The midwife in her 60s who walked 700km to raise money for premature babies

Terry put her best foot forward for neonatal care.
Midwife Terry Wiffen

Terry Wiffen is still nursing the scars from her recent 700-plus kilometre trek – three black toenails, plus any number of unsightly reminders of the blisters suffered on such a long hike.

But the agony – “and yes, there were some really tough days” – was worth it, she tells.

Terry, a midwife with 38 years’ experience who works with high-risk mums, has just returned from walking the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St James, in Spain.

Like tens of thousands before her, Terry (63), a grandmother of four, was on a pilgrimage of sorts, although not for the more usual spiritual reasons.

Hers was to raise money to buy specialist breathing equipment for the neonatal intensive care unit at Wellington Hospital, which covers the lower North Island and the top of the South.

A double knee replacement didn’t slow Terry down, but she was thankful for her walking poles!

She explains how preemie babies are continually monitored, nursed one-on-one by a team ready for any crisis.

“The environment in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is intense, and it’s a lot for parents to get used to. There’s the sound of heart monitors beating, with alarms going off regularly. The usual rule of thumb, allowing for limited setbacks, is to expect baby to come home by around their due date, which is a massive length of time for most new parents.

“I really wanted to do something to support them and highlight what they go through. It’s something I feel very passionately about.”

Travelling with a group of friends, including a fellow midwife who was celebrating her 60th birthday, Terry slogged it out for five-and-a-half weeks, averaging 25km a day.

There were moments of magic and there were dark times, but each step was another step closer to her goal, tells Terry.

Heartbreakingly, one very special inspiration was her own grandson, Remy, who drowned accidentally aged just two-and-a-half.

“The tragedy of losing a grandson is real to me, so even though people can lose a little baby who is not very old, I know the impact it has.”

Remy’s name is tattooed on her right wrist, while a heart-shaped stone in his memory now lies beneath a cross at the highest point on the Camino, alongside stones in memory of two other close family members.

Further motivation was a 25-week baby girl Terry helped deliver the day before she left for Spain.

She was with the first-time mum for 10 hours, and the birth saw her calling on all the 10 standards of midwifery.

“It was pure coincidence, but it was truly a special privilege for me to be there. Catching up with her when I got back, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ – that was my whole reason for doing this.”

The thought of helping the 10% of babies born early in NZ each year made all the blisters worthwhile.

A “cheekily cute” NICU Red Bandit soft-toy rabbit, given to her by The Neonatal Trust staff, joined Terry on the journey.

Photographs of the two of them at various stopping points along the way were posted on Facebook to keep supporters back home updated.

A double knee replacement wasn’t a hindrance, although without walking poles, or “unless you were a quadruped”, Terry suspects there could have been some serious injuries.

Blisters, however, were a whole other story.

“They were epic,” laughs Terry.

“We had blister clinics every night. Honestly, we’d go into a village and see the green pharmacy sign, like this beacon in the distance, and make a beeline to it.

“Your boots might be fine, and then you’re two weeks in and suddenly it’s blisters to end all blisters. No one’s used to walking that distance every single day so, naturally, you are going to get them. But I hated my tramping boots by the end of the trek.”

Terry laid stones in memory of family, including Remy, at the route’s highest point.

The group stayed in an auberge (hostel) most nights, setting out early each morning, carrying small packs with rain gear, snacks and first aid equipment.

Towards the end of the trek, they used headlamps for the first couple of hours each morning in the dark.

There were three days of rain. On one of them, with 100km to go, they hunkered down “sopping wet” in a little bar to watch the All Blacks outclass Ireland in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Says Terry: “The rain was relentless; there were miserable days, and the walk was certainly an endurance, a lifetime experience. But I was buoyed every day knowing that every step I was taking I was making money for these little babies.”

At the time of writing, a Givealittle page Terry set up for the fundraiser had made $1640 towards her goal of $3800.

Every year in New Zealand, 10% of babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks’ gestation). That’s one premature baby born every 90 minutes.

There are also full-term babies whose condition or illness requires admission to an NICU after they are born.

In all, over 5000 babies have a difficult start to life in New Zealand each year.

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