Finding hope in tragedy

In the third of a series of features on a year that changed my life Jade Fair rewinds to 2011 and tells Sarah Freeman about the charity born out of the tragedy of losing her first child.

Billy Sharp dedicates his Doncaster goal to son, Luey.
Billy Sharp dedicates his Doncaster goal to son, Luey.

Jade Fair knows that sometimes silence can say so much more than any words. On October 27, 2011 she gave birth to her first son, but as soon as he was delivered the midwives in the labour room fell quiet.

“It was the strangest feeling. I knew then that something was desperately wrong, but for a while I was in denial. I just couldn’t believe that a baby I had wanted and loved so much could be taken away from us so soon.”

Jade is married to Leeds United striker Billy Sharp and as their much longed for son Luey was taken into the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, the couple had to face every parents’ worst fear.

“About 20 minutes later the midwife came back and said, ‘I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do’. I didn’t believe them, it felt like they were talking about a different baby. I remember saying to them, ‘so, he’s going to be alright isn’t he’, but of course he wasn’t.”

Jade and Billy’s disbelief was understandable. At the 12 week scan, the couple had been told that their unborn child was suffering from gastroschisis, a birth defect which causes the intestines to grow outside of the body wall. It’s a condition which affects one in 3,000 babies, but for most the condition can be corrected with an operation at birth.

“We were told, ‘Don’t worry, there is a 95 per cent survival rate’ and were sent away with an A4 sheet with some information on it. Everyone seemed very relaxed about it and the truth was so were we. I thought, I’ll have our baby, we may have to stay in hospital for a few months, but that will be it, job done. Most babies who have gastroschisis go on to lead normal, happy lives. Unfortunately we were one of the unlucky ones.”

With no medical treatment available - weighing just 4lbs he was too small for a bowel transplant - Jade and Billy, who at the time was playing for Doncaster Rovers, were asked whether they would like to be transferred to Martin’s House Hospice. Sharing their last few hours with their young son, surrounded by other grieving parents, sounded initially like the worst idea in the world, but Jade admits now that it was the best thing they could have ever done.

“Neither Billy nor I had ever been into hospice and I reacted pretty badly to the suggestion, but I’m so glad we went because we got to create some happy memories. The staff at Martin House were incredible, I’m not sure how we would have coped without out them.”

Lue was just two days old when he died, but in the weeks which followed, both Jade and Billy began thinking about what they could do to help other families going through the same ordeal. The result was the Luey Jacob Sharp Foundation and while Billy’s connections in football have helped pull in a few favours in raising the profile of the charity, it is driven very much by Jade, who has never fit the usual footballer’s wife stereotype.

When we meet at a hotel close to the couple’s home in a picturesque West Yorkshire village, she’s busy apologising for still wearing her bobble hat. She hasn’t had time to wash her hair that morning, not that you’d know it. She looks effortlessly glamorous, but she’s also driven, determined and has little time for the side show which can come with being a WAG.

“We have never been the kind of couple to live an extravagant life,” says Jade, who grew up in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh and moved to Yorkshire 15 years ago. “We’re both from working class families and believe if you want to achieve something you have to work hard. It was fairly soon after Luey died that we started talking about setting up a foundation. There were some days when I felt so awful that I didn’t want to get out of bed and I needed a reason to get up in the morning.

“There are so many other good causes out there, that raising awareness and keeping that profile there is really difficult, but I’m not going to give up. At the moment not only does no one know what causes gastroschisis, but they can’t even say, ‘Well, we think it could be related to these half a dozens things’. It’s an area where research has been nonexistent and that’s what I really want to change.

“Initially we were raising money for Martin’s House, but the more I thought about the more I knew what I really wanted to do was fund research into the condition which taken Luey away from us. It might sound selfish, but I didn’t want to help every child with every kind of disease”.

While gastroschisis can affect any child, it appears to be more prevalent in young mothers from deprived areas and those who have given birth to babies by different fathers and one of the aims of the foundation is to get people talking about the condition.

“It’s difficult,” says Jade. “If your child has come through the other side then I understand it’s something that you want to draw a line under and equally if a family has gone through what happened to us, the last thing they want to do is keep reliving what happened, but without awareness we are not going to get anywhere.

“The main aim of the charity is to fund research, but we also want to reach out to families whose babies are in hospital who we might be able to help. Billy and I are lucky, financially we are comfortable, but I want parents to know that if they need support paying for transport or even just someone to talk to we can be here for that too.”

A website has now been set up and as well as people being able to donate small amounts through text, Jade is also hoping to secure a number of charity places in various 10k, half marathon and marathon events next year. While no great runner herself, she and Billy did enter a team in the 5k Neon Run, which took place at Temple Newsam in Leeds.

“He said he would run with me, but I knew it wouldn’t last. Billy is very competitive and he couldn’t help himself. He ended up winning the thing!”

Jade is currently juggling work for the charity with setting up her own recruitment business and looking after two-year-old Leo. Jade became pregnant just a few months after losing her first child and admits that she hadn’t grieved properly.

“I’m the kind of person that can put on a brave face to the rest of the world, but when I shut the door I really wasn’t coping. Having gone through what we did with Luey, I was terrified before every scan and even when they said everything was fine, I didn’t believe it. When he was born, I had a terrible fear that something would still go wrong. I suffered from post natal depression. I just wanted to be alone and I was in a pretty dark place, but I came through it and I don’t mind talking about it if it gives someone, somewhere the hope the hope they need.”

When she and Billy first met they talked about having four children. They would still like to have more, but losing Luey made them both realise just what a lottery becoming a parent can be.