A father has spoken with searing honesty of his deep emotional grief following the privilege of becoming a dad to baby Etta only to lose the daughter he will always be “immensely proud of” after just 27 days.
Now balancing his grief at losing a child with his joy at the arrival of his son, Reuben, six weeks ago, civil servant Samuel Woolford, 31, told how, encouraged by his primary school teacher wife Emily, 30, he found other men to share his painful feelings with in the unlikely setting of a football pitch.
Samuel, of Salisbury, Wiltshire, founded Sands United Salisbury last year, which he describes as a football team that “no one wants to play for,” because each player has a galling tale of losing a child in pregnancy, childbirth or the first month of life.
Also dad to Ezra, who is three-and-a-half, Samuel – who does not want to share photos of Reuben or Ezra – said: “Hearing the news about Reuben’s arrival, my family said, ‘Oh, you must be delighted’.
“Of course, I’m delighted, but I’m also stressed, I’m also terrified and I’m also quite sad because it’s not Etta.
“People don’t get that. They think that I’m weird because I’m not just exclusively happy that I’ve just had a son.
“Of course, I am, but I’m also deeply, deeply sad that my son isn’t here with his sister.
“The men on the football team, get that. They know how I feel.”
Samuel and Emily had always wanted a large family, so when she discovered she was pregnant for a second time with Etta they were delighted.
Samuel was in Munich on a business trip when she took a positive test, but pretended it was negative, before posting it to their address, ready for him to open the envelope and discover the good news when he came home.“I was being so thick I was thinking, ‘Why has someone sent me a positive pregnancy test in the post,'” he recalled.“When Emily looked at me like I was an idiot, filming the whole thing, I realised what was going on.
“Then we all had a big cuddle. It was very exciting news. It was a moment of pure excitement and joy.”
But at their 20-week scan a cloud began to form over the pregnancy.
“It’s an ‘abnormality scan’ where they check for developmental issues,” said Samuel.
“The sonographer said, ‘I think there’s something wrong with your baby’s heart and we need to get a second opinion from the consultant.'”
A nightmare two days followed, as they waited in limbo for news.
“Back home, we walked through the door and my wife burst into tears and I burst into tears and it was a surreal, hellish two days,” said Samuel.
Sadly, having their baby’s health problem confirmed was even worse than the waiting when they were told she had a hypoplastic left heart – a critical congenital heart defect that affects normal blood flow through the organ.
“We were told that without a heart transplant in their early teens, children with this defect die,” said Samuel.
“It’s irreparable even with a heart transplant. The oldest person alive with hypoplastic left heart is in their early thirties.
“After the diagnosis, I don’t think I had feelings. It was just a complete shock. I was completely blindsided.
“We just sat there in silence thinking, ‘We can’t believe this is happening to us.'”
At this point, the family moved to hospital accommodation in Bristol, so Emily’s pregnancy could be monitored at a specialist unit at Bristol St Michael’s.
But, miraculously, the condition of the baby they now knew to be a girl, improved in leaps and bounds.
“From being told we could consider termination, by the end of the pregnancy we were being told she would not need immediate heart surgery and she could one day become a high-performance athlete. She could be an Olympian.
“It was like chalk and cheese, night and day, we were just over the moon.”
Baby Etta was born on 26 November 2019.
Called Etta Grace Libi Woolford – Libi being the Hebrew for ‘heart’ both because of her condition and because of the special place she had in her parents’ hearts – she weighed 7lbs 8oz.
Samuel said: “She was born and she looked so well.
“She was bright pink, unlike other babies with heart conditions that can look a little blue, she was just a fat cute baby.
“I went back to the Airbnb where my in-laws were staying to see them and our son and remember walking down the hill with a grin on my face.”
For the first seven days, Etta did very well and her parents were planning for her to come home for three or four months, before returning to hospital for some heart surgery, which they hoped would be the end of it.
Then, on day seven, the hospital doctors called them, breaking the news that she was experiencing heart failure
She was just 10 days old when she had her first open heart surgery.
During a 13-hour operation, she had a triple bypass and was left with her chest open, as medics now believed that she had a hypoplastic aortic arch and a double outlet right ventricle. This means the aorta connects to the right ventricle rather than the left, which can be fixed, but it is very tricky.
Samuel said: “There was a big, big bloody bandage across her chest, which was deliberately filled with moving blood to keep it from clotting. I’d never seen anything like it.
“It wasn’t until she was just under three weeks old that we finally got to hold her properly again, as her chest was less open.”
But in the morning after enjoying their cuddle with little Etta, her health took a terrifying turn for the worse.
Samuel said: “We came into the hospital at about 9:30am to find around 25 people around Etta’s bed.
“We were intercepted by one of the nurses and she said, ‘I need you to come with me. I need to explain something to you.’
“They explained that she’d had a cardiac arrest and they were currently performing CPR on her.
“We went in and watched them doing it. It was very, very hard to see.
“She was a three-week old baby having her chest pumped. It was not like normal CPR. They actually physically massaged her heart, because her chest was open after the surgery.
“They were pumping and pumping and pumping her heart for about 35 minutes.”
Put on life support, loved ones were invited to her bed to say goodbye to Etta.
“We were told we’d know by how she responded to the life support whether or not she would die within the next 24 hrs,” said Samuel.
The tiny baby was baptised and the unit was closed, so close family were able to spend time with Etta alone.
For a week, Etta remained on life support as doctors tried everything to encourage her heart to work on its own.
But after seven days, Samuel and Emily were told the heart-breaking news that there was nothing more they could do.
Samuel said: “They took the ventilator out, because at this point, she didn’t need it.
“She was as good as dead and they took all the lines that they could off her, so that we could hold her properly again for first time in days.
“And they closed her chest for us, so that we could hold her without risk of horrible things happening.
“We took some casts of her hands and feet and took some photos.
“Then we cuddled her and read her stories and they turned off the machine, so she died in our arms.”
When she died on December 23 2019, Etta was just 27 days old.
Samuel said: “The world came crashing down.
“I felt a guttural, visceral grief. I just couldn’t believe it.
“My wife couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t even look at each other. We just held hands and sobbed.”
When their son asked to see her the next day, they said no, telling him she had passed.
“He said, ‘I want her to come back. I miss her.’ And he started crying. Not like a toddler throwing a wobbly. He cried because he was sad,” said Samuel.
Even her funeral in January 2020 at Cheltenham crematorium did not give Samuel the closure that this final goodbye so often gives after a death.
He said: “My brother, who is a vicar took the service. It brought no closure at all. I couldn’t tell who was there. I didn’t look up from the floor. I was inconsolable. My wife was inconsolable.”
After losing Etta, Samuel found himself lurching through life like someone wading through treacle, as his grief was compounded by Emily having two subsequent miscarriages.
While she found other women who she could talk to about her grief, she feared that Samuel, who admits he was deeply depressed, did not have the same outlet.
Suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to this day he wakes up in a hot sweat from time to time, after having a flashback to Etta receiving CPR.
Then, last year, Emily heard about Sands United FC, a charity football initiative started by a grieving father in Northamptonshire after some frustrated dads enjoyed a kick about after a meeting for bereaved families.
Now there are teams up and down the country and, with Emily’s encouragement, in August 2020 Samuel started Sands United FC Salisbury, which is now in the running for a £2,000 sponsorship award from electronics giant Panasonic.
He said: “The team’s been a fantastic support in the run up to the birth of Reuben, six weeks ago.
“They all understand that for parents who have lost a child the news of a new pregnancy is not an exclusively happy thing.
“In many circles, it’s still taboo for men to talk about mental health, and men find it hard to talk openly about loss.
“At the football team, we have all been through it, so we know what to say to each other. The support is invaluable.”
Determined to enjoy every moment he can with his two sons, despite his love for his children, Samuel explains that his grief will never go away.
Keen to raise awareness of the football team and the need for parents who have lost a child to talk about their emotions, he said: “We’ve learned to try and reframe our grief as time passes.
“We are building our life around the grief that will never get any less.
“We’re also trying to increase the quality of life around it so, in comparison, it feels smaller.
“But I’ll never, ever stop thinking about Etta. I will never stop missing her and it will never stop being tragic that she died.
“I will always be immensely proud to have been her dad, even if I only had that privilege for 27 days.”
For information about the Sands Charity football teams across the UK visit:
Samuel’s team has been shortlisted in a competition to win a sponsorship deal with Panasonic Grooming. https://www.panasonic.com/uk/consumer/personal-health-care-learn/mens-grooming/play-with-style.html