Sarah Parish and James Murray’s campaign for a children’s A&E unit in Southampton

Jim Murray and Sarah Parish are raising funds for a new paediatric A&E unit in Southampton

Jim Murray and Sarah Parish are raising funds for a new paediatric A&E unit in Southampton - Credit: Archant

They’re famous, successful and happily married to each other. What more could actors Sarah Parish and James Murray want? Try a £4m children’s A&E unit in Southampton. Faith Eckersall hears about the motivation behind their mission

One day, in the not too distant future, sick and injured children won’t have to be treated in the Accident and Emergency department at Southampton General Hospital. They’ll have their own bright, purpose-built ward, staffed with doctors and nurses specially trained to deal with paediatric emergencies and healthcare.

The reason they’ll have this and – eventually – the south coast’s first and only children’s hospital is because of a baby girl called Ella-Jayne. And her parents, actors Sarah Parish and Jim Murray, who live near Alresford.

Sarah has just finished appearing in the final series of Broadchurch and Jim is known for parts in ITV’s Primeval, Channel 4’s Cucumber, Syfy’s Defiance and, most recently, the ITV drama Him.

Ella-Jayne was their longed-for first child and she died just eight months after being born in 2009, of complications related to Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome, a condition which affects around one in 125,000-300,000 babies and which can cause congenital heart defects.

Pictures of Ella-Jayne sit alongside those of their seven-year-old daughter, Nell, in their village home, close to the River Itchen, but her little life will touch the lives of babies who aren’t even born yet, thanks to The Murray Parish Trust, set up in her memory to fundraise for a Paediatric Accident and Emergency ward at Southampton General.

“I went for a scan at 33 weeks and that’s when we found out,” says Sarah, describing the moment the doctors realised their baby had something seriously wrong with her heart. So wrong, in fact, she was delivered five weeks prematurely by emergency Caesarean and within an hour of her birth at Winchester’s Royal Hants, was whisked away to Southampton General, where the staff fought a Herculean battle to diagnose and save her.

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“On the second day of her life she was on the operating table,” says Jim, explaining that for eight months ‘on and off’, the couple lived at Southampton General.

During this time, he says, they observed a lot about hospital life, including the fact that the hospital’s Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) was on a different floor to the A&E, which meant the young patients frequently had to be re-registered, as well as be shuttled between wards.

Jim also noticed how ‘scary’ a hospital could be for children. “Hospitals can feel impersonal even to parents, but from a child’s point of view they can be really scary if you are there because you have to be, and you want things to be as painless as possible,” he says.

In the dreadful months after their daughter’s death, following their first Christmas as a family, the couple went abroad to work anonymously at a Cambodian children’s orphanage. They returned determined to create a fitting tribute to Ella-Jayne.

“To do something good out of something awful is always the right choice, I think,” says Sarah. “When something like this happens you don’t have a choice, you just have to carry on.” She admits she wanted ‘the world to stop’. “But it doesn’t and you have to find a way to make it work and make that journey work for you, and the charity is our way of making it work; making the tragedy work.”

They started with a string of fund-raising events and quickly learned a lot about how the NHS operated. “We didn’t realise but sometimes it’s really difficult to just give them money, because the bureaucracy is very heavy,” says Jim. Eventually The Murray Parish Trust managed to fund a full-time counsellor for parents whose children had been admitted to PICU, plus a specialist helicopter gurney to transport critically ill infants on-board the air ambulance, and the provision of two new bed spaces.

But it soon dawned that there was a far greater need requiring massive fund-raising – a dedicated children’s accident and emergency unit which will eventually treat 30,000 children a year. “Until we spoke to the doctors we didn’t realise how traumatised children can be when they are in an adult A&E,” says Jim. “They see adults in terrible pain, or very drunk, maybe high on drugs, and it can be really frightening for them.”

There was also a need for a quiet space where children admitted with mental health issues could be assessed. The cost, they were told, would be well in excess of £4 million. Then, says Sarah, they were at an event in Winchester two years ago and were introduced to the world of matched-funding, whereby the government pays 50 per cent of certain public projects with other bodies raising the rest.

“We thought it was a brilliant idea and because our local MP, Steve Brine, was at the event too, we decided to speak to him about it for the hospital,” says Sarah. “He said he’d have a go but didn’t think it was likely,” says Jim. “But he rallied the other MPs from the south and we started lobbying Chancellor George Osborne.”

Their #SayYesGeorge campaign gathered pace but it was only on the day of the 2016 Budget that they heard they’d be receiving £2 million – from the fines levied on banks – with The Murray Parish Trust having to find the next £2 million. “It was the most fantastic moment for about 30 seconds,” remembers Sarah. “Then you go, ‘oh no we’ve got to raise £2 million’. It’s a huge responsibility.”

They launched the #2MillionSteps campaign, encouraging people to walk, run, dance or do anything to raise money to bring them nearer their goal. That campaign continues but, says Sarah: “We knew we had to go after big donations.”

Realising the charity was taking over their lives: “In between scenes on set, instead of thinking about sitting down and prepping the next scene, I’d be at the computer answering charity emails,” says Sarah, they hired professional fund-raising and administrative staff, and concentrated on fronting the trust’s money-making drives.

Last year they received money from the Rookwood Festival, £68,000 from the Odd Ball, and many thousands more from marathon runners, Rotary Clubs and ordinary people who wanted to help. And not just from Hampshire, either.

“If your child is in a serious road crash in Oxford, Berkshire, Dorset or Wiltshire, not to mention the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands, this is probably the unit to which they’ll be sent,” says Jim.

Which is why their next event focuses on primary schools in all these areas. “During the week of June 5-11 we are asking schools to nominate a day when all the kids can come to school, bring their teddies or favourite toy, and join the Ginormous Teddy Bears Picnic at lunchtime,” says Sarah.

They are also selling tickets for the popular Blissfields 2017 festival, taking place north of Winchester during July, with 10 per cent of sales made through them going to The Murray Parish Trust. And they continue to receive money from businesses that have taken up the challenge from the Barker-Mill Foundation, a philanthropic family trust, set up in memory of the distinguished artist, Peter Barker-Mill, which is running its own match-funding scheme for The Murray Parish Trust. It asked 40 Hampshire companies to pledge to raise or donate £1,000. “If companies pledge to raise £1,000 they will match it,” says Sarah.

She and Jim have also raised money personally, completing the 2013 Three Peaks Challenge which brought in £40,000. Seeing them so happy in their home, close to Jim’s beloved rivers (he’s obsessed with fishing) and their younger daughter, Nell, you wonder if they ever feel like stepping away to enjoy a normal family life.

“This is our life!” laughs Sarah. “It does take up a lot of time but I personally wouldn’t change it for the world,” says Jim. “Acting is fine but you’re not saving lives, you’re entertaining people and for me this is totally grounding – you’re building a children’s accident and emergency department.”

And when they’ve finished with that there’ll be no let up because they want to raise money to fund research into paediatric emergency medicine.

For Sarah and Jim the work – and their love for Ella-Jayne – goes on and on.

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