Chelsea Belleau was clutching Penelope, her eight month old daughter, tight this Christmas. This was despite the fact that she had been told by doctors that Penelope’s chances of survival were slim.
Penelope’s mother from Richmond was so happy to have the holiday with her daughter that she called B.C. Children’s Hospital Wednesday and thanked them for helping save her daughter’s life.
“Turns out, the staff here were calling her the ‘little miracle’ baby,” Jessica Holmes, a hospital spokesperson, told Postmedia News.
Penelope survived a severe birth defect and was also born from a single viable embryo Belleau after in vitro fertilization.
“If you see her now, you would never know what she’s been through,” said her mother, who works as a Kindergarten teacher. “She’s just a happy, really chill baby.”
Belleau and Benjamin Nickel tried to conceive for six years prior to their pregnancy.
“When I found out that we were pregnant we were ecstatic. We’re like ‘this is a miracle,’” said Belleau.
The 38-year old didn’t realize the true miracle that was yet to come.
At 19 weeks, a routine ultrasound revealed that Penelope had an opening in her diaphragm. B.C. was referred for Penelope’s mother. Children’s, the only hospital in the province that treats rare congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH).
“Based on the size of her lungs as a fetus she had less than a 25 per cent chance of living,” said Dr. Erik Skarsgard, the chief of surgery and a doctor of Penelope’s at the hospital.
Skarsgard created a national registry of CDH patients outcomes in order to inform treatment guidelines for hospitals across Canada.
In Penelope’s case, the specialist recommended she receive specialized fetoscopic endoluminal tracheal occlusion (FETO) therapy at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
“They deploy a tiny, two to three-millimetre balloon into the fetus’ windpipe which causes the lungs to grow faster than they would otherwise,” Skarsgard said.
“It helps make up for the fact that they are so underdeveloped by the time these babies are born, so they have a chance.”
However, the FETO surgery came with risks, including the threat of premature birth which can plummet a newborn’s chance of survival.
Belleau had to have the procedure done when Penelope was 29 weeks old.
“We felt it was important that we take the chance, to know that we did everything we could for her,” Belleau said.
After four weeks, it was surgically deflated.
Eight weeks later Penelope was delivered at B.C. Woman’s Hospital.
“When she was first born she stopped breathing, and turned blue,” Belleau said, fighting back tears.
A specialized neonatal team made up of nurses and doctors was ready to help her. They immediately placed a ventilator that was small enough to fit her lungs.
Penelope was four days old when she had to have a four-hour operation at B.C. Children’s Hospital to repair the hernia and separate her intestines from her chest cavity, where her lungs were. She spent 126 days in neonatal intensive medical care.
She was able return home in August.
Penelope continues to receive tube feedings and breathing support at night. But, Penelope will eventually grow out of them and be able to live a normal life.
“During the day she just plays and enjoys being a baby. She loves bright sounds and lights. I sing to her a lot,” Belleau said.
“I think about it all the time. What will she be like when she’s two? What about three? I can’t wait to see her continue to thrive.”
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