‘We were only hours away from losing her’
TWO pink lines. Unexpected, but absolutely longed for.
When Courtney Thorpe picked up her pregnancy test in January and saw the startlingly bright pink lines, the excited mum-to-be immediately put September 24 into her and husband Jarrod Wallace's calendar.
"BABY'S DUE DATE", the calendar declared.
It suddenly felt real. The baby she so longed for - and had been told she had a five per cent chance of conceiving naturally, due to endometriosis and ovarian cysts - was on its way.
So when the phone rang on August 12, and it was Thorpe's obstetrician Dr Catherine Mills telling her that her baby was failing to thrive, Thorpe was utterly panic-stricken. To the point where she was unable to speak.
This baby was due in September, not now. It was too early, she was too little.
Over the phone, Mills had told her the disturbing news that her baby's head had measured 29cm in the latest scan - two centimetres smaller than it had two weeks earlier. Thorpe had contracted cytomegalovirus (CMV) in her first trimester of pregnancy. In children and adults CMV is nothing more than a cold but for an unborn child it can lead to a disability at birth. Tests were carried out and everything had come back clear, with the couple being told the chance their baby had been affected was 1 per cent.
But now this - a potentially devastating sign that the experts had got it wrong, and that CMV had harmed their unborn baby.
"I just lost it. I couldn't even tell Jarrod. I couldn't get the words out," Thorpe, 29, recalls of that day.
"I was terrified."
Thorpe had been at a doctor's appointment for Wallace's daughter Lara, 7, when she received the call. Lara's doctor urged them to remain calm and head home, but they made it only four minutes down the road before Thorpe broke down. It was the most difficult news to digest after a pregnancy that had already been very challenging for Thorpe, with the CMV coming on top of placenta previa, enduring morning sickness, iron infusions and dangerously high blood pressure that had required medication and hospitalisation.
"I said to Jarrod 'I just want to call Catherine and tell her to just get her out.' I didn't feel like my body was the best place for her anymore," she says, the memory itself bringing her to tears.
"I was honestly just waiting for something really bad to happen. It felt like so much was adding up and then finding out her head was measuring small, I felt like my body was failing her and I just wanted her out, get her out and we can put her on machines, we can do whatever we need to do but my body is not doing it."
When they went immediately to the hospital to plead for an early delivery, to their surprise Mills beat them to it.
"All right," the doctor told Thorpe. "We're going to give you steroids because we are going to cut this baby out, we're not waiting any longer".
In two weeks Kennedy had stopped growing. Thorpe had no amniotic fluid left and her blood pressure was a constant concern for the medical staff because of the potential for a disastrous rupture.
The caesarean was scheduled for 7am on Wednesday, August 14, and the couple spent two agonising, sleepless nights in hospital waiting to see how their baby girl would be when she came into the world.
"I've had a lot of surgeries but the amount of people that came in to check her was crazy. You could just see, everyone was on edge," Wallace, 28, says of that day.
The medical staff, Wallace and Thorpe held their breaths as they prepared to deliver a baby girl, six weeks premature, who had no amniotic fluid left to survive in.
"The moment they pulled her out and she let out a cry, I don't know if anyone expected that, it felt like everyone just breathed again," Thorpe says.
"They already had a bed booked for me in the intensive care unit because they really thought that's where I was going to end up. With the amniotic fluid, bub could have been gone very quickly, within hours after if we hadn't have gotten her out."
Kennedy Grace, at just 2.26kg and 44.5cm, was placed on Thorpe's chest for
a precious three seconds before she was whisked away for testing and to see if she had the telling rash and small head that would indicate CMV had affected her.
Thorpe took her moment to reach out to Wallace. "Just go with the baby," she said, "and tell me straight away if she has a rash".
Wallace shook his head, "no rash". Then they measured Kennedy's head.
"As soon as they said 31cm I just looked at Court and said, 'It's fine, thank God," Wallace recalls.
Kennedy had jaundice so she was placed under lights in the neonatal intensive care unit, but to the surprise of medical staff, she recovered in just two days and began breastfeeding.
"She was unbelievable," Wallace gushes.
But Thorpe was in extreme pain from the surgery and barely saw her baby - who began testing for the effects of CMV - for the next three days.
An eye specialist found slight scarring that indicated Kennedy had been affected by the virus. Next, a week after the birth, it was time to test her hearing, the most common symptom.
"The nurses were in NICU with us and everyone was just waiting around this machine to see what happened and I think we were all expecting something to come up, but straight away, almost instantly, perfect hearing and I burst into tears," Thorpe says.
Finally, Kennedy was padded up and placed into an MRI machine to check for any brain abnormalities. It was the sight of her tiny premature baby dwarfed by a sterile machine that brings back the worst memories for Thorpe.
"It's not something you think you're ever going to have to go through," she says.
"You're walking through the halls and you're seeing all these women with their new babies in their room and they are carrying them and getting to leave. I hated seeing people getting to leave.
"I've never felt more jealous of people in my life than that moment. You're sitting there looking at an MRI thinking this is so unfair, there's all these other women in there who have their babies and nothing's wrong and here I am standing in herewith my baby in a massive MRI machine to see if something is wrong with her brain. This is just not how it's meant to go."
Kennedy remained in hospital for two weeks after she was born, meaning the new parents had to go home without their baby.
"It was the most unnatural thing in the world
to leave your baby," Thorpe says. "I didn't have a baby, I really didn't. I didn't click that I was a mum. I clicked that there was obviously a baby, and I knew it was mine and I had to keep her alive but it definitely wasn't the feeling I thought I would have.
I didn't have the baby in my room, putting her on my chest and giving her cuddles and having my family come and see her."
Kennedy was then placed in isolation for six weeks at the couple's Gold Coast home, to cut the risk of infection due to her being on medication and affected by CMV. This meant Thorpe couldn't leave the home and no one could enter other than Wallace, who still had to travel for football commitments.
It also meant Wallace's daughters - Lara, 7, and Peyton, 4, from a previous relationship - couldn't interact with their new sister and with Kennedy at eight weeks old, Thorpe's father had still not cuddled his first grandchild - a thought that brought Thorpe to tears. "We were very lost there. We didn't know how to handle it," Wallace says. "We were driving back one day and she literally said to me, 'When does this start feeling normal?' "
Inviting U on Sunday into their new Molendinar home eight weeks after Kennedy was born, the couple are only just getting the chance to enjoy her.
After leading their excitable groodle Bailey outside, Thorpe apologises for the mess, which barely exists, and the different coloured paint patches on the wall that signify the start of their renovation process.
Kennedy, blinking with bright blue eyes that match her parents', has just woken up from her morning nap and is dwarfed by Wallace, a prop for the Gold Coast Titans, as she immediately folds comfortably into his arms for the photoshoot. Wallace says the pregnancy was challenging for him too. Under pressure at the Titans, he would catch himself texting his wife 10 minutes before games and glancing at her in the stands during warm up to assure himself that she was OK. He was often worrying that something else would go wrong.
The couple know how lucky they are to be
holding their newborn baby in their arms.
Doctors told Thorpe that the lack of amniotic fluid in her uterus, her skyrocketing blood pressure and the CMV infection could have had fatal consequences for both her and her baby.
"We've had a few nurses and doctors say to me, 'Do you know how close you could have come?' But I don't want to know," she says, as Kennedy lets her mum know she's hungry.
Thorpe - a former Miss World Australia - looks at her baby, who she knows could still develop symptoms of CMV in the first five years of her life, with resolute pride.
"When you sit back and think about your fairytale and how it'll all work out, this is definitely not how I saw my fairytale going," she says. "But she's just the strongest little baby. It could have gone so wrong for her and she has smashed through it. Anything we've been told should happen, she's gone 'No, I don't think so'. I say all the time that I never thought I'd be inspired by a baby, but, holy crap, she inspires me."
Kennedy will be on medication until she is six months old and will be monitored until she is five for symptoms of CMV.
A specialist has travelled to the Gold Coast to examine Kennedy and found a tiny bit of scarring on her brain, so for now, Wallace says, it's a "waiting game".
"We just have to be on the milestones," he says. "The day that she started to lock onto you was a good feeling. The day she was born she lifted her head up. Even our paediatrician was shocked. He'd never had a baby with CMV that had been affected, had the scarring, but had no symptoms."
But they admit as they bring up their daughter, there will always be the fear of something going wrong. "Our version of normality will probably be a little bit different because for the first five years of her life we don't know what's going to happen," Thorpe says. "I personally will always be a little bit nervous."
Thorpe's dreams of having three children of her own will probably never come to fruition, but she hopes to have one more child when the time is right.
"I won't go three after what's happened,'' she says. "It's absolutely terrifying but I'll do one more and I'll call it.''