Bringing cheer to all

Maddie Francis and her son Ashton. Pictures: Gary Sissons

By Melissa Meehan

Unless you’ve had a child spend time in a neonatal intensive care unit, you’ll never know the loneliness and worry that comes with it.

Maddie Francis knows that loneliness all too well.

Her son Ashton was born 10 weeks early in 2016.

And while she and husband Aaron were relieved their baby boy was being cared for, they felt very alone.

“It was really scary and we just didn’t get much support while we were in there,” Maddie said.

“We felt very alone, and I sort of wasn’t even made aware that there were Facebook groups and all sorts of things out there until long after we left the hospital.”

She said although family and friends were amazing – preparing meals, doing everything they could – it was so hard to describe the feeling of how traumatic it was to have a baby so early, so little and so sick.

“The first time I saw him was hours after he was born, and he had eight wires coming out of him, it’s a little like a NASA space mission,” she said.

“It was very overwhelming, and it’s so hard to understand unless you’ve had a similar experience.”

And it didn’t stop when they went home.

“When the baby comes home, and you’re waiting for them to roll over or sit up or meet anything – the milestones are very different,” she said.

So, in what can only be described as inspiring, faced with her son’s own ongoing health battles, Maddie started thinking about how horrible it would be for families spending time in NICU over Christmas.

“So the idea to start up NICU Cheer started in 2016, and we did our first delivery in 2017,” she said.

“I just thought I would put together a nice little hamper for the parent’s room or one for the staff room – but when I put the call out on Facebook, I got inundated with donations.

“I just really love humanity, sometimes.”

She started with hampers at Mercy Hospital for Women and then it just snowballed.

She now delivers numerous hampers to the NICU wards at the Mercy, Royal Women’s Hospital, Monash Children’s Hospital, Royal Children’s Hospital and Joan Kirner Women’s & Children’s Hospital at Christmas time, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

And while she’s yet to get official charity status, the long-term plan is to get deductible gift recipient status which would help more businesses get on board.

“I’m not stopping any time soon, I just love it and we get such beautiful feedback from families and I’ve actually become friends with some of the mothers who received our bags,” she said,

Ashton still has some health battles ahead of him and spends a lot of time in hospital.

But Maddie says that’s what keeps the idea of how horrible spending time in hospital with a bay really is fresh in her mind.

Ashton, who is now 4, was 10 weeks early, but was allowed to go home after six and a half weeks in NICU.

Within three days, she was used to all the terminology and acronyms that comes with NICU babies.

“The staff are just amazing, I think nurses are wonderful, but NICU nurses are next level,” she said.

“We love them all.”

Ashton is attending a specialist daycare where he’s thriving.

He still has ongoing hospital and specialist visits with multiple departments across two hospitals as we strive to get a diagnosis for his extreme fatigue, and check-ups on his laryngomalacia, subglottic stenosis, brain bleeds, innocent heart murmur and more.

But he’s the happiest little boy and enjoys making his mum, dad and sister Lily laugh.

For more about NICU Cheer or how to help go to