Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah have told how the tragic death of their baby daughter inspired them to set up a research laboratory that helped save the life of the grandchild of his close friend and mentor John Smith.
The couple set up the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory (JBRL) at the University of Edinburgh in tribute to their daughter who died at just ten-days-old after she was born at 33 weeks in 2002.
Mr Smith’s daughter, Catherine Smith, 43, revealed work carried out at the lab “impacted directly” on the care given to her daughter Ella McConnachie and “improved her chance of survival” after she was born at 28 weeks weighing just 1lb 10oz.
She is now aged two.
Mrs Brown set up the charity PiggyBankKids - now called Theirworld - which established the laboratory in 2004 to look at ways to help premature babies thrive, including research into how much oxygen should be given in incubators.
Speaking yesterday at an event to mark 15 years of support for groundbreaking work done at the research laboratory, Mr Brown paid tribute to the work carried out by staff and told how the couple had missed out on the key milestones in their daughter’s early life.
He said: “If the laboratory had saved one life then as a parent that would justify every hour of the work you’ve done but to know that many, many lives have been improved as a result of it and many more lives can be improved is a spur, an incentive, indeed it’s the inspiration to make the next 15 years even more successful than the past. John Smith was my friend, my colleague, my mentor – our leader – and even after 23 years since he died he is revered in so many parts of the country and sorely missed.”
He added: “Sarah and I never had the joy of experiencing Jennifer taking her first steps or speaking her first words or going to school for the first time but we have realised after 15 years that out of tragedy some good can come.”
Ms Smith had an emergency Caesarean section after developing Hellp syndrome, an aggressive form of pre-eclampsia.
While her baby was being cared for, she said “there came a point when Ella was in hospital that I realised that Sarah and Gordon must have been in a ward very similar to the one I was in and suddenly their experience came to life a little bit more, I felt I was able to understand better just the total horror of it”.
She went online to make a contribution to the laboratory’s work, and started reading about the “extraordinary” research it has done.
Ms Smith said: “I realised some of the research they had done into the oxygen levels being given to premature babies had impacted directly on Ella’s care and had changed the way doctors treat these small babies and improved her chances of survival.”
Mrs Brown told how she and her husband, were “really caught in the public spotlight” when Jennifer died. “As difficult as that was, it meant we also received a lot of messages of care and support from members of the public,” she said.
“What was also clear was that not all the reasons why babies are lost in late term, still birth or soon after birth are known. There just isn’t an explanation. So it was clear to us, if we were to make any sense of this tragedy, that it was to harness that understanding to best effect.”