Starting school is a huge milestone for any child - it’s a chance to make friends, learn new things, and wear a shiny school uniform.
It’s a proud moment that fills family albums, and creates memories that parents will treasure forever.
Among the new starters this week was five-year-old Seth Willoughby-Kitching from Masham, and it’s fair to say that he’s had to overcome more than most to reach this stage of his life - in fact, he’s completely defied all odds.
Seth was born prematurely at 24 weeks, weighing just 1Ib 6oz. He had major heart surgery at two weeks old, and was on a ventilator for three months. Doctors said Seth had an 18 per cent chance of survival, and he spent 147 days of his life in hospital before finally coming home.
Mum Sarah and dad Steven said they still pinch themselves every day, amazed by just how far their little fighter has come. They couldn’t have felt more proud and emotional as Seth walked through the gates of Masham CE Primary School on Tuesday.
But through all of Seth’s surgeries and hospital visits, school originally felt like an impossible dream, as Sarah and Steven wondered how long their son would live. As Seth enters his first year of school, the couple are keen to share their story and give hope to other parents.
Sarah, who supports families through premature baby charity, Bliss, said: “Seth starting school seemed so out of reach for us, when you think of everything he’s been through.
“I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I never thought in a million years that we would get this far. Although there isn’t a happy ending for everyone, there can be hope and light at the end of the tunnel.
“We are so proud of Seth. He is so determined and has battled his way through every single thing that life has thrown at him. He is so strong and never gives up. He smiles and nothing dampens him, he just gets on with it and is a true fighter. He just loves life and embraces everything.”
Being born prematurely left Seth with a weakened immune system, and risk of infection has made it difficult for him to have playdates and make friends as easily as other children.
Sarah said: “He has been counting down the days to go to school. He’s just so ready to make new friends and enjoy it all, he can’t wait. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he’s tried his uniform on about 30 times.”
“It’s felt like we’ve had to keep him in cotton wool because of his immune system. Coming into contact with other children, he would always catch something. But now he’s that bit stronger, he can see other children, make friends, and play like a normal child.”
Sarah still has flashbacks every year to when she nearly lost Seth at five weeks old, on her birthday.
She said: “Every birthday, I still panic. It was the worst birthday of my life. What seemed like an hour was probably six minutes. He was turning blue and they couldn’t revive him.”
Sarah said it’s only over the last year that she’s really felt able to open up more about her experiences.
She said: “Talking about it more has definitely helped. You get so much support from nurses and doctors when you’re in hospital, but it’s afterwards when you go home and you’re on your own that is the most difficult part.
“The first few weeks I didn’t want to leave Seth. But I couldn’t hold him for 13 days, and as a mother, having to see your child through glass and not be able to bond with them is so difficult.
“Sometimes I found it hard to go to the hospital because I was worried about becoming too attached to a baby that wasn’t going to live. But Seth has proved everyone, and all of the statistics, wrong.”
Welcoming Seth on his first day of school, headteacher Fiona Lawson-Ross, said: “We are delighted to welcome Seth to our family at Masham school, and look forward to seeing him continue to thrive and enjoy school life with his friends.”
Seth’s teacher, Rebecca Clarkson, said: “Seth’s already made a great start, getting thoroughly involved in all the activities in the classroom, catching up with old friends, and making lots of new ones too."