Heartbroken father from Co Down on walk of hope in memory of baby daughter

The family together less than half an hour before Hannah passed away at just eight days old
The family together less than half an hour before Hannah passed away at just eight days old

GRAEME COUSINS talks to a Co Down dad about the tragic loss of his baby daughter and how he is combating the heartache

Between September 10 and September 18 last year the Bronte family went through a wide range of jarring emotions.

Treasured photo: Kirsty, Caleb and Gareth at Portbradden

Treasured photo: Kirsty, Caleb and Gareth at Portbradden

Joy at the birth of their first daughter, panic as the doctors detected her premature birth had led to health difficulties, hope as their baby girl demonstrated a will to live, and devastating heartache when she passed away after losing her brave fight after eight days.

Gareth Bronte, 35, along with his wife Kirsty, 32, will aim to walk, run or cycle 10 kilometres a day for the next 31 days in their daughter Hannah’s memory.

Gareth said the couple thank God for Hannah’s life and cherish every second they spent with her.

He said: “Although Hannah was only around for eight days she made such a difference to our lives.”

Hannah's name written on the sand at Portbradden

Hannah's name written on the sand at Portbradden

Hannah Stella Bronte was born at 26 weeks and six days weighing just two pounds, five and half ounces.

She began life in reasonably good health for a premature baby, but five days into her life her breathing began to falter.

Gareth, who lives between Loughbrickland and Rathfriland on the outskirts of Banbridge, said: “Those last three or four days when things weren’t going great she fought back, she was full of fight and character.

“Anybody that knows me knows I like to talk, I like the sound of my own voice. When she was in the incubator you were able to talk to her or put your finger in for her to grab hold of. Whenever I talked to her she opened her eyes. It was lovely. She recognised that it was my voice.”

He added: “Those eight days with Hannah filled me with such joy. They’ll stay with me forever.

“But it doesn’t take away the pain of not seeing her growing up. Things like her first day at school, walking her down the aisle.”

10K A Day In May: the facts

Co Down couple Gareth and Kirsty Bronte will walk 10 kilometres a day throughout May in memory of the baby daughter they lost at just eight days old.

Their aim is to raise funds for the Perinatal Trust to say thank you for the care their daughter Hannah received and the way in which they helped in the ease the pain of losing a loved one at such a young age.

The first of the 10K A Day In May challenges starts tonight at 6.30pm at Seapark.

Gareth and Kirsty have a son Caleb who is coming four later this month.

At first they had thought it would be better if Caleb did not see his sister in such distress, but fate had other ideas.

Gareth said: “We had made the decision that we weren’t going to bring Caleb to the hospital.

“We were a wee bit scared with him being so young and all the wires and things coming out of Hannah that he might be upset.

“On the Tuesday that Hannah died, our parents were at the hospital and circumstances where that Caleb was in the hospital too.

“The doctors called us and said, ‘look we’ve tried everything, things aren’t good, she’s not breathing the way she should be’.

“We kind of made the decision then that Caleb should see his sister. He was there for a reason.

“Caleb wasn’t allowed into the ICU ward, but they’d moved us to a separate little ward so he was allowed in there. We were allowed to take her out of the incubator and bring Caleb into the room.

“When he saw Hannah he just said, ‘my wee gorgeous’. I’ll never forget it.

“That was only about 15 minutes to half an hour before Hannah died. All the family were together. It was just meant to be.”

He added: “Caleb still talks to her, talks about her, says he misses her.

“It’s lovely that he got to see his sister.”

Gareth spoke of the three Fs that have helped himself, Kirsty and Caleb through the tragedy of losing Hannah – family, friends and faith: “Friends and family have been very supportive, they’ve been great.

“Certainly my faith, and Kirsty’s, would be strong.

“A lot of our friends who are doing the 10Ks with us are friends from church (Cornerstone Church in Rathfriland).

“I believe that Hannah has gone to much better place. She has gone to be with the ultimate Father. One who loves her even more than me, and I will see her again and to be honest I can’t wait for it.”

Of the ‘10K A Day In May’ challenge that Kirsty and Gareth have set themselves, the Co Down man said: “It wasn’t an experience that any parents would want to go through.

“We were just very thankful of the neonatal unit and Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital, they were brilliant throughout the whole process.

“It’s not closure but it’s just something to give a wee bit back and to say thank you.

“My wife came up with the idea to raise some money – 10K A Day In May – it rolls off the tongue quite nicely. Though February would have been easier as it’s only got 28 days.

“Whether it be walk, run or cycle we’re going to do 10K every day.

“What we’re planning is to do one big communal event a week, the rest will just be a smaller groups. We’ve got about 40 people who have signed up to do it every day.”

They’ll be joined by their friends from church as well as some of Gareth’s friends from the worlds of rugby and cricket.

He said: “My old first 15 captain from school who now lives in Perth in Australia is going to do it. We’ve friends in London and Dubai as well who are doing it where they live.

“It’s lovely to think that people will be doing 10Ks all over the world in memory of Hannah.”

Gareth said: “Where we live on the Bronte Road between Loughbrickland and Rathfriland we can actually see the church where Hannah is buried from the sunroom.

“One of the walks we’re going on is from our house, up past the church where Hannah is buried.”

Another special place for the Bronte family is in Co Antrim.

Gareth said: “The beach at Portbradden is our favourite place in Northern Ireland.

“It was shortly after Hannah passed away, we got away for a few days and stayed up at the north coast. We went down with Caleb and thought it would be nice to write her name in the sand. That is one of our treasured photographs.”

Harrowing time in hospital made easier by level of care within neonatal unit

Kirsty Bronte had spent some time in Craigavon Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital before their daughter was born as it had been expected that Hannah may arrive early.

Hannah’s first few days showed signs that she would make it out of the neonatal unit. Gareth said: “She’d been breathing by herself mostly. It was about five days in she’d had a bad night.

“We were going down first thing in the morning and coming home late at night for the first five days.

“On the fifth night they phoned us and said that she hadn’t had a great night, they put her on to a ventilator to help her breath.

“They’d hoped to put her on that for a few hours maybe to give her a rest.

“She didn’t get to come off it. When we went down that Sunday after church we were just hoping that she would be coming off the machine.

“We went down not expecting anything just as bad. We didn’t come home again.

“We stayed that night in the Royal. They have parents rooms that you can stay in. The only time we left was to get toothbrushes, toothpaste and overnight things.

“The next day she was a wee bit worse but then she was rallying. She passed away on the Tuesday not long after the whole family including Caleb had been with her.”

Of the level of care afforded at the hospital, Gareth said: “Just having those rooms there is so good. That’s what we’re raising money for, to have parent packs, things that would be handy if parents hadn’t planned to stay over but are caught unawares.

“This is the only neonatal unit in Northern Ireland, people could be travelling from much further than we did.”

He said: “When Hannah died we got a little baby box with some little clothes in it, a pair of matching teddies, one that she was buried with and one that we could keep. Little things like that make it a little bit easier to remember her by. Each one of those boxes, the Perenatal Trust told me it cost £100. I couldn’t put a value on what that box of little things means to me. I’d give £100,000 for it.”

Gareth described his wife Kirsty, a 32-year-old GP, as “an incredibly strong woman”. He said their daughter has brought them even closer together.

Where the communal walks will be taking place

The 10K A Day In May challenge begins tonight when Gareth and Kirsty Bronte will be joined by a host of big names for their first walk from Seapark at 6.30pm.

Participants include Ulster Rugby players Jacob Stockdale, Darren Cave and Will Addison while radio personality Pete Snodden is also due to take part.

The next communal walk takes place on Saturday, May 4 in Newcastle, Co Down with a 10K walk up and down Slieve Donard accompanied by qualified mountain expedition leaders.

On Friday, May 10 the group 10km walk starts and finishes at the Bronte’s house outside Rathfriland.

The Newry 10K provides the backdrop on Tuesday, May 14 and on Wednesday, May 22 it’s the Bann 10K.

Thursday, May 23 sees a 10km walk round Lurgan Park organised by Dromore High.

The final group walk will be on Friday, May 31 starting and finishing at Banbridge Rugby Club.

Gareth said: “These are all group events that we encourage everyone to join us in. Opportunities to donate will be available at all of the above. Anyone is also more than welcome to join Kirsty and I for any other walk during May.”