Posted on 28 March 2017
Parenthood can be a crazy, beautiful rollercoaster of emotions. For energetic radio and TV host Ryan O’Connor and his wife Karen, their journey to realising their dream family has been more turbulent than most.
There’s a crèche just across the road from the KFM studio, in Cape Town’s De Waterkant neighbourhood. Breakfast show DJ Ryan O’Connor knows the comings and goings at that little playschool well. Almost too well. ‘It’s very weird,’ he laughs as we sit down to chat in the KFM Breakfast studio. ‘Sometimes I’ll go onto the balcony and watch the kids arrive, and I’ll stand there waving to them. So you’ve got the parents dropping their kids off, looking up at this creepy guy on the balcony who’s staring at their children, and I’m up there thinking: Aww, that’s so sweet! Look at these kids playing. That’s exactly what Faith would do! And then I’ll stop and say to myself: Ryan, look what you’ve become!’
What Ryan has become – three times now – is a dad. He and his wife Karen have two daughters: Faith will turn two in May, and Erin will have her first birthday in August. Ryan has always been a bubbly personality, and his rapid-fire patter is a big part of what’s made KFM Breakfast such a huge success. He often tells family stories, sharing the joys of parenthood with the Western Cape’s biggest morning radio audience. He also shares the sadness. On 15 April 2013, the O’Connors’ first child, Grace, was stillborn at full term. After months of talking about their exciting new arrival, Ryan tweeted: ‘Hi everyone, very sad news for myself and my wife Karen this morning. It’s with a heavy heart we say rest in peace to our daughter Grace O’Connor. We will love you forever. Heaven has a place for you.’
Their public joy had turned into a very public heartache. It’s something he reflects on now, almost four years later. ‘I don’t know if it was a mistake, but having chronicled the journey from the beginning, there needed to be some kind of…’ Ryan’s voice, for once, trails off. He stops, then continues: ‘People were asking around the time Grace was due: “How’s Baby doing?” At that stage we thought everything was going to go according to plan and we’d welcome a healthy daughter to the world, and it would all be good. People were asking, “How much does she weigh?” “Is she okay?” So there needed to be that for people who were listening. We needed to communicate what we were going through and what had happened.’ The response was a massive outpouring of love and sympathy. ‘We never expected it to be as supportive as it was,’ Ryan says, thinking back. ‘I think a lot of people who had been through a similar situation themselves were able to relate. They shared their stories of what they were going through, how it affected them and their family, and how they were dealing with it. That was very helpful for us.
‘It was this mental support from people we didn’t know, who just felt the emotional journey of what we’d been through. There were mails and letters and love from people who had experienced something similar themselves. ‘Some had been trying for years to have a baby, only to be disappointed. It was comforting to know that our journey was not one we had to walk alone.’ Ryan and Karen had been trying to start a family for about 13 years before they fell pregnant with Grace – and when they lost her after carrying her to full term, Ryan admits feeling ‘kind of lost’. ‘We got into this dark space where we thought, That’s it. Having kids is never going to happen for us.’ They’d looked at every option – adoption was on the cards, surrogacy, fertility treatments – and until Grace, none had worked. Then when Grace was stillborn, Ryan says, ‘It was one of those “give up” moments.’ Then they fell pregnant again.
Professional Nurse Hester van Eeden works in Mediclinic Panorama’s Neonatal ICU. She’s been working in neonatal care for 26 years and there’s not a lot she hasn’t seen. As she came on duty on the morning of Tuesday 12 May 2015, she saw a man – obviously a new father – pacing up and down, looking jittery. She remembers thinking, Here we go: another new baby… ‘Then, when I stepped into the unit to take over from the night nurse, all the staff were so excited,’ she says. ‘They were all going: “It’s Ryan O’Connor’s baby! It’s Ryan O’Connor’s baby!” And I thought, “Who’s this Ryan O’Connor?” I don’t listen to the radio, so I didn’t know! ‘Right there, we took the decision to handle Ryan and Karen just like normal parents. I went to the room to introduce myself, and he was like a little boy jumping around. He was so excited! I’ll never forget that big, boyish smile.’
Faith O’Connor was born 31.5 weeks into term – two months premature of the normal term of 37 to 41 weeks. ‘The doctors and nurses at Mediclinic Panorama were unbelievable,’ Ryan remembers. ‘The amazing thing was, we’d dealt with the same team two years prior when we lost Grace. I guess for them it’s an ongoing, daily occurrence: either bringing life into the world or having to tell parents that their baby didn’t make it.’ He’s typically effusive in his praise of Mediclinic’s neonatal team. ‘They were phenomenal,’ he says. ‘Their communication was excellent. That was the most important thing for us, as parents of a prem baby. We wanted to be told everything, all the time. Every second of the day we wanted to know what was happening. “Is she okay today? Is it up? Is it down?” And the staff were superb.’
Nurse Van Eeden and the neonatal team at Mediclinic Panorama draw heavily on their collective experience, as well as the technology they have available.
‘When I started in neonatal ICU we didn’t have half the technology we have today,’ she says. ‘That technology makes it a lot easier for us. When I started, they would tell us there’s a 31-week preemie like Faith on the way and it would be panic stations. Now, if they tell me there’s a 25-week preemie on the way, I know exactly what our procedure will be. It’s not that traumatic anymore. As a nurse, you don’t get blasé about it, but you do have a level of experience and a trust in the technology.’
Says Ryan, ‘We often take for granted the quality and standard of neonatal units in this country. Karen and I are just so lucky that our Mediclinic happens to have one of the best. ‘And it’s a family. There’s a sense of family when you go there, which is really important to us. It never feels like we’re just another number. When we returned for Erin, it was like, “Hey Ryan, how’s Faith doing?”’
More baby joy
A year and a half later, on 23 August 2016, a post appeared on Ryan’s Instagram account @ryanoconnorza. The caption read: ‘Welcome to the world Erin O’Connor. Born this morning before 9am. Weight exactly 2kg. Mom and baby doing well.’ Those words were followed by two praying emojis. After Grace and Faith, a prayer of thanks seemed appropriate. ‘One of the biggest things I’ve learned, as a preemie parent, is that you’re not alone,’ says Ryan. ‘There’s such a vast amount of people – in your office, your family, your friends – who’ve had premature babies and gone through something similar. My advice? Appreciate and absorb all the love that you get, because it can also be easy to shut everybody out.
‘Your family, the people who care about you, are going through it with you. Don’t be afraid to take help from people who want to cook you meals! Let them do it. Do what you need to do to free up your time so you’re not worrying about anything other than looking after your family.’ Parenthood has changed Ryan O’Connor, and he’s the first to admit it. ‘For me, the biggest change has been emotional,’ he says. ‘I think you need to have kids to understand it: when you have your own, you look at babies differently. You look at kids differently. You look at life differently. ‘I got on a plane the other day and I started a conversation with a mom who was travelling with a baby. I would never have done that before having kids. Never! I would’ve seen them and thought, “Please don’t let this person sit next to me because this baby is going to cry the whole flight.” As a dad I’m now looking at the baby going, “How old is she? Six months? Aww, she’s so cute”.’
It’s a softer, gentler side to him, which listeners of KFM Breakfast will have noticed emerging over the past couple of years. Fatherhood – with its incredible joys, its aching disappointments and its sudden emotional explosions – will do that to a man. ‘Guys are not emotionless beings,’ says Ryan, with every syllable carrying the weight of Faith, of Erin, and of little baby Grace. ‘When it’s your own baby, you can’t help feeling that emotion, and – as tough as you want to be – your heart’s aching, and it’s dying just to know that your baby is going to be okay.’
Says Ryan, ‘We have so many good staff members in our hospitals. They know so much. So don’t be afraid to ask questions or be part of the process. As a parent, you look at your tiny preemie baby, plugged into everything… Your heart sinks. Just know that your baby is getting the best possible care. These experts in our neonatal clinics are the best of the best. They live to do that job. They’re incredible. Trust the nurses. Trust the doctors. And know that your kid is in the safest hands possible.’
Ryan’s advice for dads of preemies:
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Neonatal staff are there to share their expertise with you.
- It can be scary to see your tiny baby plugged into machines, but know that your child is receiving
the best care.
- Trust the nurses and doctors. Your child is in the safest hands possible.
- Speak to other parents of preemies for support.
- Allow yourself to be emotional!
Ryan’s boundless energy and enthusiasm is the driving force behind KFM Breakfast with Ryan O’Connor, the longest-running morning radio show in the Cape. He came to national attention as the host of M-Net’s Power Couple SA, in which couples competed against each other in a Survivor-style battle of wits. He has completed the Cape Town Cycle Tour in sub-three hours and is also a keen runner, finishing the Two Oceans Half Marathon in 1:36.
Words Mark van Dijk
Photographs Diaan de Beer
See more articles from the Mediclinic Family magazine here.