By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent
In theory, journalists and correspondents aren’t supposed to be emotionally attached to or involved in the stories they cover. But in reality, that of course isn’t always possible.
For all of our faults, we are of course human, and have lives beyond the screen and radiowaves through which we do our work. And last Friday, for me, was one of those days when the story resonated for personal reasons.
Immediately when I entered the neonatal intensive care unit at Cork University Hospital the memories came flooding back. The beeps and alarms that used to make my spine tingle every time I heard them, the flashing screens of the oxygen saturation, breathing rate and pulse monitors, the impossibly tiny bundles of joy inside each of the incubators, in some cases clinging to life by the tiniest of finger nails.
The period leading up to and beyond the end of May 2009 was not the way we had imagined it would be. Learning that there was something wrong with our first pregnancy, that our first child had stopped growing in the womb at 29 weeks gestation, came like a bolt from the blue to my wife and I.
And so six weeks before he was due, our son was delivered by C-section weighing a mere 1.55kg or 3lbs. The weeks and months that followed were extremely difficult. His first three weeks of life were spent under the extraordinary care of the doctors and nurses in Unit 8 – the neonatal intensive care and special care baby units at the National Maternity Hospital. Thankfully, he didn’t catch any of the common infections that threaten premature babies during the period and he gained weight, allowing us all to return home.
But the worries didn’t end there. Would he continue to gain weight, would he hit his development milestones, was his hearing, eye sight, lungs, brain function all ok? All things that every new parent is worried about. But when your child is half the weight of a normal newborn and arrives very early, the worries are significantly multiplied.
Two weeks ago, our above average height, fun filled, chatty, beloved baby started pre-school with his peers. Just this morning he told me about how birds migrate, animals hibernate and that the longest river in Africa is the Nile. He is wonderful. We are blessed. And safe to say, as parents of a premature baby, we were undoubtedly the lucky ones. Something for which we will be eternally grateful.
Because every year in Ireland about 4,000 newborns are born prematurely or significantly under weight. Many are born with conditions and complications that remain with them for life. Others catch infections or develop difficulties that can adversely affect their health in the short or long term. And most sadly of all, a few will not survive.
Yet, despite the fact that 5% of babies are born early or underweight, the perinatal period of pregnancy is one of the most under researched areas of modern healthcare. Partly, this is because of the practical and ethical difficulties posed by conducting research on pregnant women, foetuses and premature newborns.
As a result, we know very little about the common causes of premature birth, like pre-eclampsia and foetal growth restriction. And so, while many parents like us know the factual pathology behind why our children had to be delivered too soon, we don’t, and will never know what the root medical or scientific cause was. Nor are there proper diagnostics or screening tools available to help those who come after us.
And yet the clinical, scientific and economic imperative is there to do more. Those premature babies who are born with lasting disabilities, syndromes or other complications will endure life-long health challenges. While many children born prematurely, who make it through the early stages relatively unscathed, will grow up to develop cardio-vascular problems in later life and other chronic conditions like diabetes.
This is where INFANT comes in. The new Science Foundation Ireland and private industry funded research centre based in Cork University Hospital will endeavour to answer some of the unanswered questions. Its programme of research will involve developing screening and diagnostic tests and methods of monitoring both pregnancy and newborns for risk, so that treatment and intervention can happen early.
It is an overdue and worthwhile initiative, which has the potential to have a real and lasting impact on the lives of many. It is also a real and tangible example of what the essence of science is all about; using curiosity and research to understand better the problems that effect our lives.
The INFANT team has much to do, and the results are unlikely to be instant. But I, for all the reasons above, wish them well in their work.