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A smiling Annabel

After a six-week honeymoon in Europe during the summer of 2004, my husband and I came home to find out that we were expecting a baby. At a doctor’s appointment following my 16 week ultrasound, I was told that there “was something” that was probably “nothing.” Cryptic, I know. My GP explained that there seemed to be a ventral wall defect, but that another ultrasound at a larger hospital with newer equipment would probably rule out any serious problems. I initially took it well, probably in shock, until I got home. I called my husband at work, cried, and then proceeded to search the internet for all and any information I could find. We decided to not worry about anything until there was actually something to worry about, but at my follow-up ultrasound our fears were confirmed – our baby had a birth defect.

We were referred to Dr. Ryan at Mt. Siani in Toronto, and after another of many ultrasounds to come, we were told that our baby had gastroschisis; a hole in her abdomen next to her belly button through which her bowels were protruding. By this time, at 24 weeks, my husband and I had agreed that there was no sense worrying over something that we could not control. Thus, we took our frequent doctor visits in stride, making a little trip out of the two hour drive to Toronto to go shopping, eat sushi, and remain optimistic. I think that much of this optimism and levity came from knowing that I would be delivering at one of the best hospitals in the country, and that my baby was to be cared for at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (aka Sick Kids), probably THE best children’s hospital.

I did have lapses of paranoia, and frequently checked the internet for information, not only about gastroschisis, but also about whether I would experience a difficult pregnancy. (In fact, my pregnancy itself was very normal and uneventful.) I was scheduled to be induced at 37 weeks, and knew that all we really could do was prepare our home, our family and friends, and ourselves, for the arrival of our baby.

On the trip down to Toronto at 34 weeks, I told my husband that I didn’t seem to feel the baby kick as often as usual. We both decided that it was probably because she was getting bigger, thus she had less room to move about. In retrospect, I knew that something was not right. I was correct. The baby’s BPP (biophysical profile) was 4/8 and then 2/8, but the heartrate was still good. I was admitted and was told that I would “have a baby by the end of the day.” I could not wrap my head around it, and in truth, wondered when the doctors were going to realize they had made a mistake and would send me home.

During my pregnancy I often worried about the labour, and invented many strange scenarios in my head. But the only remarkable thing about my labour was that it was short – four and a half hours. After she was delivered vaginally, the doctor asked me if I wanted to see her, and I still feel guilty about this, but I said “no.” I did not want to see my baby with her bowels hanging out, I didn’t think I could handle it. The doctor and my husband assured me that it was covered up, and I opened one eye and gave a quick glance, although I didn’t really look. She was taken away and I was told that I would be able to see her before they sent her to Sick Kids across the street where the head of general surgery, Dr. Langer, was to perform surgery that night.

Annabel was a big baby considering her gestation. She weighed 5lb 7oz, and was 18 inches in length. Compared to other preemies, she was giant (It must have been the nightly servings of ice cream)! Her size served her well though, because they were able to put all of her bowels, abdomen and some of her fallopian tubes all back during her first, and only, surgery, which lasted about three hours. We were part of a study, where they randomly chose the way in which to deal with her gastroschisis. The traditional way is to put her bowels in a silo and let gravity gradually put everything in her belly. Annabel’s bowels were put back via the “new” method, where they simply put everything back in, cover the hole with her umbilical cord, and then cover it all with some type of surgical tape.

I was able to see her the next day, lying in an incubator with wires and tubes running in and out of her. I cried and had to leave, but with each day I cried less and less, until I was able to go in and cuddle and help the nurses bathe her, feed her, and change her diaper. My husband was my rock – he kept sane when I couldn’t. He made sure I ate, slept and talked about how I was feeling.

Annabel was a fighter from the start, most notably pulling out tubes when she was tired of having them in her nose or mouth. She progressed really well, pooping regularly, accepting breastmilk from her NG tube, and later taking a bottle. Each achievement, no matter how small, was one step closer to home. And each setback was just par for the course. She stayed at Sick Kids for four weeks, and then spent another two weeks at a hospital a little closer to our town, where the only hurdle to her coming home was learning how to breastfeed. (A side note – when she finally did learn to take the breast I never thought of keeping on the bottle for even one feeding a day, and now she has forgotten and refuses the bottle! Lesson learned.)

It is all a blur to us now. Annabel (aka Annabelly) is nearly six months and is 13.5 lbs, and aside from her herniated “belly button,” one would never know that she had a birth defect. She is bright-eyed, talkative, and beautiful.