Rob holding Sienna - 2 weeks old.
As Father’s Day approaches, a Surrey dad shares his experience of having a premature baby to raise awareness of a local charity’s campaign to transform care for premature or sick babies.

First-time parents Rob Elford, 36, and wife Sadie, 34, from Haslemere, were keen to support Royal Surrey County Hospital Charity’s Closer to Care campaign after their daughter Sienna was born five weeks’ early on 23 February 2019, weighing a tiny three pounds and fifteen ounces.

Rob said:

“Sadie was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia at 33 weeks – her pregnancy until that point had been straightforward and she hadn’t experienced any symptoms, but her veins had started to collapse and it was a very dangerous time for her and the baby.

“Thankfully medical staff managed to control Sadie’s blood pressure and she was put on bed rest. But a week later, a scan revealed her placenta had stopped working effectively and so it was decided it would be safer if the baby was born by caesarean section the following morning.”

After she was born – due to her size – baby Sienna was taken to the hospital’s Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) to be monitored, after a quick cuddle with the new parents.

Rob continued:

“We were made aware that Sienna may be whisked off to special care during the C-section.

“The staff in the operating theatre were incredible, but that didn’t stop us feeling very nervous about what was going to happen to little Sienna. Like all parents, we expected to leave the theatre with our baby, and instead, we were back in our hospital room without her, which was a very surreal experience.”

As is the case with many neonatal units around the country, parents cannot currently stay overnight next to their babies’ cot due to limited space.

Rob said leaving the hospital without Sadie and Sienna that first night was one of the toughest things he’s ever had to do:

“The most incredible event in my life had just taken place, yet it felt like nothing had changed as I was on my own, going back to my house alone, and trying to sleep alone. I remember feeling numb on the drive home: seeing the empty baby seat and the newly finished nursery made me feel so completely alone – all I could think about was getting back to the hospital in a few hours’ time.

“It felt like Groundhog Day as this was my life for eight days: not eating, not sleeping and constantly worrying about Sienna and also Sadie, who was going through all of this without her newborn baby next to her.

“I experienced enormous guilt every single time I had to leave the hospital: the fact that I wasn’t there for my wife and newborn daughter – not because I didn’t want to be, but because I couldn’t be there for them – was heartbreaking and so stressful.

It’s this experience that led Rob and Sadie to support the charity, which needs to raise £500,000 to redevelop the hospital’s SCBU, so that families have the option to stay overnight, next to their babies’ cots. Plans for the new unit will also include a family room, which will offer much-needed privacy for families receiving sensitive news, and a separate space for siblings to play with toys and visitors to gather and spend time together.

Analiese Doctrove, Head of Fundraising at Royal Surrey County Hospital Charity, said:

“Rob and Sadie’s story really highlights just how difficult it can be for any parent – dads and mums – when their baby needs special care. We want to make it as easy as possible for families to be by their babies’ side in those crucial early days, so parents and babies don’t have that added stress of being apart.”

To raise money for the new unit, the couple has organised an epic eight-hour spin marathon: ‘The Big Spin for Tiny Babies’. The event will take place on Saturday 12 October at CYC:D Fitness Studio in Haslemere. Sadie and Rob are encouraging people to join them in the challenge or to sign up to take part in an exercise class at the studio on the day, to help raise money to support babies in need of special care.

Rob added:

“Having the option to stay with Sienna would have made a huge difference to me as a new dad.

“Leaving her at the hospital left me heartbroken and as if I’d failed in my duties as a dad. I should have been there to look after my family through anything they were going through, but I couldn’t.

“I urge people to get behind the Closer to Care campaign for one simple reason – a newborn baby should always be with its parents, and parents should always be with their newborn baby. This not happening can be devastating.”

To find out more about the campaign or to make a donation, please visit: www.rschcharity.org.uk/closertocare or call 01483 464146. To sponsor Rob and Sadie, please visit: www.rschcharity.org.uk/the-big-spin-for-tiny-babies