At 30 weeks pregnant, Toni Alexander was told by her doctor that her baby’s story would never make the pages of New Zealand Woman’s Weekly.
She was diagnosed with PPROM – preterm premature rupture of membranes, which causes the amniotic fluid that normally surrounds the baby in the womb to disappear at 16 weeks – and told repeatedly to terminate her pregnancy, as there was little chance her baby would be born alive.
“The doctor said, ‘This is not a Woman’s Weekly story,’” recalls Toni (21). “‘It’s not a miracle baby. It won’t survive.’
“Well, what do you call this?” she says, bouncing her happy girl Ava Elizabeth on her knee.
Now one, Ava is a picture of health, as she crawls around her Tauranga home, gurgling random words and bursting into giggles as her grandmother Janine Cornelder pulls faces. “Apart from a horseshoe kidney, which is relatively common,” says Janine (39), “there’s nothing wrong with my beautiful granddaughter.
“She sleeps through the night, has a fantastic appetite and is curious about the world around her.”
But during a routine scan at 16 weeks, Toni was given an exceptionally bleak outlook, with doctors saying her child had underdeveloped lungs, no nasal or facial bones, and vital organs missing. “They were wrong, and we went through three months of hell before Ava arrived,” Toni says, her eyes welling up and overwhelming her usually stoic nature. “I remember saying, ‘What do you mean?’ The doctor said, ‘Your baby cannot survive without the fluid,’ and advised me to terminate the pregnancy.” Toni and Janine returned home in a daze, still unsure what was actually wrong with the unborn baby. “It felt like a nightmare,” Toni says. “Hearing someone tell you your baby is going to die is… it’s hard. Really hard.”
But grandmother Janine refused to believe the doctors, and had a “gut feeling” the baby would be okay. “Right from the start, I had the strongest sense not to terminate,” she asserts. “I was sure the doctors were wrong.”
She started researching other PPROM cases online in the hopes of finding a solution. “Every page was bad news,” Janine says. ”But then I found a man in Washington who’d been through the same thing with his son. They had been given tips to help increase the chances of having a healthy baby, like drinking plenty of fluids.”
Armed with Janine’s research, the mother and daughter went back to Waikato Hospital a few weeks later, but were again told to terminate, because if the baby did live, it would be born with severe disabilities. With Janine instinctively sure of the baby’s strength, she and Toni asked for a second opinion and were referred to Auckland’s National Women’s Health, at Auckland Hospital, where Toni was started on a round of steroid injections.
She couldn’t bring herself to think about baby names or buy any clothes, as she couldn’t face returning them if the worst did happen. “At the hospital, I was given a five percent chance the baby would be fine. I did everything I could – I was drinking 15 glasses of water a day and started talking to the baby, to tell it to be okay.”
After three false labours, Toni thought she was finally ready to give birth at 30 weeks, but was once again advised to terminate. “They explained how they were going to do it, and it was horrible,” Janine says. “I was not giving birth to a dead baby,” Toni adds. “No way in hell.”
Finally, at 32 weeks, Toni was induced and delivered Ava on June 4, 2012. “She was purple because there was no fluid, and bruised all over,” Toni remembers. “But she was fine. As soon as she came out, she cried. It was the most amazing sound in the world. I bonded with her straight away.”
One year on, stay-at-home mum Toni, who is no longer with Ava’s father, says her daughter is an advanced learner, ahead of other children her age. “She’s always happy, really bubbly and hardly ever cries,” smiles Toni. “The whole family revolves around her now.”
But as ecstatic as they are about their “miracle baby”, Toni and Janine want an explanation as to why doctors got it so wrong.
In response, Jan Adams, Chief Operating Officer Health Waikato, said: “We first became aware of the complaint through the media. We have since met with the family and are aware of their concerns and are continuing to work with the family. The obstetrician is no longer an employee of the DHB.”
The family has laid a complaint with Waikato Hospital, and is also looking to raise awareness about PPROM and the options available to families who find themselves in the same situation.
“There’s always hope,” says Toni.
Janine and Toni are helping to raise money for other PPROM babies. To donate, click here.