The death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, but to lose two little angels within weeks of each other is simply unimaginable. Naas parents David and Elizabeth Browne have lived through just such a nightmare.
They have set up the Daniel and Cormac Memorial Fund in honour of their two boys to raise funds for the neonatal unit at the Coombe Hospital where staff fought so hard for the lives of their two remarkable little boys.
David Browne is the eldest son of Mary and Christopher Browne and grew up in Johnstown village. He “bumped into” his wife Elizabeth in Dublin and they were married in her parish church in Connecticut in April 2010, and settled in Alymer Park in Monread, Naas.
The couple were naturally delighted when Elizabeth became pregnant in late 2010, and their joy doubled when they discovered they were having identical twins at the first scan at ten weeks.
However, when Elizabeth was just 24 weeks pregnant things went drastically wrong. “I went in to spontaneous labour at 24 weeks and 5 days, on 18 February 2011.”
Elizabeth was admitted to the Coombe Hospital who did what they could to stop her labour but they were unsuccessful. The identical twin boys were born on 20 February, minutes apart and whisked off to the neo natal unit where they could be given the specialist care such preterm babies need to survive.
Tests indicated that they both had a good chance of surviving. They were very small but very strong and healthy given their early arrival. They were both intubated to facilitate breathing and placed on life support as well as various drips and monitors, and were placed in separate incubators to regulate their body heat, humidity and to minimise the risk of infection.
David is an officer in the Air Corps based at Baldonnel and he contacted the chaplain there, who arrived to baptise the twins. They named Twin 1, born at 12.08, Daniel Christopher, and Twin 2, born at 12.22 was named Cormac Francis. They were both about 810g.
David and Elizabeth were allowed in after a few hours. The unit can be very daunting at first but they soon got used to the beeping and buzzing, the hissing of ventilators, the hum of machines, the alarms, the general human activity which necessarily surrounds such a high level of care needed by the tiny inhabitants.
Elizabeth began expressing milk which was fed to her babies through a feeding tube. “After a few days they were allowed to hold the tube and then gently rest the palm of our hand on the baby’s back,” said David.
They took it in turns with the boys, Elizabeth sitting with Daniel and David with Cormac and then reversing. “Elizabeth would sing songs to them, and tell them stories. The staff encouraged us to let them hear our voices.”
They cherished every minute with their boys. It was a stressful time but the new parents made the most of it. “We spent as much time in the unit as we could. For the first week we didn’t leave the hospital at all. Our world changed so quickly. We were both anxious and scared. We knew that things could go wrong,” David said.
And things went very wrong for Daniel when he was 36 hours old. A valve in his heart, which usually closes at birth, had stayed open. Both Daniel’s parents were in the ward when the problems started. “There was a sudden burst of activity. There were alarms and beeps going off, the place filled with neo natal doctors, nurses, consultants, all fighting for hours to get him back to normal,” Elizabeth said. However, over the next few hours and days, it became obvious that the lack of oxygen suffered by Daniel had caused damage beyond repair.
On 4 March his parents kissed their eldest son goodbye. He was just 12 days old and they were faced with planning his funeral. In a small white coffin, he was laid to rest in St. Corban’s Cemetery beside David’s grandmother.
“We kept up with the visits to Cormac the whole time. Right after the funeral we went straight back there. It was strange because we were used to being divided, Elizabeth with one of the boys and me with the other. Now we were together sitting at one incubator, concentrating on Cormac,” said Elizabeth.
And Cormac was getting bigger and stronger by the day. He was making fantastic progress and by 10 weeks he was moving and turning, dislodging his ventilator and on one occasion pulling out his feeding tube which he somehow managed to tuck under the mattress. “Cormac gave us quite a few chuckles.”
They were also able to take him out of the incubator and hold him, first for just a few minutes but working up to a couple of hours. Skin on skin contact, or kangaroo care, has been found to be really beneficial for premature babies and Cormac’s parents held him as often as they could.
At 60 days, he was moved out of intensive care and into a high dependency unit, which indicated that he was making very real progress.
“They were looking to the future, doing eye tests for example, and assessing his legs for physiotherapy. We were told to start getting ready to bring him home. I bought a car seat, blankets. Everything was going well,” David said.
The couple were having breakfast one morning in their Naas home, preparing to go back to the hospital when the Coombe rang to say Cormac had suffered a major setback. He was intubated and back in the intensive care unit. They were told to get to the hospital.
Stuck in the heavy morning traffic at Newland’s Cross they got another more urgent call. Then another. The Gardai were contacted to escort them to the hospital.
“I abandoned the car in the ambulance bay and gave the keys to the security man. We ran up the stairs to the ICU. I saw a couple of the doctors crying in a room as we went past and in intensive care the nurses were crying. Cormac’s heart rate was down to 60 and 160 would have been closer to normal. It went up to 130 when he heard our voices but then slowly went down again. The consultant said there was nothing they could do. We took him and he died in Elizabeth’s arms.”
David, Elizabeth and baby Cormac spent the next 24 hours in a room at the hospital. The couple bathed Cormac and there was a steady stream of people coming in to say goodbye; consultants, cleaning staff, doctors, nurses – the family had become so well known and loved in the hospital and the staff were distraught at their loss.
A post mortem revealed Cormac had died of an infection which had caused multiple organ failure very quickly.
David and Elizabeth were faced with planning a second funeral. “We wanted to organise our own grave plot and have Daniel and Cormac buried together, which meant exhuming Daniel’s coffin” said David. They got permission from the gardai and HSE, and with the help of Graham the cemetery caretaker, Daniel was moved and the two white coffins were laid to rest touching each other.
The couple went back to the Coombe regularly for counselling. The staff had held a memorial service after Cormac died and were also traumatised by the loss of the two little boys.
“We were visiting the grave three or four times a day. We would drop by before we went to bed and light candles, almost like we were tucking the boys in. One day Elizabeth said, we can keep feeling sorry for ourselves and for them or we can do something positive, so we decided to do something in their memory to help other babies, and the Daniel and Cormac Memorial Fund was born. We are focussing our efforts on fundraising,” said David.
Elizabeth adds, “People apologise for talking about Daniel and Cormac, or avoid it, in case we disolve into floods of tears. We don’t want to avoid it. We love hearing their names, and this way we get to hear their names.”
The fund has raised over E27,000 for the Coombe, so far. In 2012 some 30 fellow officers from the Air Corps at Baldonnell ran the Dublin City Marathon in a block formation to raise funds for the Daniel and Cormac Memorial Fund and a cancer research charity. Other events including a Thanksgiving themed dinner, an American tea party, coffee mornings, a Mad Hatters Party and a variety event run by David’s mother in Johnstown.
“There’s a bucket at the door in the Coombe. I know babies can be expensive but if every new parent dropped some money in on their way home with their baby, it would help so much,” said Elizabeth.
David and Elizabeth have been back at the Coombe many times since 2011, but the most memorable will undoubtedly be their visit for the birth of their daughter Aoibhinn, who is now two.
Aoibhinn knows she has two brothers who died and went to Heaven. She visits the grave with her parents and hugs the two little blue teddies laid there in memory of her two big brothers who were just too little to survive, but who have touched countelss hearts and left a huge legacy behind.
The two websites for donations to the Coombe are www.friendsofthecoombe.ie or www.mycharity.ie/charity/friendsofthecoombe. Specify the donation is for the Daniel and Cormac Memorial Fund and money will be used for the intensive care unit’s wish list.