'I felt I was being punished'- Operation Transformation leader Marie Grace on losing her baby
'Operation Transformation' leader Marie Grace and her husband Fergal discuss the death of their premature baby Michaela with Andrea Smith
Fergal and Marie Grace watched a Tipperary vs Limerick match on their first date in 2001, and people laughed when they spotted them holding hands while wearing rival jerseys.
"Tipperary won," says Marie (33) triumphantly, as she grew up in Cullen on Tipp's border, a mere half-mile from Fergal's hometown, Pallasgreen in Limerick. She's one of Joe and Maureen O'Sullivan's five children, and she liked Fergal because he was really quiet, unlike her chatty self.
Fergal (40) works in the digital strategy department of Limerick City and County Council. He's one of May and the late Michael Grace's five children. He was seven when his dad passed away from heart problems aged 43. Fergal's brother, Sean, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2001, while working as an engineer in the Philippines. Fergal was attracted to Marie because she was "bubbly, good-looking and great craic". He proposed in Rome, and they were married on New Year's Eve in 2010.
They were delighted when Marie got pregnant in 2012, but she had a miscarriage at 13 weeks. Three-year-old Lily-Mai was born in November 2013, much to her parents' joy. Marie got pregnant again six months later and all seemed to be going well until her waters suddenly broke at 22 weeks. She was taken straight to the labour ward in hospital.
"I wasn't getting pains, but my waters were gone," she recalls. "From what they were saying, the baby was dead and I still had to go into labour, but later on in the day, they brought a scanner in and told me there was a heartbeat. It was so confusing and surreal, because one person would tell me that I would be kept in if the baby was alive, and another was telling me to call an undertaker."
Marie was put on bed rest and antibiotics and was told that the next 10 days were crucial. While amniotic fluid can regenerate, she was still losing some every day so she didn't feel confident as babies need the fluid for their lungs to develop properly. She reached 24 weeks and injections were due to begin to strengthen the baby's lungs, when she suddenly went into labour. Fergal raced in, and after a quick labour, tiny baby Michaela was born on November 13, 2014, weighing only one pound and four ounces. She was baptised but lived only for an hour and a half.
Fergal and Marie were heartbroken, and spent the night in the room with their precious little daughter. "I couldn't believe how much she looked like Lily-Mai," says Marie. "She was perfect down to her tiny fingernails, but they told us that her lungs probably just weren't developed enough. They brought in a lovely little gown, a pink hat and a little basket, and gave us a little box from Feileacain. It comes with a candle and two teddies, so you keep one and bury the baby with the other, and they took pictures of Michaela and her handprints and footprints, which are lovely to have."
Fergal says that taking Michaela home to meet her family helped initially, but the next few months were hard. "There can be a stigma around talking about your child's death," he says. "Some people think you should just get over it and get on with your family, which is hard to take. You have all of these hopes and dreams for your child, but you leave the hospital with nothing, and all you have to hold on to is your grief." Marie found it hurtful when people brushed off her loss by saying that she was young and could have another baby. "It doesn't matter whether you are 20 or 40, children aren't replaceable," she says.
A few months later, Marie got pregnant again. Happily, baby Daisy was born safely on March 7, 2016, which coincidentally was the date Michaela was originally due the previous year.
While they were thrilled, Daisy had bad acid reflux, which put a strain on them. "I felt like I was going to have a breakdown or my marriage was going to break up," says Marie. "We had lost Michaela, Daisy screamed for eight months and I felt I was being punished for something. I was so miserable."
Marie went back to work as a hairdresser but found it hard to function as she was up all night with the baby. She had put on weight from eating the wrong things and decided to apply to Operation Transformation. To her great surprise, she was chosen as a leader and did fantastically well, losing a stone and five pounds.
More importantly, the show helped Fergal and Marie to talk about their loss. As other people contacted them to share their own experiences around losing a child, they were gratified that speaking about it publicly had helped others. Fergal also noticed that Marie now expresses her feelings rather than bottling things up. He recommends joining a support group, and says bereaved fathers find it hard because they don't get a chance to form the bond the mother does from carrying the baby, although their grief is just as acute.
As for Marie, her advice to other parents in a similar situation is to talk about their feelings. "There is help and support out there," she says. "You just have to look for it."
INM is compiling a dedicated section on Independent.ie where readers can share their stories of miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death. The section will serve as a testament to the women and men who share their stories, a memorial for the lost babies and as a resource for people who have gone through or are going through the experience. Your stories can be anonymous or on the record and nothing will be published in any format without prior consultation with you. Email Yvonne Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org