Stella’s all too brief life an inspiration for Hayden Triggs
Death of premature baby after three weeks changed Leinster secondrow’s life forever
Leinster’s Jamison Gibson-Park with Hayden Triggs. “She’s not gone from life. She’s here somewhere. For me at the moment playing rugby, she is the biggest motivation.” Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
In early September Leinster lock Hayden Triggs was scheduled to go to St Mary’s rugby club to take an evening training session.
His wife Mikala, pregnant with their third child, was not feeling good and was in pain, more so than usual. Instead of going to rugby the two went straight to the doctor. Within 40 minutes their third child Stella was born.
Stella was 24 weeks and five days old when she was delivered and at that age and size challenged to survive. The following three weeks throughout October altered the lives of mum, dad and their two young children, five-year-old August and his younger sister Adelaide.
Every day Stella fought a serious medical problem. As she held on to life by a thread, she would beat one issue only for another to arise.
Talking about it Triggs unconsciously turns the palm of his hand to show how little his daughter was. She kept her fight going for three weeks before her body and the doctors said enough.
When they turned off the life support machines, she kept fighting. For four hours the tiny parcel battled with life more peacefully than she ever had before. And then she died.
Triggs recalls that the days seemed to run from one to the other. Lungs, kidneys and heart issues arose on all major fronts. Stella was just too premature, too weak to prevail.
“For three weeks she was, how can I put it, assisted in breathing,” he says.
“She got through a lot. There were tests every day, every week. She had problems with her heart. Her lungs were struggling. It was kidneys. It was a new thing every day. Lungs one week then it was the heart valve closing. Then it was the kidneys failing. It was just a massive fight for her every day.”
The minutes and hours were arduous. But they were also priceless and, from those short three weeks, Stella in her daring struggle to survive was able to give something back.
“Strength. Resilience. Character,” he says. “Three weeks. Something so small just being in the palm of my hand she was able to show these qualities. Sometimes people don’t realise they have it. At the time we didn’t know as a family, as parents what we had in us and then for this little thing to be doing it every day was a massive lesson for me.
“On the third week – every Monday she had a brain scan – the third Monday her brain, because of all the issues with the heart, the blood flow, the oxygen, the brain, just couldn’t survive this massive trauma.
“She was getting absolutely no living functions. She was going to be just kept alive by machines. As parents me and my wife . . . it was going to be a struggle for her to survive daily so with the help of the doctors she was taken off all the assistance. She passed away peacefully in our arms.
“It was a nice time for us to be with her. She lasted about four hours off the machines. Those three weeks she was alive, those last three hours were the most peaceful she had ever been.”
How Stella dovetails with Triggs rugby is in no way different from how his rugby splices into his life and that of his family. They are all one thing and in death one of the hardest things is the lack of alternatives.
Moving on is the cliché but it is all you have. It is what you must do because it is all you can ever do.
But, he explains, moving on does not mean leaving anything behind and if Stella’s short life can make sense to the world she has left behind then he must play a role and help to make her relevant and in a vicarious way alive. There is a way to celebrate Stella. It doesn’t ease the pain or stop hurting but it gives some meaning to death. It helps.
“Once we knew Stella was in the best capable hands in Holles Street what do you do,” he asks.
“Do you sit there worrying, giving negative energy about what the hell is going to happen right beside her intensive care unit? Do you sit there giving out negative energy or do you spend the time up there?
“We still have two young kids at school. Me and my wife we had each other but what do you do? For me it was come back to training, give my best effort to the club but also when I could, get back up to the hospital.
The world of rugby is like running a weekly ledger of plus and minus marks, an endless quest for the perfect game that will never come.
But within that competitive life of pressure and public scrutiny Triggs found uncommon decency and a connected people in the club, Our Lady’s Grove school in Dundrum and in Holles Street hospital.
Those gifts of other folk’s generosity or their unsolicited kindness were brought to the family by Stella.
Her short life touched people in different ways beyond the walls of the Triggs household and in the blink of an eye that was her life on earth, she changed everything.
“A challenge every day is to try and do best by Stella, what she wanted her dad to do,” he says. “Every cloud has a silver lining mate.
“I didn’t consider going home whatsoever. Between the Leinster club, the players, the management, the front office, their support and the support we got from our kids school . . . they kind of had an inkling of what was going on. The support we got from Our Lady’s Grove was immense and very humbling.
“She was in the best possible place in Ireland. Better than New Zealand if I can say that. She was in the exact place she needed to be so after she passed away there’s no place we’d rather be. Other than being amongst our families this is the place we wanted to be.”
His Leinster team-mates, the club, the fans and family have become the scaffolding. One day he knows it will have changed or it will no longer be there. He knows too when it is gone the building will remain intact.
“We still talk about Stella every day,” he says. “My young boy is five. He still talks about her all the time. So she’s not gone from life. She’s here somewhere. For me at the moment playing rugby, she is the biggest motivation.”