Expert care and love help miracle babies beat the odds
A year ago, Caroline Chalmers (Bachelor of Arts / Bachelor of Business Management ’08) sat down to a family celebration in Noosa, blissfully unaware of the catastrophic events that would unfold in the hours ahead.
Later that evening, she was admitted into Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH) and faced with the unthinkable: allow her twin babies – at just 23 weeks and six days gestation – to enter the world, or accept one or both babies would almost certainly die.
It was a life-altering choice she and her husband Sam had just moments to consider.
The timeline leading to the decision was equally as harrowing. After feeling “more than just a twinge” of discomfort during the family gathering while on holiday from Sydney, Caroline presented herself to the Sunshine Coast University Hospital. Within minutes, hospital staff were signalling for an emergency helicopter to transfer her to Brisbane, only to learn that air travel was not an option.
“The news came back that the chopper was collecting someone else,” Caroline said.
“But the best chance of survival for the twins was for them to be born at the RBWH neonatal intensive care unit, where they would have the most specialised treatment available for such extremely premature babies.”
They would need to make the 150-kilometre journey down the notoriously busy Bruce Highway by ambulance.
Caroline was told that if the babies were born en route, the prognosis was not good: babies born at 23 or 24 weeks have a 50 per cent chance of making it to full-term, if they receive intensive treatment.
Image: Thomas Winz/Getty Images
Image: Thomas Winz/Getty Images
Travelling at high speeds with lights and sirens blaring, Caroline – now fully dilated – managed to slow down her labour through sheer determination, and steroids.
Less than 50 minutes later, she was met by RBWH Head of Obstetrics Dr Johanna Laporte, who was on night duty. She presented two options: try to keep the babies in, because every extra hour at that stage of gestation is a good thing; or deliver them via emergency caesarean section in a controlled way, with experts on hand to care for the babies.
“The risk of spontaneous labour at that stage of gestation is that it happens very quickly and is much more difficult to control."
“Both options were fraught with serious complications, but we quickly decided that delivering them into the care of specialist teams was the best way to go, which I have not regretted for one second since. So off we went into surgery.”
Baby Francesca receiving care at the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital.
Also on hand was one of Brisbane’s top neonatologists and fellow UQ graduate Dr Tim Donovan (Bachelor of Medicine / Bachelor of Surgery '78, Master of Public Health '04), who would care for the twins and guide Caroline and Sam through many more painstaking decisions in the months ahead.
Francesca Mae and Henry James were born just after midnight on 26 May 2019, “both breathing and crying”.
Baby Henry is cared for in the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital.
Francesca was delivered first, weighing just 628 grams. Her brother weighed 685 grams.
“The doctors were amazed at how 'big' they were, given their gestation,” Caroline said.
It would be 15 days before the new parents would be able to hold their babies for the first time.
Image: Nenov/Getty Images
Image: Nenov/Getty Images
The family spent the next 125 days in isolation – and not the ‘Netflix and banana bread-style’ isolation many are tiring of as coronavirus forces the country to hunker down.
More than 1000 kilometres from their home in Sydney – with no family nearby – Caroline split her time between Ronald McDonald House and the RBWH, hopeful that if she was close enough to her babies, she might love them into good health.
Sam, a senior executive in banking, relocated his workplace to Brisbane and spent every possible moment holding his tiny son and daughter in the palms of his hands.
“Not being able to cuddle them, much less take them home, was heartbreaking,” Caroline said.
They were told the journey ahead would not be easy, but nothing could prepare Caroline for what was to come.
“It’s not like the babies are sick at 24 weeks and they gradually get better. It’s not a linear progression; it’s a rollercoaster,” she said.
“Each day, I would enter the hospital braced for the doctor’s morning update.
“One day, when you think things are going really well, one of the babies falls into a hole and has problems with their breathing or something else.”
Having the great fortune of avoiding trauma or grief until this point in her life, Caroline suddenly faced the vulnerability of life and death.
“We’ve stared down the barrel on a number of occasions, particularly with Henry. It was very, very challenging.”
Supported by her “heroes” – Dr Donovan and Head of UQ’s School of Clinical Medicine Professor Paul Colditz – Caroline and Sam navigated each heart-wrenching decision with the help of their expertise and compassion.
“They [Francesca and Henry] were in the best care. UQ produces some of the best experts in the country – if not the world – for premature babies."
“It was especially reassuring to have the familiar connection of my university.
"There is no question in my mind that Dr Donovan saved the twins' lives on multiple occasions. He is absolutely the reason we are together as a family."
The family was eventually flown to Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney for 10 more days of specialist care. And finally, after three-and-a-half long months, they went home.
This month, the ‘miracle’ babies approach their first birthday in full health, oblivious to what brought them to this sweet moment: the expertise of their carers who helped them beat the odds, and the sheer strength and love of the parents who carried them through.
Visit the Perinatal Research Centre to learn how UQ is creating better health outcomes for mothers and babies.
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