By Alix Norman
I don’t usually begin with statistics, but the figures are – as Stephen Fry would say – really quite interesting. According to a recent study, premature births are on the increase. On average, the preterm birth rate has risen from 7.5 per cent in to 8.6 per cent over the last 20 years, with the biggest increase in Europe. And topping that list is Cyprus – at 2.8 per cent, one of the highest rates on the continent; nearly twice that of the UK. Admittedly, this study hails from 2010, and perhaps the situation has improved since then. But the fact remains that here, in Cyprus, studies show we certainly have more than our fair share of premature births.
Enter Jo Sowler. No, she’s not a doctor. Or a nurse. Nor is she at the forefront of clinical research. In fact, before she retired, Jo was in a profession about as far removed from the medical arena as one can imagine: debt collection. But that’s by the by, because if there’s one thing that’s immediately evident, it’s that Jo is an extremely determined lady. Who’s set out to make the horribly difficult experience of premature birth that bit easier in the best way she knows how. By knitting.
“Charity,” says Jo, “begins at home. And it’s very important to me that I’m helping out the people around me. Sometimes, when we get caught up in supporting people and countries abroad, we tend to forget that there’s really quite a lot we could be doing to help right here, on this island.” It’s a simple statement, but one that rings very true, and seems characteristic of a woman who is clearly possessed of both the great experience and boundless common sense that have led her to the creation of PreemiesCY.
A group that utilises the talents of knitters and crocheters all over the island, PreemiesCY aims to provide the items a premature baby needs; items which, very often, aren’t available in the miniscule sizes required, or could be a challenge to find at such short notice.
“When you have a premature baby, it’s entirely unexpected,” Jo explains. “You’re not prepared at all: you don’t have any of the clothing or blankets so desperately needed; hospitals don’t tend to provide much these days. And if you’re an expat, or military, then very often you don’t even have family around who can run to the shops and get what you need.” She’s speaking from experience: not only has Jo been a patient at the Makarios III Hospital herself (“I was rushed in for an eye operation, and was right next to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit – they tend to have up to 60 babies there at any one time”) her own grandson was born at a mere seven months.
“William was born in the UK at 28 weeks, weighing 2 pounds 8 ounces. He was very poorly, and in an incubator for a long time. However, he’s now a fantastic five-year-old, absolutely bursting with energy!” His healthy recovery is something Jo strongly attributes to the loving care he received in the hospital, a driving force in her desire to rally an army of local knitters…
“I wanted to do something to help here in Cyprus,” she explains. “And though I hadn’t knitted for years, I knew I wanted to help. I’d been part of the Cyprus Square Knitting group for a while, making eight-inch squares that are sewn into blankets and sent to Syria and South Africa, and had done a few bits and pieces for the preemies unit at the North Tees Hospital where William was born. So I approached the Friends of the Makarios III Hospital and asked if I could help in any way.”
The answer, of course, was yes. So, true to form, Jo immediately set about marshalling her forces. “My husband is a programmer, so he helped me set up the PreemiesCY Facebook page. We went live on New Year’s Eve, and I remember remarking how wonderful it would be to get 100 likes by midnight. But I knew it was extremely unlikely – this was a completely new venture and I had no idea how people would respond.”
In droves, was the answer she received when she awoke on January 1, 2015 over 150 people had already liked the page and messaged through, and more were visiting every minute. “I was shocked! It was such an amazing response. ‘Where do we go from here?’” I thought. With both knitting groups and crafty individuals all over the island willing and ready to set their needles clacking, Jo has spent the last few weeks sending out directions and wool (“We’re always looking for donations of wool; it’s not cheap, you know!”) and keeping up to date with progress. And now, she’s beginning to receive all manner of exciting parcels…
Boxes of hats and cardigans, stacks of booties and blankets are pouring in, and Jo has been gratefully posting the results on the Facebook page before sending them off to the NICU unit via the Friends Association. The Loose Women Knitting Circle in Paphos has sent through a vast selection; the Crafty Ladies in Limassol have similarly sprung to work, and Marina’s Sewing Room in Nicosia has both started a knitting class and sponsored the PreemiesCY page for February and March. And there are all sorts of individuals who have pitched in: knitters and crocheters all over the island clacking away for a good cause.
“I’m certainly not an experienced knitter by any means,” Jo concludes with a smile. “I just wanted to help. Basically, anyone can pick up their needles and get to it.” True. But it takes a special talent to recognise such a need and then actually get something done. Hats – and booties – off to the woman who’s using her love of knitting to make a very difficult experience that bit easier. And this is only the start…
Knitting and crocheting group dedicated to providing the items needed for the premature babies at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Makarios III Hospital in Nicosia. To find out more, visit the Facebook page PreemiesCY, or email [email protected]