Charlie Gard’s parents exclusively share their joy over spending their first Christmas with baby Oliver who is healing their heartbreak
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Sleepless nights, dirty nappies and endless laundry – new babies are hard work. But you won’t catch Connie Yates or Chris Gard moaning about their 19-week-old bundle of joy. Baby Oliver Christopher Charles Matthew Gard was born in August in perfect health weighing 8lb 6oz. And after the devastating loss of their firstborn Charlie three years ago, the couple are finally smiling again.
“It sounds odd but we feel privileged,” Chris exclusively told new magazine. “We don’t take anything for granted after losing Charlie. Oliver is on the verge of laughing. We treasure every precious milestone, because we didn’t get to do that with Charlie – he went into hospital when he was just eight weeks old.”
“I’m quite tired, don’t get me wrong,” grins Connie. “But it’s worth every second.” When the couple, from west London, decided to try for another child they knew there was a one in four risk of the baby having mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, the same as Charlie had.
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Only after a blood test, then at the first scan – which Connie attended alone due to the pandemic restrictions – were they assured that the baby was healthy. “Those 11 weeks felt like 11 months,” admits Connie. Happily, Oliver safely arrived via Cesarean on 5 August.
He hadn’t been due for another two weeks, but Connie’s contractions started while visiting Charlie’s grave, which they poignantly call his “forever bed”. “It’s strange,” says Connie. “At 9.44am my contractions began – exactly when Charlie had been born. So they have separate birthdays, just one day apart.”
Connie loved Oliver from the moment she was knew she was expecting him. However, Chris had some doubts.
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“I was worried I wouldn’t love another baby in the same way,” confesses the dad. “Charlie was my boy, my firstborn, the absolute centre of our universe. After we lost him, I just couldn’t imagine loving another baby like I did him, and I was really worried throughout the pregnancy that I wouldn’t be able to bond with him.”
Not that Chris needed to worry. “The second I saw Oliver my heart expanded,” he recalls. “Watching a child being born is just so beautiful – that’s what life is about. He lights up our lives, we’re so in love with him.”
Today, the couple radiate with joy, but who can forget those heart-wrenching images of 2017, pain and anguish etched on their faces as Chris clutched Charlie’s monkey and bravely addressed the world’s press?
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Once the White House and the Vatican had waded in to voice their support, Chris, a postman, and Connie, a carer, were thrust into the world’s spotlight.
“Looking back, it seems surreal that happened to us,” says Connie. “It’s hard enough having a sick child, let alone with everyone watching and having an opinion about it, and then being dragged to court and everything that came with it. “I don’t know how we survived to be honest. It was Charlie who kept us going. When your child is sick, you will do anything for them.”
“It feels like my life only started when I was 32, when Charlie came into our lives,” says Chris. “Life wasn’t about me any more. My whole goal was looking after my boy.” Through public donations, the couple raised £1.3 million to fund experimental treatment in the US. But ultimately, the courts ruled it would not be in Charlie’s best interest. In the “worst day of their lives”, their much-beloved baby died in July 2017, a week before turning one.
Determined not to let their son die in vain, the couple used the money to set up the charitable Charlie Gard Foundation, to help support other families who are affected by mitochondrial disease. And they have worked with doctors, MPs, medical ethicists and lawyers to put forward Charlie’s Law to give parents more say in their children’s treatment without having to go to court.
“We wanted to find a way that we could all move forward together, to prevent other parents having to go to court,” explains Connie, who hopes the bill will be passed next year.
“Just because we now have a healthy child, that doesn’t mean our work raising awareness and funds for mitochondrial disease stops,” says Chris. “Charlie is in our thoughts every single day, his picture is all over our home. With grief, there are good days and bad days – the emotions come in waves. We visit his ‘forever bed’ every day and take Oliver, too. It’s very peaceful and I tell him what’s going on in the world.
“We’ve left out solar-powered toys that wobble in the sunlight and I will take some tinsel and a stocking for him. Whenever I get Oliver a present, I get something for Charlie so he’s not left out.”
He adds, “Charlie, bless him, only got one Christmas and it was spent in hospital. That year we prayed in the chapel at Great Ormond Street and went to Midnight Mass. We did last year, too, when we were expecting but hadn’t told anyone. We prayed the baby would be healthy. We will go to Midnight Mass this year and think about Charlie.”
“For Christmas and birthdays we always leave a chair at the table for Charlie,” says Connie. “And we raise a toast to him.”
“Even though we lost Charlie, the way we look at it is that we were so happy to have 11 months with him,” says Chris. “Despite the stress and trauma, we smile when we think about him because he brought us so much joy and love.”
While the pain of losing a child can often break couples, Connie and Chris – who met through friends 10 years ago – found strength together. “Going through what we have has made us 100% closer,” insists Chris. “We were holding hands on the best day of our life when Charlie was born, and then Oliver, and we were holding hands on the worst day of our lives, the day we lost Charlie. If we can get through rock bottom together, we can get through anything.”
“People grieve in different ways,” adds Connie. “But we’ve always been there for each other. We’re saving up to get married.”
The couple would love to add to their brood one day “when Oliver is sleeping more”. “I’d love to give Connie a girl,” grins Chris. “She’s so close to her own mum, I’d love for her to have a daughter. There is a one in four chance of it [a baby having the syndrome] happening again. But we won’t rule it out. So it’s not a decision we would take lightly.”
The couple are looking forward to spending the festive period with Oliver and “making it as magical as we can”. “After our loss we never imagined smiling again,” says Chris. “Charlie will always be in our heart, but Ollie has lit up our lives.”
“We loved Charlie more than we ever thought possible,” smiles Connie. “But we have the same love for Oliver.”
Who was Charlie Gard?
Baby Charlie was born in 2016 with a rare genetic disorder that caused severe muscle weakness that affected his other organs.
Great Ormond Street doctors believed it was in Charlie’s best interests to consider ending life support treatment. But Charlie’s parents wanted to try experimental treatment in the US, so they raised funds for a transfer to New York – something the hospital didn’t agree with.
The legal battle between the couple and the hospital attracted global attention, with even US President Donald Trump wading into the debate.
British courts supported GOSH’s position and, on 27 July 2017, Charlie died, aged 11 months and 24 days.
If you would like to donate to the Charlie Gard Foundation, and find out more about the work they do, please visit thecharliegardfoundation.org
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