Sophie Bell, 25, Bournemouth shares her story...
As me and my boyfriend Chris, 30, got comfy on the sofa, I pulled out a bag of penny sweets – as exciting as Saturday nights got!
Weeks before, in July 2015, we’d got engaged. We were saving every penny for our big day.
I was two months pregnant with our first baby, too. We hoped to tie the knot before the baby arrived in February.
It meant cutting back on nights out, saving for our wedding. By November, we had £2,500 but tightened our belts even more.
Then, one night, I woke with excruciating back pain.
We went straight to Poole Hospital, where doctors checked me over, and said I was fine – but then I started bleeding.
‘It’s a urine infection,’ a doctor explained. I was told to rest, so back home, I had a warm bath.
But my back pain was just getting worse. So I went back to the hospital and was eventually referred to the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth.
After examining me, a nurse confirmed I was 4cm dilated – it meant my baby was on its way.
I was so scared, I burst into tears. I was only 23 weeks, it was far too early.
‘It will be too small, it won’t survive,’ I sobbed, terrified.
The baby wasn’t willing to wait, though. And, shortly after, on 6 November, I gave birth to Penelope, a tiny 1lb 5oz.
I tried to prepare myself for the worst news from doctors, but then I heard her piercing little cry. A glimmer of hope.
Penelope was whisked away for a blood transfusion and hooked up to a ventilator.
‘She’s trying to breathe on her own, but not quite managing it,’ a doctor said.
Penelope was kept in Neonatal Intensive Care. She looked so tiny, fragile, with all of the tubes poking out of her.
A doctor gave me a leaflet on premature babies. I read that babies born at 23 weeks only have a 15 per cent chance.
Chris and I were distraught. ‘Please,’ I begged doctors. ‘We can’t lose her.’
I stayed by her side for five days, until I was discharged, but there were no spare beds and no hospital accommodation. And Penelope was far too poorly to risk transferring her back to our local hospital.
Queen Alexandra was 50 miles from home – how could we visit Penelope every day?
We didn’t drive, it’d mean trains and buses. At that moment, I didn’t care – I just wanted my little girl to be OK.
‘I’d travel to the moon and back for her,’ I told Chris.
From then on, we made the 90-minute journey to hospital every day. We’d sit through traffic jams, delays, cancellations… It was worth it to see our precious girl.
Over the next weeks, Penelope made slow progress. She had a heart murmur and had to have brain scans for blood clots.
Chris and I never missed a day with her, but our trips cost us £50 each a day in fares.
‘We’ll use our wedding fund,’ Chris said. It was worth the sacrifice to keep our family together.
Chris and I carried on making the journey. It was exhausting, and our fund trickled away.
As Christmas drew near, I was downcast. Penelope’s first one should be special. Instead, she’d be in hospital. We did all we could to make it nice for her, though. I bought her a teddy blanket and a little Santa hat.
We had her tiny handprints made into beautiful tree ornaments.
On December 25, all in jazzy festive jumpers, family took Chris and I to the hospital.
‘Merry Christmas, angel,’ I told our special little girl.
Posing for a picture with Penelope, I made a Christmas wish she’d be strong enough to come home soon.
After a few hours, we went home to spend the rest of the day with family, but my mind and heart were with Penelope.
Over the next few weeks, she went from strength to strength and, on 20 January she was strong enough to be transferred back to Poole Hospital.
Our daily trips had eaten over £2,000 of our wedding savings.
But we didn’t care because, on 22 February – Penelope’s due date! – she was allowed home.
I felt overwhelmed with emotion. Since then, Penelope has thrived. She has regular checkups and, so far, doctors are confident she’s healthy.
She’s 1 now and a cheeky little monkey. This Christmas, there’ll be more photos, and I can’t wait to compare her to the tiny thing she was in that shot last year.
As for the wedding fund, Chris and I are starting to save again. Sacrificing our big day was a very small price to pay for our girl.
She was worth every penny.