Saving summer: 'I had her dead and buried' - mum on miracle baby born at 27 weeks
Having a very premature baby is enormously stressful, Annmarie Quinlan tells our reporter, but even though things may look impossibly bleak, as they did when her baby was born at 27 weeks, there is always hope
Baby Summer Quinlan is aptly named. She has a bright smile, and a gentle, unhurried nature. Yet, the fact that she is here at all is something of a miracle, as, at birth, she didn't weigh even as much as a bag of sugar. Having her mother to watch over her is another wonder; for she, too, nearly lost her life due to illness.
It's fair to say that this past year has been fraught with the most unbelievable drama for the Quinlan family from Kilcullen, Co Kildare. It began shortly after Christmas 2015, when Annmarie (30) realised she hadn't felt the baby she was expecting move for some time. So, she went to the Coombe Women and Infants' University Hospital in Dublin to get checked, while her supportive mother, Irene Fogarty, looked after her other children, Harvey (7) and Millie (4).
At the hospital, an alarming scenario began to unfold. Nurses discovered Annmarie's blood pressure had rocketed since a medical examination just a few days previously. The protein levels in her urine had increased profoundly, while her hands and face were swollen. She was clearly in the grip of pre-eclampsia. This can occur when there is a problem with the placenta (the organ that links the baby's blood supply to the mother's). It can cause the mother to have excessive protein in the urine, water retention (oedema), and high blood pressure. It can also slow the foetus's development.
"Mild pre-eclampsia can be monitored, and it usually disappears soon after the birth," states the HSE website. "However, in some cases, further complications can develop, such as eclampsia. This is a type of seizure that the mother can have. It's rare, but can be life-threatening, for her and the baby."
So, Annmarie was told that, even though she was only 27 weeks pregnant, her baby had to be delivered by C-section that night. "I phoned Darren, my husband, full of dread; all I could say was, 'Oh my God, what's going to happen here?'" she says. "Then, when they told me the baby hadn't been thriving, I thought she was definitely a goner."
Annmarie was admitted to the high-dependency unit, where every effort was made to get her blood pressure under control. Around midnight, Summer (so named by her dad) was born, weighing just 1lb 10ozs. When her mum came around from the anaesthetic, she couldn't believe her little angel had survived being born so very prematurely. But there was more drama to come.
As Annmarie continued to be plagued by medical problems, she was forced to remain bedridden, while her baby was being meticulously monitored in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) downstairs. Meanwhile, Darren showed her a picture of their precious little girl on his phone, and she was comforted to see that, though she was tiny, the infant had fingernails and hair, and looked quite "normal".
However, later that day, she was stunned when she saw the baby up close for the first time. "I was absolutely shocked," Annmarie recalls, with a tremor in her voice. "She was like a little mouse. She was on a ventilator in an incubator, and was hooked up to all sorts of machines, for fluids and antibiotics, and to monitor her heart and breathing. I was told that even though she was stable, she was also critical, and could go at any time."
Naturally, Annmarie and Darren feared the very worst. They waited and they watched - helplessly - while their tiny infant lay silent, always sleeping, curled up in the foetal position, as if she were still in the womb. Then, when she was just two weeks old, she got an infection, and now they were certain this was the end. "I had her dead and buried," Annmarie admits. "I just didn't believe a frail little thing like that could fight a dangerous infection. But fight it she did."
Around this time, another near tragedy occurred: Annmarie had a serious stroke - pre-eclampsia doubles women's risk of a stroke - and ended up in St James's Hospital in Dublin. Fortunately, she knew she was having a stroke, and managed to call for the help she needed, thus averting further tragedy. But she did end up partly paralysed, and required a good deal of help in getting her blood pressure, and the seizures, which she still experiences, under control. She also needed a good deal of physiotherapy to get the affected side of her body moving again. Unfortunately, the stroke meant she had to stop expressing milk, which had been fed to Summer through a tube. Thereafter, the baby received nutrient-rich breast milk from a donor.
Once Annmarie was more stable, she was able to return to the Coombe to spend time with Summer. Finally, when the baby was four weeks old, she got to hold her precious little girl for the first time. "I bawled when I took her in my arms," she remembers. "Poor Darren only got to hold her at seven weeks." Annmarie says Summer was painfully slow when it came to putting on weight. But once she began taking her nourishment from a bottle instead of the feeding tube, things improved dramatically.
Around this time, Summer was deemed well enough to move into the high-dependency unit, and remained there for the next three weeks. Then she graduated to the special-care baby unit. And just 10 weeks after her nightmare entry into this world, this spirited baby went home to her adoring big brother and sister.
Annmarie says she has nothing but praise for the medical staff at the Coombe who nursed her little girl. "The care there was second to none," she says. "The nurses love those babies so much; they're like hospital mammies. In the early days, they even took a picture of Summer without her oxygen mask because we'd never actually seen her without one."
Annmarie says once Summer got home, their lives were finally complete. She was a happy, contented baby who ate really well and slept soundly. Today, she is everything that you'd hope for in a one-year-old. She's alert, active, trying out different sounds, attempting to walk and laughing a lot.
Annmarie is now fully behind an initiative called Better Together, which will help support families who experience premature births. "I still have a few problems," she says. "But I have so very much to be truly grateful for."
The Irish Neonatal Health Alliance (INHA) recently launched a leaflet titled 'Better Together', which offers excellent and comprehensive advice to families who have an infant in NICU.
For more information on family-centred care, and to download the Better Together guide, see inha.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine