A bridal shop owner whose premature twins overcame the odds is using her wedding dress business to raise funds to support other families coping with early births.
Catherine Smith’s daughters Katie and Hope were delivered 22 years ago at just 29 weeks. Doctors were not hopeful about their chances, with Hope in particular not expected to survive, but after three months in intensive care both were finally able to go home.
Believing guardian angels protected the twins both in the uncertain weeks after their birth, and ever since, Mrs Smith sews a small pair of silver wings into every wedding dress she sells – her way of passing a blessing to newly-weds.
Her boutique in the village of Greyabbey, Co Down, is called Seraphim – the name given to the highest form of angels.
Mrs Smith, a former nurse, credits her daughters for encouraging her to pursue her dream of working in the fashion industry when she left the healthcare profession.
With the business now established, she is using it to raise funds for TinyLife, a charity that supports premature babies and their families in Northern Ireland.
As well as donating £50 for every dress sold in a sale in January, she is now stocking her boutique with TinyLife wedding day favours.
The favours give couples the option of donating to the charity in lieu of a gift traditionally left for guests on the table at the wedding dinner.
Mrs Smith, who lives in Comber, Co Down, said she has always told Katie and Hope, and her two younger sons Pete and Josh, to take their angels with them.
“I bought all four of my children wee silver angel wings when they were wee and they all still have them,” she said.
“I very much believe in faith, faith was a very big part of my life and still is.
“When our girls were born we had to have faith that they would be okay, we didn’t know if they were going to be okay, but we had to have faith that they would be okay.
“So it’s something I very strongly believe in. So what we do as a consequence now is we sew a small pair of silver angel wings into each bride’s dress at her final fitting with blue silk thread and it’s just our way of telling them that our prayers for a long and happy marriage and good family go with them into their marriage and it seems to mean a lot to people so we believe in passing it on.”
Mrs Smith recalled the worrying days and weeks she and husband Al experienced after the girls were born.
“We were told by the paediatrician once the girls were delivered that Hope wasn’t expected to do (to live), which is why she is called Hope,” she said.
“They were both ventilated and it was 48 hours before I saw the girls, all three of us were very ill. Katie was the smaller of the two, she was 2lb 3oz, and Hope was 3lb 5oz.”
She said when Katie was well enough to be taken off a ventilator she was placed in the same incubator as her sister, to see if it would help her battle for life.
“They started to notice that Hope’s heart rate went up and she definitely stabilised when she was in there,” she said.
“They’ve always been very close and I am very grateful that 22 years later they are healthy and well and a credit to me and their dad.”
The couple had to dress their daughters in dolls clothes when they finally came home because they were so small.
“We knew nothing about looking after premature babies other than the fact that they were very vulnerable so it was really, really scary,” Mrs Smith said.
“When we got to the stage of wanting to do something to help a charity, there wasn’t really another charity that we really thought about. It just all meshed beautifully. I wouldn’t have this (shop), I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for the encouragement of my daughters. They wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the expertise of the medical staff and all the help we got.”
Katie said sewing wings into the dress conveyed an uplifting message.
“Being a bride and getting married is such an important day for both bride and groom so I think to be able to have that connection to hope and to faith makes all the difference – I think it makes the experience and the dress more personal and I think it’s a really lovely gesture,” she said.
“We’ve always supported mum and it’s amazing to see an idea come to life and I think to also give back to a charity like TinyLife is so important too, just to have the story behind the business.”
Hope said the decision to support TinyLife was an easy one.
“I think we always talked about when our mum got established a bit more we always talked about doing something for a charity and we didn’t really need to think about it because we were immediately (thinking) Tiny Life,” she said.
“We knew we wanted to do something and give back because there are a lot of people who have premature babies who really do need the help.”
Head of Fundraising at TinyLife, Valerie Cromie, welcomed the support.
“For the bride and groom, TinyLife wedding favours are a wonderful way to show their support for a charity that is close to their hearts and a great memento of the day for their guests,” she said.
“Over 2,000 babies are born too soon, too small or too sick in Northern Ireland. Some arrive as early as 24 weeks, weighing as little as 1lb 454 grams, the same weight as half a bag of sugar.
“At this understandably very stressful time for parents, TinyLife is there to provide practical advice, emotional support and to give a helping hand to families who have a baby in a neonatal intensive care unit, with their network of Family Support professionals in every neonatal unit across Northern Ireland, ensuring parents receive optimum support in hospital, at home and within the community.”
For more information visit www.tinylife.org.uk.