Parents of premature baby born during lockdown preparing for special Christmas

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  • Gillian Johnston
    American polo player

A couple whose first child was born 12 weeks premature during lockdown have reflected on the life-changing experience as they look forward to their first Christmas together.

Robbie Johnston weighed just 1lb 11oz when he was delivered at the start of March, when Northern Ireland was still under tight coronavirus measures.

Just four days earlier, expectant mother Gillian Johnston, 31, from Ballyclare, Co Antrim, had gone for what she had expected to be a routine scan on her own.

Husband Martin was unable to accompany her due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Mrs Johnston said: “They said that there was a problem with my cord and the blood supply to the baby.

“I was there on my own. It was horrendous. The doctors and nurses didn’t want me to be on my own either, it wasn’t their choice.”

Mr Johnston, 37, received the news by phone.

“It was the nightmare call that you never want to receive,” he said.

Martin Johnston holds the hand of his 12-week premature son Robbie one month after he was born (Johnston family/PA)
Martin Johnston holds the hand of his 12-week premature son Robbie one month after he was born (Johnston family/PA)

That evening Mrs Johnston, a teacher, was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and days later underwent an emergency caesarean section.

“Robbie weighed less than a bag of sugar when he was born, 775 grams, and he was 30 centimetres long, so only the length of a ruler – he was tiny,” she said.

Her accountant husband added: “Time just sort of stood still those three to four days, everything just hit you so fast, you didn’t really know where you were half the time, I was still in shock even by the Tuesday morning when he was born.”

Robbie was able to breathe on his own when he was delivered although he still needed oxygen support in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

He was deemed well enough to allow Mrs Johnston to have 10 minutes of skin-to-skin contact before he was admitted to the unit.

Martin and Gillian Johnston with their son Robbie at their home in Ballyclare (Liam McBurney/PA)
Martin and Gillian Johnston with their son Robbie at their home in Ballyclare (Liam McBurney/PA)

The newborn would remain there for five weeks.

Covid-19 measures meant the couple could not visit their son together.

They had to take it in turns, with only one parent permitted in the unit at a time.

“For the first five weeks we were only able to see him together for maybe 15 to 20 minutes in total,” said Mr Johnston.

After being discharged from the NICU at the Royal, Robbie was transferred to the Antrim Area Hospital where he stayed for another five weeks.

While the couple were able to visit together in Antrim, other family members were still not allowed in to see the new arrival.

His proud grandparents waited a full two-and-a-half months before finally getting to meet their grandson.

During the time in hospital, the Johnstons were supported by premature baby charity TinyLife.

Martin and Gillian Johnston and their son Robbie in their first family photo taken in hospital (Johnston family/PA)
Martin and Gillian Johnston and their son Robbie in their first family photo taken in hospital (Johnston family/PA)

As well as practical help, such as provision of tiny, knitted clothes for Robbie, Mrs Johnston said one of the most important aspects of TinyLife’s work is the connection the charity facilitated with parents in the same situation.

“I think having those other mums that have been through the same thing is really important,” she said.

“And TinyLife are very good at that connection and that social contact so that you don’t feel like you’re on your own.”

The couple are planning to make Robbie’s first Christmas extra special.

“We’ve been to see Santa three times already, just to make sure we’re definitely well acquainted,” said Mrs Johnston.

“It’ll be just lovely to have that time and it is such a celebration because we didn’t know what Christmas was going to look like, but it’s all looking very positive and lovely now and he is doing so well.

“We do still look back sometimes now and think how incredible he’s been and the strength that he’s shown as well.

Martin and Gillian Johnston with their son Robbie and their rescue dog Max (Liam McBurney/PA)
Martin and Gillian Johnston with their son Robbie and their rescue dog Max (Liam McBurney/PA)

“You do sit in the NICU and you listen to the machines beep and you listen to it all and when you do finally get home you don’t forget about it, it just becomes part of their stories.

“And you’re thankful for it, because if we didn’t have NICU and we didn’t have all of those nurses and doctors we would have had a really different outcome.”

Reflecting on Robbie’s first nine months, Mr Johnston said gratitude is also one of his overriding sentiments.

“Now I look back and just think how lucky I am to be a dad and have a wee boy,” he said.

For more information about TinyLife and its work, visit https://www.tinylife.org.uk/

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