On Tuesday, medical centres across Canada and overseas were bathed in purple light to mark World Prematurity Day, a day to bring attention to the problem of premature birth.

Every year, as many as 15 million babies are born prematurely around the world. In Canada, almost eight per cent of babies arrive pre-term.

Shannon Cross, with the Neonatal Follow-Up Clinic at Victoria General Hospital, says that even from day one, families with premature babies experience very different lives.

"In those first few months that you'd normally be spending at home, parents … have to follow handwashing procedures, there's many different noises from the machines, and they're often restricted to their assigned bed space to interact with the baby," she said.

"Depending on the baby's age and size, they may be confined to an isolette, which creates a physical barrier for parents to interact with their infants."

"It's just all around a different environment than what a normal baby going home with their parents would experience."

Cross says many factors are believed to increase the likelihood of premature birth, including infections, placental problems, multiple births and fertility treatments, but overall the cause is "still a bit of a puzzle."

Cathy Browne

Cathy Browne estimates she only has 10 per cent of the vision in one working eye after being born premature. Yet she's gone on to work as a photographer. (Liam Britten/CBC)

As premature babies grow older, Cross says their risks of breathing problems, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities and vision and hearing problems are increased.

She says modern research has shown that skin-to-skin contact between mother and child is one of the best ways to stave off the worst effects of premature birth, including stabilizing temperature, breathing and heart rate, allowing them to gain weight better and getting deeper sleep.

"Which is when we know babies grow well," she said.

The story of a 'scrappy' premature baby

Cathy Browne says the story of her life proves people born premature are survivors who beat the odds in their first few months — and go on beating odds the rest of their lives.

Browne is nearly blind because she was born premature. But she's learned photography because she says those born premature are "scrappy."

Cathy Browne Seawall

One of Cathy Browne's photos, taken from the Vancouver seawall. (Cathy Browne)

"I actually got interested in photography about 10 years ago when I got to visit Asia and decided I wanted to tell a story instead of taking the same old shots," she told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn.

"After my husband died five years ago, it was an outlet to keep me sane and to really explore what I could do...It's been a godsend and a real revelation in terms of what I can do."

Browne says she can't always see what she's shot until it gets on a computer, but she likes to scout out what she's shooting and take lots of shots. "Thanks god for digital!" she said.

"I still surprise myself quite a bit in terms of finding something on the screen and sometimes literally will cry because I cannot believe what I actually did capture. It really does thrill me to death," she said.

She says she doesn't like the term "inspiration" when talking about her work, but she does know people have used her work to show other people with disabilities that they can achieve their goals.


To hear the interview with Shannon Cross, click the audio labelled: World Prematurity Day: meet Shannon Cross, a neonatal nurse

To hear the interview with Cathy Browne, click the audio labelled: World Prematurity Day: meet Cathy Browne, born almost blind, now a photographer