Michaela Southworth is a volunteer for neonatal charity Bliss. She fundraises and runs a support group for parents of premature and sick babies.
Michaela Southworth’s first son, Nathan, was born at 24 weeks – just 5½ months into her pregnancy. Being born so early, Nathan was not expected to survive. “He needed the most aggressive treatment,” says Michaela, “including a ventilator, drugs to stabilise his blood pressure, and antibiotics to fight a whole body infection. He also suffered two intra-ventricular haemorrhages.”
Happily, though, Nathan survived all of these early ordeals, and he’s now five years old and doing well. “We’ve had a lot of medical appointments, as well as physiotherapy and speech and language therapy, but Nathan’s a very happy and determined little boy, and he’s reached his milestones – albeit a little late.”
Michaela now also has a second son, Samuel, who was not premature, but she’s never forgotten the support that she received after Nathan’s birth – particularly from the charity Bliss. “Bliss put us in touch with other families who had been through the same journey, and they provided clearly written information leaflets which helped me to understand what was happening to my son. I also had support from the Bliss online message board, and their phone line. Later, I found out about their research work, and the training that they provide for medical staff, and I realised that as well as supporting parents, they’re also helping to ensure that hospitals give babies the best all round care.”
Nathan was able to come home for the first time when he was five months old, and, having received invaluable support from each others whilst they were in hospital, Michaela and other parents that she’d met on the neonatal unit decided to set up a Bliss support group, so that they could continue to meet up and invite others along too. When this first group was eventually wound up, Michaela began volunteering with Bliss at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. “I run a family group for parents of premature and sick babies who are still in hospital. It’s called the Cake Club. We have cake, fruit for those who insist on being healthy, and tea and coffee, and I provide a listening ear from someone who has been through it themselves. The main focus in hospital is, rightly, on the baby and on the medical side of the care, but this can mean parents are left with little or no emotional support at the most vulnerable time of their lives.”
“The Cake Club gives parents a safe place to talk, to share, and to begin to process what they’re going through. If nothing else, they go away well fed – parents often forget to eat, or struggle to afford good food at hospital canteen prices, so we meet a practical need too.”
In addition to running the support group, Michaela is enthusiastic in raising money for Bliss, winning their highest fundraiser award in last year’s annual Bliss Buggy Push. “I bully everyone into sponsoring me as often as possible! In 2011-12 I nominated Bliss as the charity of the year in my workplace, and we raised over £6,000.” In 2010 she also gave a speech to MPs on behalf of the charity, when Bliss launched a report in the House of Commons, and earlier this year her Cake Club received an award at the Mother and Baby Magazine Big Heart Awards.
As well as working for Bliss, and being a mum to two small children, Michaela somehow manages to work three days a week as an accountant. “It’s always a busy life with small children and a career. One of the reasons that I work part time is so that I have some time to give to Bliss, as well as spending some with my family, of course.”
Though it might be a squeeze fitting everything in, Michaela is in no doubt that her voluntary work is extremely worthwhile. “I know Bliss makes a huge difference to people, because they made a huge difference to me. Sometimes I talk to a parent who is shell-shocked, worried and at the end of their tether. We have a chat, and I’m not sure whether or not I’ve been able to help. A few weeks later, I’ll see the same parent again, and they’re coping better and have good news about their baby. When a parent going through that journey tells me that I made a difference to them at their lowest point, it’s incredibly satisfying.”
And it’s this personal touch which, Michaela believes, makes Bliss a special organisation. “Many of the people working at Bliss, and the majority of the volunteers, have personal experience of having a premature or sick baby. Everyone at Bliss really cares, and their passion for the work drives the excellence of their delivery.”
In the future Michaela plans to help expand the presence of Bliss at the Royal London, aiming to build up the team of volunteers so that the Cake Club can run more regularly, and also to increase the presence of Bliss volunteers in the hospital generally. “We would like there to be someone in the neonatal unit most days, so that parents have support whenever they need it. Corinne, my volunteer coordinator, has been building a team and things are starting to come together – so watch this space.”
Michaela will also be taking part in the 2014 Buggy Push, which will take place on Saturday 31 May, in Battersea Park – raising funds to support premature and sick babies and their families. ✿