Dawn Shand, 36, was devastated when her daughter Ailsa had a cardiac arrest and lost one of her legs when she was only four months old. But with determination, courage – and the help of a swimming class – they are both looking forward, not back.
Here, Dawn shares Alisa's story...
'Ailsa is now two, and she's my second child - her sister Iona is nearly four. When I was pregnant the second time around, I had no reason to think anything would be different from how it had been with Iona - a totally normal pregnancy and a totally normal birth. But I was wrong.
'A week before my due date I felt Ailsa wasn't moving around as much. I was monitored and there was no cause for alarm, as, although she still wasn't moving much, her heartbeat was strong. Thankfully I went into labour naturally. But in the end, because the labour wasn't progressing properly, I had to have an emergency c-section to get Ailsa out. It was all a bit of a shock and things moved very fast.
'Ailsa was born with severe anaemia due to foetal maternal transfusion with suspected perinatal asphyxia as a result of her traumatic delivery. This meant that the blood flow from the placenta had reversed, and that she had been deprived of oxygen. I don't think I realised the extent of how ill she was until she was rushed straight to the neonatal intensive care unit.
'She was only in hospital for a week before being allowed home though, and everything settled down, although she didn't gain as much weight as the health visitors wanted. But then, at four months, the nightmare began. I struggle to describe how awful that period was as I'm sure any parent who has a seriously ill child would. We had no warning, right up until two hours before Ailsa went into full cardiac arrest – she had been absolutely fine.
I remember watching them try to resuscitate her, repeatedly saying to the nurse, 'How did this happen?'.
It was discovered that Ailsa's cardiac arrest had been a result of an undiagnosed late presenting diaphragmatic hernia and she was transferred straightaway for emergency surgery, and then to their paediatric intensive care unit (PICU).
'Only one of us was able to travel in the ambulance, so I went along with her, watching her condition deteriorate on the way. When we arrived and she was taken into theatre, I was told that she was unlikely to pull through.
'I was allowed to spend just a few minutes with her. I tried to think what my husband Neil would want me to say - I just told her that she was very much loved and not to give up fighting, and that her sister would be waiting to play with her when she was better. I gave her a kiss and then just collapsed in floods of tears. Without doubt, this was the worst moment of my entire life.
'Ailsa spent 12 days in the PICU. At one point her kidneys were failing and one of her lungs had collapsed, but the main area of concern was her left leg, which had suffered damage during her lengthy resuscitation. We were aware from fairly early on that she was likely to lose part of her leg, but we had to wait to see what the extent of the amputation would be. The staff fought to save as much of it as possible, especially her knee – and it is only now that I realise how important that is when fitting a prosthesis.
The hospital staff were amazing and helped support us emotionally, as well as take very good care of Ailsa. But once she left hospital it was a bit more difficult. We had been assured that they would not simply 'cut off her leg and send us home', but if I'm honest in the first few months that was exactly how it felt.
'When Iona was a baby I heard that Water Babies were starting classes nearby and I signed her up straight away. I'd always intended to take Ailsa swimming too, and had her name down long before she was born. Taking her after the amputation was incredibly hard though. I felt I was unable to protect her from the inevitable stares and questions, which broke my heart.
'But the classes became a place where her disability didn't inhibit her and she could do the same things as the other babies. And not only that, I felt as though it was time we could spend together, having fun and rebuilding the bond that had been severed when she had spent so long in a hospital bed covered in so many tubes that I barely recognised her.
'From a physical point of view, Ailsa's physiotherapist said that taking her swimming was one of the best things we could do for her as the freedom of movement and the resistance of the water would help prevent leg contracture. And I can't thank the Water Babies staff in Dorset enough for the support they have given our whole family throughout this difficult period.
'Ailsa is doing brilliantly and she's just started walking unaided. It's always exciting when your child does something for the first time, but when you know it took extra work to reach that milestone it makes it even more special. When I saw Ailsa's Water Babies underwater photo it was a very proud moment, because I knew exactly what she had overcome.
'It was a perfect representation of my little girl's bravery and it showed us that there won't be anything she can't achieve in life if she shows the same strength of character and fighting spirit as she grows up.'
For more information on Water Babies and siwmming with children, visit Waterbabies.co.uk.
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