Reporter: Tara Brown
Producers: Stephen Taylor, Hannah Boocock
It's a tragedy that can strike any one of us - a friend, a neighbour, even an Olympic champion.
A little over a year ago, swimmer Brooke Hanson gave birth to her second son - Jack Hanson Clarke.
It should have been an event to rival anything Brooke had achieved in the pool. But her little boy arrived in the world far too early.
Unimaginably tiny, weighing just 663 grams and about as long as a school ruler, Jack bravely clung onto life for nine desperate months.
On 60 Minutes, for the first time Brooke and her husband, Jared, talk about their very private loss and share what their dearly loved son taught them about courage and life.
For more information on 'Life’s Little Treasures Foundation' go to www.lifeslittletreasures.org.au or 1300 697 736 (24 hours). They offer support, counselling for parents and donations.
Donations can also be made to the Monash Children's Hospital at www.monashchildrens.org.au or call 03 9594 2700.
TARA BROWN: If you didn't know otherwise, Brooke Hanson, her husband Jared Clarke and their almost three-year-old son Cooper would be the picture-perfect young family. Except this should be a family of four - the cherished missing piece is their baby Jack, who died in April, just nine months old.
BROOKE: I'm just pining for that last hug, that last, you know, that last moment with him.
TARA BROWN: These are difficult days for this brave couple, and yet they want to talk, to shed light on the rarely discussed world of premature babies.
BROOKE: It's just so unfair. It's just, you know, it's not meant to be like this.
TARA BROWN: Jack Hanson Clarke was born on the 8th of July last year, at just 28 weeks. Three months premature, he was tiny - weighing just 663 grams and only 32 cm long.
BROOKE: They held him up and it was just, you know, the tiniest thing I'd ever seen, the tiniest little baby.
TARA BROWN: At that point did you think he'd make it, when you saw him for the first time?
BROOKE: Hmm no, I didn't think he would.
JARED: But he came out breathing, so he had a chance, and we grabbed it.
TARA BROWN: They don't get much tougher than Brooke Hanson.
BROOKE: I've got an Olympic gold and an Olympic silver medal.
TARA BROWN: Disciplined and determined, it took 25 years for Brooke to realise her Olympic dream - winning gold and silver in Athens in 2004. Her enormous preparation had paid off. But nothing could prepare her for the great joy or immeasurable heartache of motherhood. Three years ago, Brooke's pregnancy with Cooper was the perfect kind - unremarkable. And so, when at the beginning of last year she and Jared - also a former swimmer - became pregnant with their second child, they were simply elated.
BROOKE: This is the beginning of us making an even bigger family.
JARED: That's right.
BROOKE: You were excited. Tell me you were.
JARED: Oh yeah. No, you're always excited when you see a new life on the horizon. So we were ready to go.
TARA BROWN: How soon did you learn that there could be problems?
BROOKE: Yeah I just had this - just this feeling, and I just couldn't explain it, that I just knew something was wrong with my baby, even though I felt really good. So the 18 week scan, we had all the limbs measured and it wasn't good.
TARA BROWN: For some reason, Brooke's placenta wasn't supplying Jack with the nutrients he needed to develop. He just wasn't growing.
BROOKE: They told us that this could be your worst nightmare.
TARA BROWN: And what did that mean?
JARED: It basically just meant they couldn't give us a definitive answer. They couldn't tell us, there was no way that they could tell us what was happening.
BROOKE: And they were telling us because his limbs were quite short, that it looked like we were having a dwarf, and we were ready for that.
EUAN: When the placenta's not working, it causes severe growth problems in the baby, as was the case with Jack.
TARA BROWN: All doctors could do was prepare for the certainty that Jack would be born early, and to survive he would need the expertise of the neonatal intensive care unit at Melbourne's Monash Children's Hospital. Do you see this as a happy place or a sad place?
BROOKE: Both. A bit of both. It has great heights and terrible lows.
TARA BROWN: NICU, as it's known, is run by Professor Euan Wallace.
EUAN: Our ultrasound examinations of him were telling us that he was becoming seriously unwell, and that if there was to be any chance of survival, he needed out and delivered.
TARA BROWN: Not only was Jack in danger, but to continue the pregnancy also put Brooke's life at risk. And so, at 28 weeks and five days, she was rushed into theatre for an emergency caesarean.
BROOKE: I remember ringing Mum on the Gold Coast and saying thanks for being the best mum, thanks. Thanks for, you know, being such an amazing parent. I don't know if I'm going to survive this c-section, I don't know if my baby will. And yeah, that was really tough, to have that conversation and then just be raced into the operating theatre.
TARA BROWN: Instead of the joy and relief that comes with the birth of a baby, Brooke and Jared were overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, because their Jack was so little and so vulnerable. But most of all they were consumed by love for this little man.
BROOKE: We told him everyday you keep fighting, and we promise we'll take you to Disneyland with Cooper one day. And, you know, we did, everyday we did what we could to give him the best chance of life.
TARA BROWN: In those first days and weeks there was progress and setbacks. Jack wasn't a dwarf, just so small because he'd been starved of nutrients, but because of his prematurity he did have heart problems and, most seriously, chronic lung disease.
BROOKE: His main problem were his lungs. I just remember going, you know Mummy and Daddy have got great lungs, and we're swimmers! And you've got strong lungs as well and we'll help, you know, the machines are helping you with your lungs, and we can get you know we can get you through this and
TARA BROWN: But he tried.
BROOKE: He tried.
TARA BROWN: And he grew?
BROOKE: He did, he grew a lot.
JARED: He grew a lot.
BROOKE: Which was great.
TARA BROWN: So have you added up how many days you've made this journey?
TARA: For nine months the NICU became home for Jared and Brooke, and it was the only home Jack knew. This is their first time back since April.
BROOKE: Every day you were hoping that he'd make it through the day, and fearful of what would happen the next day, so it's a journey every parent goes through here.
TARA BROWN: In the very early days of that journey is another premmie baby, newborn, Amos Locke. He made the 30-week mark, but only just. He's doing well, but his prematurity means uncertainty, and for Steve and Clare, a whole new way of parenting. What's it like to hold a baby who is so tiny?
CLARE: It feels normal after a while. Initially it's just - he's so ridiculously small he should be inside me, what am I doing holding this baby? But, yeah, it, he sort of feels like he belongs to us, and it's quite comforting because it's as much as we can do. It's as much contact as we can have, so it's quite special really.
TARA BROWN: Knowing him, holding him, can you imagine not taking him home?
STEVE: You try not to think about that I guess.
CLARE: But you hope for the best, and continue to do so. But you love them as much as you can for as long as you've got them for, and you hope that's a very long time.
TARA BROWN: Twelve days was all the time Tatum and Paul Mitchell got with their son Zac, born prematurely four years ago.
PAUL: Little wriggler. Beautiful.
TATUM: Happy 4th birthday.
TARA BROWN: And then they went through the agony of another inexplicable premature birth, when their second son Tobey was also delivered at 28 weeks. But the outcome, thankfully, has been so different.
TATUM: We are honestly - every day we look at him and we are astounded. You know he can see, he can hear, his motor development - he can put all his shapes in his Tupperware ball.
PAUL: He's already smarter than me.
TATUM: He can count to five.
PAUL: Yeah, I can only count to four.
TATUM: Teaching his dad a thing or two.
TARA BROWN: Mostly they count their blessings. You're two aren't you? Are you two? You are two. While this little livewire still needs oxygen to help with his under-developed lungs, at least he's now at home. He spent the first year and a half of his life in the NICU. So how many times did you nearly lose him?
TATUM: Probably too many to count, but there were a couple of times when I specifically remembered the doctors called us up - you know, "OK, you're going to have to come in for cuddles".
TARA BROWN: So "coming in for cuddles" means what?
TATUM: It means bad things. Yeah, "coming in for cuddles" is you'd better cuddle your baby, because this might be the only time you get.
PAUL: Say goodbye, sort of thing.
TARA BROWN: I just don't know how you did it. How do you prepare yourselves to say goodbye to your baby over and over again?
TATUM: Just went to hospital every day, and stayed there like for 11 hours, and read and sang and chatted non-stop. Like I was non-stop, and it didn't matter if he was doped up on medication that made him unconscious or, you know. And I think, you know what? It's paid off. It worked. He's home. It's paid off.
BROOKE: Good morning, Good morning and how are you today? Good morning, good morning to everyone we say. And I'd say good morning Baby Jack, Mummy is here, time to start the day. We hope you have a happy day, with lot's of sunshine on the way. Good morning, good morning, good morning baby Jack.
TARA BROWN: For 271 days Brooke sang this song to Jack. During that time they'd had scares, but on the 3rd of April the call from doctors was more urgent than the others. Jack had caught a cold, which because of his prematurity had caused a heart attack.
BROOKE: And we rushed straight in there and I just - I'd never run so fast in my life. And they said "Brooke, this is it. He's still alive but he's about to go." And that was our moment. That was the, you know, the toughest moment of my life, to know that we'd fought so hard, that he'd fought so hard, and it was time for us to say goodbye. And I held him so tight and had a cuddle. There was no tears. I just put my shoulders back and looked at my precious little boy, and was just so proud of him and his amazing journey, his strength, his fight. And as I sang him my favourite song I could feel his heart rate getting slower and slower. Jared had his hand on Jack's head, and both of us just said this is it. We love you, Mummy and Daddy love you. We will never forget you, you've taught us so much, you brave little boy.
TARA BROWN: Their grief is still so raw and yet Brooke and Jared can find the strength to thank the people at the NICU who tried everything to save Jack. We all think of your role as looking after the babies here but I guess a big part of your job is looking after the mums and dads too?
DOCTOR: it's their life, it's their little baby, and it's so important to them, and you know it's also important that we communicate really well with the parents – so that we're all working together as a team for the baby. Yeah.
TARA BROWN: Were these two good patients?
DOCTOR: Awesome. Very special.
TARA BROWN: I know you keep saying how positive you both are, and that's very obvious, but you have gone through something that has not just been incredibly traumatic but incredibly cruel right from the get go. Don't you ever sit back and get really shitty about this? Don't you get angry and go why the hell has this happened to us?
BROOKE: Not really. There's been times where we've - probably that we've got mad and, you know, got angry and gone why us? And you know we're such - we go, we're such nice people. And you know, we're not - yeah, we're not mean, and like we're friendly and we're good parents, we promise we're really good parents. Like why us, why us?
JARED: When you're in the thick of it you're not looking for reasons why, you're just dealing with it day by day.
TARA BROWN: At just 34, there's still a lot of life to live for Brooke and her fire-fighter husband, Jared. How they do that happily is still to be worked out, but there's no doubt they will.
BROOKE: We feel that our heart will carry that scar forever and we - I want it to. You know, that you're not meant to get over it overnight, you know - the loss of a child - and I never want to get over it, but I feel like it's given us the - I guess the wake-up call to life and what really matters, and to us that's family.