walking and have long-term complication. “Unless you know other people or families who have had premature babies it can be very difficult to express your worries and feel you are being understood,” says a spokesperson for the charity. “We hope that parents will find solace in this book among fellow parents who really know and understand their situation. The book also highlights the amazing stories of inner strength, determination and fortitude that many of these babies possess.”
Some 4,500 premature babies are born in Ireland each year. One in 14 families will have a baby in a neonatal intensive care unit or special care baby unit.
* Tiny Footprints costs €15 and is available from O’Brien’s Newsagents, William Street in addition to other bookshops.
* The Irish Premature Babies organisation is based at Carmichael House, North Brunswick Street, Dublin 7. Telephone (086 ) 3458931.