Stevie Flint was already a mother of three daughters, all of whom had arrived without incident.
But, pregnant with son Joeseph, she knew something was very wrong. She’d suffered bleeding several times and eventually was taken to hospital by husband Dave.
The diagnosis was worrying.
’I had a serious infection of my uterus,’ says Stevie, 26.
‘They did blood tests and they came back and said that was enough and I had to start labour with Joeseph.
‘My heart rate was up, my blood pressure dipped and my infection markers were sky rocketing. Then I was put to sleep and woke up three hours later with Joeseph.’
Dave, 24, says: ‘It was horrendous. I’ve never seen her in that much pain.
‘Because she got put under general anaesthetic I didn’t go in with her, which was even worse. Although I’m glad she was under because I don’t think she’d have been able to handle it if the baby had been taken straight from her.’
Joeseph was born at 24 weeks weighing only 1lb 5oz (608 grams) and his weight dropped during his first week to 1lb 3oz (559 grams).
‘He was on life support and a ventilator [at the QA hospital in Portsmouth] for five weeks, which is a lot longer than they like to leave them normally,’ says Stevie, from Gosport, who also has daughters Aimee, five, three-year-old Charleigh and Kaytie, two.
‘He was doing well until he had his eight-week jab and because he was so tiny he had an allergic reaction to it.’
This was the first of many challenges that Joeseph would face.
‘He had to have an eye test called an ROP (Retinopathy of Prematurity), which babies have to check that their eyes are not being damaged from the extra oxygen they get from the ventilator,’ says Stevie.
‘For the test they had to pin his eyes open, give him eye drops and an ultrasound scan on his eyeball.
‘We also discovered he had a hole in his artery. All babies are born with a hole in their heart which closes when they first cry. But Joeseph’s didn’t do that, so it started to grow with him.
‘He was given Ibuprofen which helped to close the hole, then he got two infections and the hole re-opened.
‘Our doctor, who’s been brilliant, asked if we wanted to try Paracetamol because it might avoid the need for surgery. We went for it because Joeseph had nothing to lose.
‘For three days we waited. Then the infection dropped, the hole was closed and he didn’t need surgery.
‘That was a big weight lifted for us – then it was onwards and upwards. We’ve been told there’s no guarantee of what will happen with Joeseph in the future. There’s a risk of cerebral palsy, ADHD, ADD, autism, epilepsy and mental health issues.’
During all this time the couple could not even hold Joeseph.
‘It took five weeks to get the first cuddle,’ says Dave, an able seaman in the navy.
‘It’s like a military operation to get him out with all his wires and leads.’
Stevie also remembers her first hug well: ‘All I could do was look at him through a pane of plastic. That was hard. The first time I held him was surreal. He was this tiny scrap, there was more ventilator than Joeseph.’
The couple were encouraged by friends to set up a Facebook page to raise money for Joeseph’s care.
‘Joeseph’s got his own page on Facebook, Prayers for baby Joeseph.xx, and he’s got 300 likes!’ says Dave.
Stevie is grateful for the help.
’The money we receive from the web page helps short-term because we spent all the savings we had for a pram, cot etc on fuel getting to and from the hospital.’
With everything they’ve been through, do the Flints have any advice for other parents of premature babies?
‘I’d say keep an open mind and ask all the questions you can,’ says Dave.
‘It frustrates me when people generalise about premature babies. Each one is different.
‘Don’t think just because it happened to someone else it’ll happen to you. Staying positive and always hoping for the best is important.’
Stevie has drawn strength from supportive friends and family and a new-found spirituality.
‘We never used to be religious, but that’s changed since Joeseph was born.
‘When he was about four weeks old the two oldest girls asked their nan if they could pray for him and now they pray every night.
There’s definitely someone helping to make the journey a little bit easier.’
And the family are hopeful for the future.
‘Joeseph now weighs 3lb 6oz (1.535kg), so he’s doubled his birth weight,’ says Stevie.
‘Everybody thinks he’s tiny but to us he’s massive.
‘It’s been nearly 11 weeks since he was born and we’re really looking forward to getting him home – it will feel like we’re a proper family.’
Dave adds: ‘Joeseph should be home on his due date, June 8. Anything before that is a bonus.
‘I can’t wait for him to be a baby and not a patient. It will be nice to pick him up without asking someone.
‘We’re just looking forward to the normal stuff and seeing him with other children. It’ll be great when he and the girls are all together causing mischief.’
Any baby born before the 37th week of pregnancy is considered to be premature.
Premature birth affects around one in every 13 babies and it is common with multiple births.
In most cases labour starts by itself and the signs will usually be the same as labour that starts at full-term. These signs can include contractions, sudden breaking of the waters and a ‘show’ (when the plug of mucus that has sealed the cervix during pregnancy comes away).
The most premature baby ever to survive is Amillia Taylor, who was born in Miami, America in 2006 weighing 283 grams (less than 10oz).
For more information about premature births, go to nhs.uk.