Young mother Selina Wuttig was planning for the arrival of her first baby in her native Germany this coming April, but the unpredictable nature of childbirth upended the lives of her and her partner.
Instead, she gave birth just 23 weeks into her pregnancy on December 22nd, in Dublin, a city that neither of them know, but where they now stay while their tiny son Lionel fights for a foothold on life in the Coombe hospital. Their temporary home is Hugh’s House, a large Georgian building off Mountjoy Square named after a baby who spent the entire 247 days of his short life in hospital.
But what Hugh's parents, Dubliners Ade Stack and Martin Curley, saw during that time inspired them to try to do something to alleviate the hardship for parents who live outside Dublin but have babies or children hospitalised there. Some were sleeping on the floor or on plastic chairs in hospital, or in their cars outside; others were commuting long distances or were perhaps just unable to visit very often.
Even before Hugh died in 2013, the couple, who have three other children, were resolving to find a property to accommodate some of these parents within walking distance of Temple Street hospital and the Rotunda, and not too far from the city’s other two maternity hospitals. Today, two adjoining, four-storey-over-basement buildings on Belvedere Place make up Hugh’s House, separated by a secure play garden they have created for the use of any family visiting a child in Temple Street hospital, as well as the residents.
The 14 bedrooms, most of which are en suite, are constantly occupied by an ever-changing, disparate group of parents who have one thing in common – a baby or child in need of specialised hospital care in a capital city that isn’t their home. Some need to be here for more than a year, the longest stay being 2½ years.
Living outside Stuttgart, 22-year-old Selina came to Ireland in November to spend time with the baby’s father, Mika Williams (21), from Holywood, Co Down. Their plan was to live there together once the baby had been born.
The couple had met during her time as a volunteer at a care facility for people with disabilities where he works. It was after Selina’s return to Germany that she discovered she was pregnant.
I was very stressed what is going to happen because he is in Dublin and I want to give him the [expressed breast] milk but I don't live here
A visit back to the North to see Mika during the second trimester was nearly over when her waters broke. The Ulster Hospital where she was first admitted is not equipped to care for such a premature baby, so they tried to find her a bed in the Royal Maternity Hospital, but, with none available, she was transferred by ambulance to the Coombe.
Selina went into labour on arrival and Mika, who had planned to travel down the next day, made it there in two hours, in time for the birth. After an hour of advanced resuscitation, Lionel was critical but stable and taken to the ICU. But, to add to the complications, Mika got a call soon afterwards to tell him his brother, who he lives with, had tested positive for Covid.
He returned to Co Down to isolate, while Selina was put in an isolation room in the hospital, with no access to Lionel. However, subsequent testing of both her and the baby showed them to be negative and she was able to see him again after two days.
“While I was in isolation I was very stressed what is going to happen because he is in Dublin and I want to give him the [expressed breast] milk but I don’t live here. I asked a couple of times the midwife will they just kick me out of the hospital and I stay on the street, or what is going to happen?”
Staff reassured her it wouldn't come to that but couldn't give her any definite information until a social worker secured her a place in Hugh's House. Sitting there on a January morning, in its luxurious sitting room, Selina and Mika think it might be mid-February, at the earliest, before Lionel could be transferred to the Royal in Belfast. They are so grateful to this small charity that has provided a roof over their heads, along with support of staff and fellow residents.
Johnny and Cathy Dalton from Letterkenny, Co Donegal, both aged 34, are also very grateful for free lodging for them and their two-year-old daughter Rachel. They have twin sons, Jake and Conor, who were born at 27 weeks on November 3rd in Holles Street maternity hospital, where Cathy had been transferred from Letterkenny as a high-risk pregnancy.
After 10 weeks staying in Dublin, there is light at the end of the tunnel, says Johnny. They are now beginning to see a path home to Letterkenny. But there’s no doubt that Conor will be discharged before Jake, who has had a tougher time, which may mean temporarily splitting the family.
Meanwhile, they say Rachel, who is sleeping upstairs as we talk, has taken surprisingly well to living in this house she calls Dublin. Although she is yet to meet her little brothers, she has seen photos and knows their names.
The couple didn’t have a plan after Cathy had to be transferred to Holles Street. “But for Hugh’s House,” says Johnny, “I don’t know what we would have done.” They are just one of hundreds of families who have benefitted from this positive aftermath of a personal tragedy.
“Hugh wasn’t fixable,” says Ade, “but so much of what we saw was fixable.” She is also a firm believer in “moving the love” after a bereavement towards helping others. “If you don’t let go of the love, it will hurt you.”
It's not your bank balance that defines you. We can all make a difference
Perhaps that’s why it’s not uncommon for grieving parents to be inspired to support the similarly wounded, on the basis of insight from their own experiences. As in the case of Ade and Martin, they have seen unmet needs of which the rest of us may be lucky enough to be blissfully unaware.
This is just one uplifting example of charities forged in the pain of parental grief, each honouring the name of a beloved child. There is a mosaic of 34,000-plus charity, community and not-for-profit organisations in Ireland that strive to make life better for others.
"Staff and volunteers all over the country do amazing things every day," says Claire McGowran, a spokeswoman for We Act, a new campaign to highlight the difference that the voluntary sector makes to all of our lives in some way. It also aims to foster more support and participation.
A benchmarking survey before the start of the campaign showed that only 8 per cent of the public said they believed they had been personally impacted by charities or community groups in the past year.
“We definitely want to see the dial shift a bit on that,” says Claire, who thinks this illustrates how so many people regard this sector as for “other people”, not appreciating that the sports club they bring their children to on Saturday mornings, the hospice their elderly relative died in, the animal shelter where they adopted their family pet, are all part of society’s voluntary fabric.
The power of the community response through the Covid-19 pandemic was the catalyst for this campaign, which is expected to last three to five years.
“The pandemic highlighted how agile voluntary organisations are and how they know the very specific needs of their own communities. When required, they can very quickly mobilise and take action.”
The organisations behind We Act, such as The Wheel, Board Match and Volunteer Ireland, also wanted to capitalise on the increased public interest shown in engagement in the community. "It was very much a moment we needed to take advantage of," says Claire.
As Ade points out, while we are very generous in our giving of money to charities in this country, sometimes people are slower to realise that each of us has talents that can be invaluable to voluntary organisations. Her experience of running a successful pharmacy business, for instance, has been crucial in making Hugh’s House a cost-effective, growing force for good.
“It’s not your bank balance that defines you,” she adds. We can all make a difference."