Tiny survivors defy the odds

Maia Smith's daughter Honour Thompson is now 2.5kg and close to going home, but weighed just 620g...
Maia Smith's daughter Honour Thompson is now 2.5kg and close to going home, but weighed just 620g when she was born. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Honour Thompson who weighed just 620g when she was born. Photo supplied.
Honour Thompson who weighed just 620g when she was born. Photo supplied.
Rosa Flaherty, now 14, could fit in a nurse's hand soon after she was born at 24 weeks weighing...
Rosa Flaherty, now 14, could fit in a nurse's hand soon after she was born at 24 weeks weighing 696g. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Willa Stuart, pictured with mum Veronique Shields (left) and aunty Tralee Shields arrived in a...
Willa Stuart, pictured with mum Veronique Shields (left) and aunty Tralee Shields arrived in a big hurry at 34 weeks when her mum's waters broke with no warning.

Ahead of World Prematurity Day, Sean Flaherty visits Dunedin Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit where the region's smallest and most vulnerable babies are cared for. 

Honour's story

Hold your hand up in front of your face.

Fold down all the fingers except the little finger.

Now imagine that finger is a baby's leg.

That's how big Honour Thompson's lower limbs were when she was born almost four months early, weighing just 620g.

That's about one-fifth the size of an average 3.5kg New Zealand baby.

Her mother, Maia Smith, of Dunedin, had a week's warning of the likely premature arrival and thought she would be ready.

But nothing could prepare her for the shock of a daughter born at 24 weeks, right on the cusp of what is considered viable.

''I thought I would have been prepared because my oldest boy was born at 29 weeks and was in an incubator.

"But there's a big difference between 29 weeks and 24 weeks and I wasn't prepared at all to see her so, so, so tiny that she could fit snug in my hand.''

A baby this small has to be whisked straight into an intensive care situation.

Instead of cuddles there are IV lines, electrical monitor cables, needles and machines.

''There are all these cords and all the machines beeping. And it was the middle of the night and everything's a whole lot scarier in the middle of the night,'' Maia said.

For the new parents this is only the beginning of day after day of ''unbelievable'' stress.

NICUs are getting much better at keeping extremely premature babies alive but the babies' immune systems are very poorly developed so infections are common.

Every hour is like walking a tightrope where the slightest setback can tip the infant into a critical state.

''Honour's had quite a few infections. It makes you think: `Have I done something wrong? Have I not washed my hands enough? Is it me doing something to her?','' Maia said.

''Watching her be resuscitated you're just so helpless. You can't walk out the room and leave them.

"And all you're doing is just standing there staring and watching. Your heart stops too just watching the doctors and nurses work.''

She describes an experience common to NICU parents of their focus narrowing to the point where the outside world melts away.

''You're in here and you're in the NICU bubble and then you walk outside and you're like: `Why hasn't the world stopped?'.''

All going well, Honour, who now weighs 2.5kg, is through the worst of it and will be going home next week, 16 weeks after she was born.

She has ''a wee bit of trouble with her eyes'' but is being weaned off oxygen.

Most important of all, she is out of the incubator and Maia can pick her up and hold her.

''Hopefully when she comes home on the oxygen it won't stay for too long. We'll just be so happy to have her home.''

Terrifying and wondrous

Rosa Flaherty, now 14, could fit in a nurse's hand soon after she was born at 24 weeks weighing...
Rosa Flaherty, now 14, could fit in a nurse's hand soon after she was born at 24 weeks weighing 696g. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.

Imagine this: you are sitting in Hammersmith Hospital in London, and you have just been told your child only has a 31% chance of survival.

That was my parents.

I was born at 24 weeks, and that has followed me around all my life.

I have lots of small scars on my hands from the needles, reminders of the three months in hospital, and I have scar tissue on my arm from when a needle slipped out of a vein and into my muscle.

I'm 14 now and weigh 44kg and play football and do jiujitsu.

Premature babies aren't supposed to be good at maths but I find algebra fun.

When I was born I weighed 696g.

That sounds like a rather meaningless number until you realise that it's about equal to 1 block of butter.

My head was supposedly the size of a lemon, which I was happy telling everyone in a proud way, thinking it was a massive achievement, until I was 6 and I held a lemon in my hand.

My dad kept a diary of while I was in hospital and I have only started reading it recently.

There are so many wondrous, yet terrifying things in there.

Like reading that I pulled out the tube that helped me breathe and how I dropped down to 580g on my second day.

It was amazing in Dunedin Hospital's NICU.

From my parents' descriptions of Hammersmith, I had expected wall to wall cots with hardly any privacy.

That's what Dunedin Hospital used to be like.

Now, there are little partitions and each cot has a small area around it with a chair and enough wall space for the mother to make it like home.

There is also a lot of privacy.

It's set up with the babies needing the most intense care down one end, and then the varying degrees moving along until you get to the babies just about ready to go home.

Another big thing was the nurses.

Mum and Dad had always told me how brilliant the nurses at Hammersmith were, and the nurses at Dunedin were just as lovely.

I was taken on a tour by the Head Nurse, Jan Seuseu, and I was taken aback by how friendly everyone was.

At one moment two nurses were taking care of an obviously very sick baby in the intensive unit, but both took a moment to smile at me and say hello.

I would like to someday work with premature babies, to try to grasp a slight understanding of what my Mum and Dad went through.

But then I think of how tiny those babies were and how brave those nurses must be and how the parents must feel like time has stopped outside of where their child is, and I might leave that to the experts.

• Rosa Flaherty is the daughter of Otago Daily Times Head of News Sean Flaherty.

Wila's story

Willa Stuart, pictured with mum Veronique Shields (left) and aunty Tralee Shields arrived in a...
Willa Stuart, pictured with mum Veronique Shields (left) and aunty Tralee Shields arrived in a big hurry at 34 weeks when her mum's waters broke with no warning.

Willa Stuart, pictured with mum Veronique Shields (left) and aunty Tralee Shields arrived in a big hurry at 34 weeks when her mum's waters broke with no warning.

''I got a wee cuddle and then she got whipped away into an incubator,'' Veronique remembers. Born weighing 2.1kg, Willa needed some help breathing at first but is now breathing on her own and will go home once she is feeding.

''The staff have been amazing encouraging us to get our hands in there and touch her and get her out when we can."

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