Coombe hospital’s premature ‘graduates’ reunite

Joyous occasion for 200 who spent first weeks struggling for life in venerable alma mater

About 200 “graduates” – once among the tiniest anywhere – gathered on Sunday for a reunion at the place they spent their first weeks fighting for life.

Though none remembered their first time at the Coombe maternity hospital, there was no doubt their return was far more joyous than the time they spent there. Some were returning just a year after leaving the neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU) and others had not been back for 35 years.

All at the event, the first of its kind, were either NICU patients, had waited anxiously by incubators willing their babies to keep going, to gain weight and get home, or had worked as nurses or doctors with them.

Christine and Anthony Cunnigham (35) were born at the Coombe in June 1983, at 27 weeks. They each weighed about 740g (1lb 10oz), while their brother Mark, who died aged two days, weighed about 900g (2lb 1oz).

‘Emotional’ time

“Our uncle used to tell us he’d been able to fit us in the palm of his hand,” says Christine. Their parents, Celine and Gerry, remember it as a “very upsetting” and “very emotional” time.

“Looking at them in the incubators then, it was very mixed feelings,” says Celine. “I was very anxious, wanted them to come home. We brought them back to the house on 6th September and I was worried all the time. Any little infection – I had a path worn up and down to the doctor.”

The two tiny infants have grown into healthy young adults.

Asked about their feelings about being back in the hospital, all say they feel “emotional – and thinking about Mark”.

The NICU at the Coombe sees more than 1,000 premature babies a year. After a stay that varies from days, to months in some cases, babies “graduate” from the unit.

Kerry and Crea Meehan (10) were born at 26 weeks and five days, in March 2008, weighing 900g and 1kg respectively. Their mother, Suzanne, described the premature birth as "just terrifying, wondering what was going to happen".

“Seeing them in the incubators was a shock initially. It took a few days to process. I woke up in the hospital bed saying , ‘Oh yes, I have these babies,’ and I’d be wheeled down to the unit to see them. It took some time to even begin to bond with them,” she recalls.

“Then I was discharged after five days and had to go home without our babies.”

The twins were not discharged from hospital for a number of months.

“The house was still empty.”

Clinical nurse manager Mary O’Connor says it can be heart-breaking to see the vulnerability of a baby born prematurely.

“It is immensely rewarding to see the babies we cared for now thriving as healthy adults and children,” she says.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times