‘She was a beautiful angel sent to teach us how to smile through everything so that is what we are doing now and will keep doing for her.’
I looked down at my newborn daughter and stroked her tiny arm with my finger.
‘Lee,’ I gasped. ‘She just smiled at me!’
‘Look at that!’ he exclaimed. ‘One day old and she’s already learnt how to smile.’
When the nurses came over, we were bursting with pride over our happy little girl.
‘Maybe it was a little bit of wind?’ she suggested dubiously. ‘Babies don’t really smile until they’re about six weeks old.’
But minutes later – ‘Well, I never! She really did smile,’ she laughed.
Nobody believed us until they saw it for themselves but it was true.
‘I know it sounds silly, but it really does feel like she’s here to spread happiness!’ I said to Lee. OK, so as her mum I might have been just a teeny bit biased, but you couldn’t help but smile when you saw her.
Just a few months earlier though, smiling was the last thing I felt like doing.
As we waited for the consultant to come in, I squeezed Lee’s hand. ‘Please let everything be alright,’ I whispered.
I was 16 weeks pregnant and the consultant explained that, as they’d suspected, my baby’s heart hadn’t developed properly.
‘Complete Atrioventricular Septal Defect (AVSD)’, he said, ‘is where the septum doesn’t develop properly. There’s a hole in the wall between the top and bottom chambers and one common valve between the two atria and the two ventricles… basically, blood isn’t delivered around the body as it should.’
I thought of my little baby – I didn’t yet know if it was a boy or a girl – and felt stricken with the fear that this abnormality, whatever it was, could take them away from us.
‘Is there anything you can do?’ I asked. ‘Please?’
As he explained that they could operate to repair it when my baby was around 12 weeks old, Lee squeezed my hand back, his way of telling me everything was going to be alright.
Only, there was another issue too, we were told that the condition was far more common in children with Down’s syndrome.
I swallowed nervously. At 38, my risk was already increased and the scan seemed to show a ‘sandal gap’ between my baby’s toes, another indicator. Suddenly, it seemed like everything was stacked against us.
But the only way we could know for sure was by an invasive injection, which carried the risk of miscarriage.
‘It’s not an option then,’ I interrupted.
‘You might want some time to consider things,’ the consultant said gently.
But I was adamant. I’d waited too long for this baby. We’d been trying for two years and had already suffered a miscarriage. There was no way I was going to risk losing this child, too.
‘Think it over, it’s a big decision,’ the consultant said as we got up to leave.
But my mind was made up. Yes, some things were going to be more difficult. Our child might have health issues, some developmental delays. But the way I saw it, those issues didn’t add up to a miserable existence for my baby or for our family.
‘You can choose to walk now,’ I told Lee that evening. ‘But I’m having this baby.’
Luckily, Lee was on the same page. We both agreed that whatever happened, this baby was more than wanted and we would love them unconditionally.
Friends and family were so supportive when we told them our news, too.
Our little Annabelle Hope was born by emergency Caesaran section at 38 weeks and two days weighing 5lb 13oz that October.
‘She’s perfect, absolutely perfect,’ Lee said when, groggy with anesthetic, I asked if everything was alright.
There had been complications. Halfway through a natural delivery, her tiny heart had failed but thankfully they had managed to resuscitate her.
It was love at first sight. ‘She’s like a little doll,’ I gasped when, later that evening, I finally got to see her.
It wasn’t until the next day that they confirmed she had Down’s syndrome but it didn’t matter. We were besotted with our new daughter.
Day by day our little smiler grew stronger and we were delighted when, after 11 days, she gained enough weight to come home from hospital. The whole family were there to welcome her home. And placing her gently in her moses basket I finally felt like a real mummy.
But back home Annabelle stopped putting on weight. Bottle feeding seemed to be such hard work for her and she grew pale and pasty.
‘I’m worried,’ I told Lee. She needed to gain weight in order to have the operation.
Doctors agreed that tube feeding was the best option. At first, it seemed to be working but then her body began to reject her formula and so she was put on a very high calorie alternative.
‘I think she’s turned a corner,’ I told Lee after a few weeks.
By the time she was heavy enough for her surgery at three months old I’d dared to believe my smiling little angel was ours for keeps. She was a real mummy’s girl and I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her.
When Annabelle was admitted to the Royal Brompton Hospital for surgery, I was terrified. She seemed so small. Although we knew the success rate was very good, I couldn’t help worrying.
‘Look at her,’ I fretted to Lee. ‘She’s far too little to have open heart surgery.’
The operation, to make the circulation of blood through the heart and lungs normal, lasted seven long hours, the longest of my life. Lee, who had left his job as a roofer to be there for Annabelle, and Mum, who had cancelled her holiday, waited anxiously with me. We paced the corridors waiting for news.
Finally – ‘Please come this way,’ the nurse smiled. ‘You can see Annabelle now.
As I walked in to ICU, I was shocked. Annabelle’s sweet face was completely swollen and her bloated body was covered in bandages.
‘Oh God,’ I said. She looked so poorly.
But the operation had been a complete success. Surgeons had removed a blockage which was preventing blood flow and contributing to Annabelle’s very slow growth pattern.
Previously, her skin had always been cold due to poor circulation, and she was constantly pasty. But now she was warm and her chest rose and fell like a healthy baby. She was a lovely pinky colour, too.
‘She’s fixed Charlotte, our Annabelle is fixed,’ Lee sobbed with relief.
The moment Annabelle opened her eyes post-surgery he was holding her hand and she gave him a weak smile.
‘I think she’s trying to say thank you,’ he told the nurses tearfully.
We were told that Annabelle would spend a day or two on a ventilator, and a week in the ICU, but after six hours she was off the ventilator and two days later she was well enough to go back on the ward.
‘She’s like a little superhero,’ Lee said to me.
She was transferred to our local hospital, Broomfield in Chelmsford, and two days later we were able to bring her home.
‘She’s made amazing progress,’ her consultant said.
I was delighted to have her back home, but feeding every two hours was tough. At four-and-a-half month’s old she still only weighed only 9lb 2oz – the same as many newborns.
Then, weeks later, she developed terrible diarrhoea and sickness. She was still smiling but I was worried.
‘Something’s not right,’ I told Lee.
I wondered if it was linked to the fact that she’d been put on a bigger feeding tube. Or maybe the antibiotics she’d been given post-op weren’t agreeing with her…?
My GP carried out a stool test but it came back clear. ‘Keep an eye on her these next few days,’ he suggested as we left the surgery.
Once a week Mum, a registered foster carer for children with special needs, would have Annabelle overnight so that we could catch up on our sleep. The following day, Annabelle seemed better so I took her over. Mum and dad only lived eight doors down from me but this was Annabelle’s first sleepover at Nanny’s since the op.
‘Don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll be fine,’ Mum said as I kissed Annabelle goodbye. ‘Now go and get a good night’s sleep.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, stifling a yawn.
The next morning, I felt so much better. ‘Have a good day at work,’ I said to Lee, a roofer, as I kissed him goodbye.
A few minutes later, at 7am my dad knocked on the door.
‘Don’t panic but I think you should come over love,’ he said. ‘Annabelle’s looking a bit pale.’
I pulled on my slippers and followed him out of her door in my pyjamas.
When I got to Mum’s, Annabelle was sitting in her baby bouncer, smiling with her eyes wide open.
‘She does look a bit pasty,’ I agreed, going to pick her up.
But as I bent down, Dad let out a cry. ‘Bloody hell, she’s gone!’ he gasped.
There had been no struggle or battle for breath she had just gone as quickly as that. Frantic, I started screaming.
As Dad desperately began CPR, Mum rang an ambulance and I called Lee.
‘She’s gone!’ I wailed. ‘She’s gone.’
‘I’ll be there in two minutes!’ he cried.
The ambulance was there within two minutes. I went in the ambulance and Lee followed behind with Mum, Dad and my sister Michelle.
Paramedics worked on Annabelle all the way to hospital. ‘She’s warm, she’s only just gone. There’s every chance we can bring her back,’ they reassured me
But in my heart, I knew it was too late.
After 45 minutes, doctors reluctantly admitted defeat.
I sobbed uncontrollably. My baby…
Broomfield police explained that as Annabelle hadn’t been my care when she died they’d have to investigate. Mum was distraught but we knew beyond a shadow that this was not her fault.
‘Mum, I would never doubt you for a second,’ I promised her. ‘I know why she chose then to leave us. It’s because if she’d been at home I would have been in bed with her and it would have been too much to bear.’
Carefully, we dressed our little angel and she was place in the chapel of rest. Because of the circumstances surrounding Annabelle’s death we’d have to wait for an autopsy to know what had taken her.
Those next days passed in a blur. I felt like my heart had been ripped out. All I wanted to do was be with Annabelle. I spent every day at the hospital.
Four days later they took her for an autopsy. We were told we’d have to wait up to nine weeks for the results. Thankfully, a month later we had answers. Annabelle had died of an infection before surgery. Her little heart had simply packed up.
‘She must have been struggling all that time but still she never stopped smiling,’ I sniffed
We threw ourselves into planning a pink-themed birthday party themed funeral service to make up for all the birthday parties that Annabelle never got to have.
But a week before the funeral, I didn’t feel right. Suddenly, it dawned on me: my period was late.
‘I checked the calendar to be sure and… ‘Lee!’ I cried.
I was over the moon. No one could replace Annabelle but this baby would be our savior, I knew it. I’d feared that at my age, I’d never be a mummy again. I knew this baby was a parting gift from Annabelle to make sure I could keep on smiling.
On the day of her funeral, all the guests wore pink and we gave out cupcakes printed with Annabelle’s smiling face. It was a beautiful send off for our tiny princess.
‘It’s perfect,’ I told Lee.
Only then I went to the toilet and there was blood in my knickers.
‘Lee, I think I’m miscarrying,’ I panicked.
‘I’ll take you to hospital,’ he said.
But I couldn’t leave Annabelle’s party. ‘I can’t do this today,’ I said. Instead, I used a sanitary towel and carried on knowing what would be would be.
‘Try and think positively,’ Lee comforted that night as he held me in bed.
But a scan a few days later couldn’t detect a heartbeat. My heart sank.
‘It’s very early days, they reassured. ‘It’s not uncommon.’
They told me to come back the following week but I wasn’t hopeful.
Only a week later…
‘You mean I’m still pregnant?’ I sobbed. I couldn’t believe it.
I’m now 16 weeks gone and have just found out I’m carrying a little boy – Annabelle’s baby brother.
Annabelle knew so much pain in her short life but she never stopped smiling. Losing her tore our lives apart. Now she’s given us another reason to be happy.
Mum has started a charity to raise funds to help others called Hope For Annabelle. To find out more visit http://hopeforannabelle.org