How caring for a terminal baby changed my life forever – Liz’s story


A neonatal nurse shares how caring for one tiny baby changed the course of her life forever.

There is a saying that goes: “There is no foot too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world”.

When someone dies, people start recounting to each other stories about that person – where they had lived, what they had done, the things they had achieved.

But what if that someone who had died was still just a baby? They will have seemingly passed in and out of this life without leaving any trace, other than love and heartbreak in equal measures for their families.

Those who have lost a child never forget them, and the love they feel for them does not diminish with time. But the pain remains too, and the sadness that their little one’s existence was seemingly all for nothing.

But remember: “There is no foot too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world”. This is the true story of how one such baby left his indelible imprint on my world - and I don’t even remember his name.

It was Valentine’s Day 1981. I had been nursing for over 10 years, first in London and then in a vibrant university city which I loved. There was so much to do and my life was full with work, music, and friends; there was nothing I wanted to change. I found my job as an Intensive Care nurse inevitably challenging and very hard work, but extraordinarily rewarding when patients recovered from near-death conditions and went home. Of course, sometimes they didn’t, and we felt sad for those families left behind.

That day, I had lunch with an old Doctor friend who had recently returned from two years of research in the Antarctic. We sat chatting for ages with so much to catch up on. Sometime during the afternoon I got a message asking if I could possibly work a night shift on the children’s ward, ‘specialing’ a young baby who had been born a few days before with a serious and life-limiting condition. I was hesitant at first – it wasn’t my ward, and I had a busy full week of night shifts coming up on the adult Intensive Care Unit. But like most of the nursing staff, I was willing to step in to do extra shifts when I was needed. It seemed this baby needed a nurse with Intensive Care skills, and so I agreed to do the shift. Little did I realise this tiny baby’s existence would change the course of my life forever.

The shift passed fairly unremarkably. The baby was being cared for in a softly lit side-room off the main ward. He was poorly, but stable, and slept the night through, hardly rousing when I attended to his drips, monitors and nappies. He couldn’t be left so I sat beside him throughout the night in the quiet stillness, watching him, and listening for changes. Occasionally I leafed through a few pages of some magazines that someone had left in the corner of the room, mostly slightly out-of-date copies of the Nursing Times.

And that was when I saw it. The advert for a vacancy in the hospital back in my home-town on the coast, for the post of an Accident and Emergency Sister. I’d first become a Sister some six years before. My life was good as it was. I didn’t want to lose any of that. I put the magazine down.

But something drew me back to look at the advert several more times, until I stuffed the magazine in my bag to take home and forgot about it for the night.

Baby's foot

I got the job and so it was I moved away from the city I loved to the grey seaside town where I’d grown up. I heard from old colleagues that the baby I’d looked after that night had eventually died, and I was saddened, but I was fully occupied caring for my current patients and I all but forgot about him.

Life was busy. There were different challenges, but I enjoyed being back in familiar surroundings, with lots of family close by. One of my uncles told me about the new young curate at his church, who was organising a ‘Come and Sing Messiah’. I went and sang. And the new young curate became my future husband.

Within a few years of that day, we’d married and had our two daughters. Life was much the same as any other young families – we moved house a couple of times, tripped over Lego, and patched up bumped knees. I started a Mother and Toddler group, and returned to nursing on a Special Care Baby Unit. I was surrounded by small people. Inevitably some of the babies admitted to the unit were too small or too sick to survive and didn’t live more than a few hours or days. Two of our Toddler Group babies also died - one stillborn, the other at 19 months. The loss of these babies was especially hard to come to terms with, seeing how the parents’ lives were torn into pieces. It was unutterably sad, and all seemed so pointless.

Handandfoot Web

Months, and then years, passed and I would sometimes wonder: who apart from the parents still remembered all of these children? What mark had they left on the world, apart from great sadness?

Meanwhile our daughters grew and thrived, and brought us immeasurable joy. We moved house several more times, the young curate became a middle-aged vicar, and I swapped the Special Care Baby Unit for adult Neurosurgical Intensive Care. Life wasn’t always easy, and neither was it for so many people with whom I came into contact, either through my work, or my husband’s. I got no closer than anyone else in trying to make sense of the sadness and pain in the world. I was inspired by the courage of the people who, despite living engulfed by grief, held fast onto the hope that there must be some meaning to it all.

Then one day I remembered the Valentine’s Day baby. But he was long gone, leaving no trace, wasn’t he? Except, quite simply – if it hadn’t been for him, my children would not exist.

Our daughters are now grown and away out into the world. One now teaches philosophy, the other is a writer. They’ve already crammed so much into their young lives. People other than their biased mum have called them valued and inspirational; I believe the world to be a better place for having them in it. Which means, ultimately, that the world is enriched because of that baby who lived and died all that time ago. In many ways I owe my life, family and career to that tiny baby in an incubator. What an extraordinary imprint for one little life to leave.

So thank you, Valentine’s Day baby. I will never forget you.

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