Saturday 16 December 2017

'One morning it's normal... the next your baby is on life-support losing a battle with meningitis' - Mum of baby Ruairí who died aged six-months

Baby Ruairí was six-months-old when he died after a battle with pneumococcal meningitis.
Baby Ruairí was six-months-old when he died after a battle with pneumococcal meningitis.
Patricia Murphy

Patricia Murphy

After welcoming two healthy baby boys in her forties, Margaret Smart said she felt like the luckiest woman in the world.

The Wexford mum and her husband Robert were thrilled with the arrival of their firstborn Micheál, and when their second little boy Ruairí was born in May 2012, the couple felt like their family was finally complete.

Baby Ruairí (left) with his older brother Micheál, now eight-years-old
Baby Ruairí (left) with his older brother Micheál, now eight-years-old

"I came quite late to motherhood. I was 43 when I had my first baby and I was 45 when I was pregnant with Ruairí. We were thrilled when our baby arrived happy and healthy. For a while I felt so lucky. Micheál was so happy to have a little brother as well. From the start, Ruairí was a beautiful baby, he always had such an appetite and was always so happy."

Ahead of her return to work after maternity leave, Margaret placed Ruairí into a local crèche where he immediately thrived. However, a few weeks later on November 22, the mum received a call to say Ruairí was feeling unwell. Margaret's older son Micheál had recently been ill with the chicken pox and she believed baby Ruairí might have come down with the virus as well.

"They called to let me know that Ruairí hadn't been fussed about his lunch, which was so unlike him. He was a big bruiser and he loved his dinners so it was unusual.

"We were travelling to the UK the next day to visit my parents, so I decided I'd just bring him to the doctor to make sure everything was okay.

Baby Ruairí was six-months-old when he died after a battle with pneumococcal meningitis.
Baby Ruairí was six-months-old when he died after a battle with pneumococcal meningitis.

"As my son Micheál had the chicken pox two weeks before, my GP thought it would be best to bring Ruairí to A&E in Wexford General. He was placed on IV fluids and anti-viral drugs as was routine, but CT scans and his blood work was all clear. They couldn't find anything wrong."

As the evening progressed, however, six-month-old Ruairí's condition began to decline rapidly, his breathing became laboured and he was intubated. The decision was made that the baby needed specialist care in Temple Street's Intensive Care Unit, and Ruairí was rushed to Dublin in an ambulance in the early hours of the morning with his parents following closely behind.

Hours later, a CT scan revealed swelling on Ruairí's brain, and attempts to alleviate this pressure were unsuccessful. Just 24 hours after dropping a smiling baby to crèche, Ruairí's parents were told that their son was "clinically gone" and would never recover.

"It's incredible because one morning you're just doing normal things like getting the kids out the door to crèche and the next you're looking at your baby on a life-support machine.

Margaret Smart her son Micheál after welcoming baby Ruairí in May 2012
Margaret Smart her son Micheál after welcoming baby Ruairí in May 2012

"It was bizarre, because you're looking at his little chest moving up and down and in all other ways he looks perfectly healthy but he's gone. You just are thinking, 'This can not be real'."

With their son Micheál, then aged 4, Margaret and Robert said goodbye to their youngest son.

Baby Ruairí was six-months-old when he died after a battle with pneumococcal meningitis.
Baby Ruairí was six-months-old when he died after a battle with pneumococcal meningitis.

"My four-year-old Micheál and Ruairí idolised one another. Telling him was one of the most difficult things I've had to do. He climbed into Ruairí's cot as we did almost every morning and sang some songs and said our goodbyes to Ruairí.

"After we had that time with Ruairí and Micheál, my husband just said, 'We need to let him go now', and we had the machines turned off. It was only the two of us when he came into the world, and when he left us it was the same."

After his death, it was established that Ruairí had died after a battle with pneumococcal meningitis. This is a bacterial form of the condition, in which streptococcus pneumonia bacteria invade the bloodstream and multiply in the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

His parents said they will forever grateful to the staff of Temple Street Hospital, who made it possible to take Ruairí home to Wexford with them in the hours after he died, which Margaret said made a huge difference.

Margaret Smart with her husband Robert, and children Ruairí and Micheál, before Ruairí's death
Margaret Smart with her husband Robert, and children Ruairí and Micheál, before Ruairí's death

"We were so fortunate to have the support of the staff at Temple Street. I wouldn't have been able to leave him. He went to the undertakers for the shortest time, and being away from him that long was so difficult.

"Nothing could have been done differently, I really do believe that. Temple Street were amazing, Wexford General acted quickly as did my own GP and even the crèche. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I could blame someone but I can't. It was superior care."

Margaret said her now eight-year-old son Micheál's questions about Ruairí can be difficult to answer, and become more so as he gets older.

"In the early days the questions about Ruairí were very simple, but as he gets older they can be harder.

"The thing about his questions is that he could ask me something in the car on the way to school. Then he'll hop out of the car and not give it a second thought, whereas I'll be thinking about that for the rest of the day."

"We're very fortunate to have been able to avail of the counselling offered by Temple Street, and Micheál has had the chance to meet other children who have lost their brothers and sisters."

After losing her son, Margaret said her relationships with many people have changed, both because some avoided her after Ruairí's death, and also because she avoided some friends because it was too difficult.

"People don't know what to say to you after you've lost a child. They cross the road to avoid you for fear of having to have that conversation. There are people who have not come near me since he died.

"At the same time, I've let friends fall by the waist side as well, some of them who had children the same age as Ruairí and that was just too difficult for me to watch them, because I'd be thinking, 'That should be him, why him?' He was such a happy, healthy baby."

The mum said she has channelled some of her grief into raising vital funds for the Meningitis Research Foundation, which helps to develop information about the illness, and also to support Irish families who have been impacted.

"I fundraise for the Meningitis Research Foundation whenever I can, it's such an important cause, particularly the advice and support services which I have found so helpful after Ruairí's death."

Next September, Ruairí would be joining his classmates as a Junior Infant, and Margaret says she knows it will be a very difficult time for her.

"It never goes away, that's the thing. I'll always be a mother to two boys, but I only have one here.

"It's very difficult. In September he would have been starting school and I know that's going to be so hard to watch all those children go in the school gate and Ruairí... he's not going to be there."

April 24 marks World Meningitis Day. For more information on the Meningitis Research Foundation, or to donate please visit www.meningitis.org

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