Pic © Howard Hurd
Like many of us, Shirley Metherell (67) clearly remembers the day her daughter was born. “Elizabeth was beautiful,” she says, “9-and-a-half pounds, with black spiky hair”. Though Shirley had cause for concern before the birth. “I caught rubella at 16 weeks,” she says. “So we knew there was a risk that Elizabeth would have hearing difficulties.”
Shirley was relieved there had been no other complications, and was so caught up in motherhood, that the next few months flashed by. But soon there were signs Elizabeth’s hearing was affected. “I’d push her bedroom door open and she wouldn’t turn,” says Shirley. “Nor would she respond to sudden noises, like a balloon popping, so I phoned my health visitor.”
Elizabeth was added to a long waiting list and it took months of appointment chasing by Shirley before she was examined by a doctor. But by then Elizabeth had made up for what she lacked in hearing with heightened senses in other areas – and passed the hearing test!
“I knew she couldn’t hear, though,” says Shirley. “It was just her other senses compensating for what was missing. Her sense of smell was amazing – she would make such a fuss whenever we went past the fishmonger’s.”
The diagnosis left Shirley confused and worried, but all that changed thanks to a TV programme. Shirley explains: “It was all about the development at Brunel University and Hillingdon Hospital of new screening technology, aimed at providing early diagnosis of deafness in babies so I got in touch with them. It was here, after many months, that Elizabeth was finally diagnosed as profoundly deaf.”
The news was a harsh blow but Shirley quickly adds: “You find an inner strength when you have a baby with special needs. From the beginning you know it will be a fight, but it’s also a learning curve.”
She and husband David (70) had done endless research of their own while pursuing a diagnosis. They discovered the John Tracy Clinic in America when Elizabeth was eight months old, and it soon became their lifeline.
Via a correspondence course, the clinic helped Shirley to develop Elizabeth’s communication skills. And when Elizabeth was two, they took her to America to meet the staff. “The clinic was so inspiring,” Shirley says. “In return for their free support all they ask is that you help other parents of deaf children. On the plane home we knew that was absolutely what we would do.”
Back in Portsmouth at that time there was still no local support for deaf toddlers, but a school nurse called Barbara Stallard put the Metherells in touch with other mums who needed help.
Shirley started an official group and made contact with a number of parents. Seven months later they became a registered charity: the Elizabeth Foundation. But Shirley was still working night duty as a staff nurse in the local psychiatric hospital, as well as bringing up her other children Andrea, Richard and Hayley.
“You go into another gear to get the balance right, so that life goes on as normal for the whole family,” says Shirley. And David’s support was invaluable. “He’s been amazing. We’ve been a team right the way through.”
In 1982, the Metherells decided they could no longer run the Foundation from home, so they painstakingly raised £100,000 to build on a plot of land next to the city’s Queen Alexandra Hospital. Construction began in 1985, and the completion stone was laid the following year. “The ups and downs of that period were amazing,” says Shirley. “It was just David and the other dads building, every evening and weekend, with very little professional help. We knew nothing, but had so much passion and people gave their time and money so generously.”
Things were so full on, Shirley gave up nursing shortly before the building work finished. “That was hard as I loved my job,” she says. “But I’d be sleeping off a night shift while parents let themselves into the house for classes with a spare key! I’d often wake up with a baby asleep next to me.”
Over the next 30 years the charity continued to grow. It now provides a family centre for parents and children, a National Home Learning Programme and an education programme for parents of very young babies and pre-school children – plus a Hearing Clinic. “We’re very proud of how diverse it has become – and the seamless relationship with brilliant audiologists from the hospital who work in the clinic,” says Shirley.
The Metherells’ hard work was rewarded in March 2014 when they received MBEs from the Queen, at Windsor Castle. “That was wonderful,” Shirley smiles. “I accepted my award on behalf of all the parents and children who let us into their lives.”
Today the Foundation’s family centre draws parents and children from at least eight counties, as well as London. “Just as I travelled to get what was best for Elizabeth, so will other parents if they know what they’re getting is the best,” says Shirley.
Elizabeth herself is now 35, and thrilled to be the charity’s namesake. “When she was little, Elizabeth used to think her name was ‘Elizabeth Foundation!’” Shirley laughs. “Of course, we explained the situation when she got older.” And now Elizabeth is happy to point other mums in her mother’s direction.
Though Shirley retired 18 months ago, she visits the Foundation regularly. David is a trustee and the charity continues to go from strength to strength. After decades of hard work, an honorary degree from Portsmouth University and an MBE, what does selfless Shirley have to say for herself? “I’m really not a wonder woman. I’m just an ordinary mum.” We’d say an extraordinary one.
- The Elizabeth Foundation will receive funding from BBC Children in Need until 2015. To contact the charity call 023 9237 2735 or visit www.elizabeth-foundation.org
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