New life support for pregnancy charity Tommy’s

Thursday, 06 March 2014

In safe hands

The first year of a research project exploring the reasons behind stillbirths is being funded by The Freemasons’ Grand Charity and the Masonic Samaritan Fund. Sophie Radice finds out more about this pioneering work  

The heartbreak of losing a baby during pregnancy and birth affects one in four pregnant women in the UK each year, yet comparatively little is known about why this occurs. When babies are lost, the families usually have a desperate need to know why it happened and are often disappointed by the lack of knowledge or interest. ‘That’s why Tommy’s was set up in 1992 by two obstetricians working in the maternity unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London,’ explains Jacqui Clinton, Tommy’s health campaigns director.

Tommy’s funds research into pregnancy problems, and provides information and a dedicated midwife telephone helpline – a heavily used service that received three thousand six hundred calls and emails last year from mums and dads wanting advice, and bereaved parents in need of support. The charity now funds three research centres in the UK run in partnership between hospital and university experts, based at St Thomas’, London; the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh; and St Mary’s, Manchester. 

Uncovering complications

When a baby dies after twenty-four weeks of gestation it is called a stillbirth. Every year in the UK more than four thousand babies are stillborn; many deaths remain unexplained, although it is estimated that abnormalities in the placenta – essentially a baby’s life-support machine – occur in forty per cent of cases. In 2009, the Manchester Placenta Clinic was set up with the aim of detecting these abnormalities. 

The centre combines specialised antenatal care for pregnancies affected by fetal growth restriction with frontline research into why the condition occurs and how it might be treated. The Freemasons’ Grand Charity and the Masonic Samaritan Fund (MSF) are donating £42,000 towards new Tommy’s research that will pioneer a method of MRI scanning to build a detailed picture of fetal development that doesn’t place the baby at risk. The Freemasons will support one year of the three-year research programme, enabling Tommy’s to seek match grants for the remaining period. 

‘Every year in the UK more than four thousand babies are stillborn; it is estimated that abnormalities in the placenta occur in forty per cent of cases.’

A founding member of the Manchester clinic, Dr Ed Johnstone explains this novel method of looking at placentas in vitro: ‘For MRI scanning, we have taken advantage of a new technology that uses oxygen as a contrast agent to provide unique, non-invasive biomarkers in compromised pregnancies. We are then able to look in much more detail at the placentas of the pregnant women at different gestational stages and assess the complications that are linked to different placental problems by the blood oxygen concentration.’

Seeking answers

Adrian Flook is one of the trustees of the MSF and has a personal connection with Tommy’s. ‘My own daughter was born at St Thomas’ eight years ago. My wife was not a young first-time mother and we were anxious about that. We did our research and found that St Thomas’ was considered one of the best places to give birth for mothers who might have complications.’ Adrian is full of praise for Tommy’s. ‘They deserve their excellent reputation because the team that took care of us was amazing. I’m really proud that the Freemasons have donated to such an interesting and worthy cause.’ 

Susan Harper-Clarke, from Teddington, is another beneficiary of Tommy’s. She had experienced the agony of two late miscarriages at nineteen weeks and twenty-two weeks; tests showed that she had what’s known as an ‘incompetent cervix’, despite being healthy and free of risk factors. After some online research she found the Tommy’s website and the Preterm Surveillance Clinic at St Thomas’ Hospital. ‘I wasn’t even pregnant yet and was so grateful to be taken seriously,’ says Susan. ‘It gave me real confidence that Tommy’s would support my third pregnancy fully. I hadn’t been given any information or help with the other pregnancies and no one seemed interested in finding out why this had happened to us.’

Under the team’s care, Susan gave birth to her son, Thomas, at thirty-eight weeks in July 2012. Her story is just one of many as Tommy’s works towards its target to halve the number of babies that die during pregnancy or birth by 2030.

Unconditional support

Sanjukta Chaudhuri, from Beaconsfield, has benefited from St Thomas’ expertise. After three miscarriages, the first in 2000, she was put in touch with the Preterm Surveillance Clinic, London. She describes the clinic’s Professor Andrew Shennan as ‘the eternal optimist’.

At eighteen weeks, during her fourth pregnancy, her membranes bulged and the potential for the onset of infection was high. There was no opportunity to save the pregnancy so she requested to be induced rather than wait for nature to take its course. Now knowing what the problem was, Sanjukta was recruited to take part in a trial at St Thomas’ and had an abdominal stitch inserted before becoming pregnant again. Care at the clinic included having her cervix measured every other week and the fetal fibronectin test – the result of which showed she was no longer a high-risk patient.

Professor Shennan delivered Sanjukta’s son, Oisin, by caesarean in January 2013, and after three days she was able to take him home. She says of being a mum: ‘It’s unconditional love. I can never repay what Tommy’s has done for me.’

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