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A chance at life

Five-year-old Abby Robertson's mum Rebecca shares their journey

This year Abby Robertson started at Hauroko Valley Primary School. The five-year-old loves unicorns, princess, ballet, riding her pony and playing with barbie dolls. Meeting this happy, confident farmgirl now, you’d never know what she endured as a newborn. Abby’s mother Rebecca shares their journey for the first time.

My husband Ben and I live on a family farm in Lillburn Valley, Western Southland, which is about 100km from Invercargill. Our son Jack was two when I was pregnant with Abby in 2017. At 25 weeks, I experienced complications and it was suspected I had placental abruption – a serious condition in which the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus before birth. We were in shock. My pregnancy with Jack had been very straightforward and Abby’s due date wasn’t until 25th July – still three months away. On 16th April we were transferred to Dunedin for specialist care.

I was expecting to be there for a few weeks on bedrest, so the next morning Ben made the three-hour drive home to sort the farm work and check on Jack, who was staying with his grandparents. Unexpectedly, a few hours after Ben left, Abby arrived with limited warning – we did not even make it to a birthing suite!  She was born at 25 weeks, 6 days, weighing just 850g. It was also an ‘en caul birth’ which is when the baby is born inside an intact amniotic sac. Luckily for me, my mum was visiting so I had some support during this time.

Mum called Ben, who had just pulled in the driveway at home, and told him he better turn around. At that stage he still didn’t know Abby had made her dramatic entrance. I called Ben once I knew Abby was settled. He was worried but he was in Mataura and would be there soon. Everything went as expected for the first few weeks of Abby’s life. She was doing everything she was meant to; growing and becoming less dependent on the oxygen machine. Jack loved visiting his tiny wee sister with Ben as much as they could, and we all felt very lucky that she was making good progress. That all changed a month in, when Abby became very sick with necrotizing enterocolitis (NCE), a serious gastrointestinal disease that effects prem babies. We needed to be transferred via helicopter to Christchurch for further specialist care.

When we arrived in Christchurch we had our first introduction to Ronald McDonald House. I will never forget the lovely inviting welcome we got when we walked through the door. With Abby becoming sick so suddenly, we were nervous and worried, but we instantly felt at home. I was overwhelmed by the support we received; we wanted for nothing at the House. Abby deteriorated further and doctors ended up operating on her on the ward. This was easily the most harrowing time of our lives. Amazingly, Abby had the best possible outcome, with the infected part of her bowel being removed to give her a chance at life. After 23 nights in Christchurch, she was strong enough to transferred back to Dunedin where she started to breath without assistance and learned to drink for herself. Then on the 27th June we able to be transferred to Southland Hospital.

There, the Ronald McDonald Family Room became our new home-away-from-home for 55 nights. Being an hours’ drive from the farm, it meant Ben could bring Jack in after work to have dinner and we would watch Jack run round and just be a kid – those times together in the Family Room were priceless for us. My room was just down the hallway and meant I could be with Abby in an instant if required. More than that, it became a place of comfort. Family Room Supervisor Helen and all the volunteers were just fantastic, and we also bonded with the other families; some of which we keep in touch with five years on.

At around four months old, Abby was doing well and our only hurdle left was her weight gain. Just as we were getting close to discharge, she caught a cold and once again needed the support of oxygen and tube feeding. To have a setback so close to discharge after all that time was mentally tough. Finally, on 21 August when Abby was 4.5 months (3.5 weeks corrected) and 7lbs 4oz, we took our baby girl home.

Prior to this experience we didn’t know much about Ronald McDonald House and had donated through appeals to support other families, never thinking we would need the facilities ourselves. It will now always be very special to us. It took away added stress so we could make the most of our time as a family when we needed to be together.

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