When the screams of baby number four echoed from the maternity suite, parents Laura and Paul West held their breath.
Not only for their newborn daughter Emma, but also for their third child, Charlotte, who was desperately waiting for the arrival of her sister – a much-needed stem cell donor.
While the umbilical cord and placenta were being removed, Laura whispered to her small, healthy baby that she was destined to save her big sister’s life.
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Charlotte, who suffered from cerebral palsy, could not walk, talk or eat on her own.
Doctors told the West family she would never know her own name.
But five years after Emma’s birth, Charlotte is now running.
“Emma is the gift that keeps on giving,” says Laura 7Life.
When the Western Australian woman was 22 weeks pregnant with Charlotte, doctors discovered an abnormality.
She had a diaphragmatic hernia — a hole in the diaphragm that allowed organs to travel upward and develop in the chest area.
Charlotte also had a hole in her heart, a number of intestinal problems and, among other things, white matter in the brain.
Specialists suggested that Paul and Laura consider dismissal — Charlotte had a 10 percent survival rate at best.
At home, the couple tried to cope with the seriousness of the situation.
They quietly broke the news to their two children, Josh, then seven, and Isabella, then four.
“Every day they rubbed my stomach and said, ‘Good morning Charlotte’. She was already part of our family,” says Laura.
“So when we told Josh, he said, ‘Why don’t we let Charlotte decide? If she wants to fight, she will fight. What if it was me, Mom?’.”
The family agreed with the little boy.
They chose termination and let Charlotte make the decision for herself, praying every day for her safe and sound arrival.
When the time came, the hospital room was filled with more than 30 medical staff and grief counselors, prepared for the worst possible outcome.
But Charlotte chose life.
In her first few days, she was in and out of surgery — touching and going every day.
“When she was very sick for the first few days, Josh turned to me and said, ‘Don’t you wish you could just put her soul into a healthy body so she can enjoy life the way we do,’” says Laura.
“He was seven. He just says the most profound things.”
Charlotte was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and epilepsy and was told she would need care for the rest of her life.
Her prognosis was unknown.
Laura and Paul started making adjustments to the house for their little girl and were happy to have her as part of their family.
Josh and Isabella adored their new sister and took on new roles in the family and helped care for Charlotte.
There were more surgeries, therapy, and ICU visits, and Charlotte took on every new challenge with a grin.
With a wheelchair, oxygen tank and feeding tube, Charlotte Laura’s best friend and the couple never parted ways.
When Charlotte was two, Laura became pregnant again.
While waiting for an ultrasound appointment early in her pregnancy with Charlotte, Laura caught a woman across the room staring at her daughter.
“I was pretty used to that and just thought, ‘Here we go again,'” says Laura.
“She asked me what was wrong with Charlotte and I started telling her.”
The woman stopped Laura mid-sentence and revealed that she also had a daughter with cerebral palsy.
She then pointed to her pregnant belly — revealing she was pregnant in hopes of using her unborn child’s stem cells to help her eldest.
Cells from the newborn’s umbilical cord would be inserted into her eldest child, hoping to help increase movement and brain development.
“She was talking about a medical trial in Melbourne, she quickly grabbed a piece of paper, wrote all the details on it and handed it to me,” says Laura.
When she got home, Laura dug into her purse to find the crumpled piece of paper.
“I thought, ‘What was the evil?’ so I called the number,” she says.
The trial focused purely on the safety of the procedure surrounding sibling stem cell infusions, and Laura was told they had no evidence that Charlotte could benefit from stem cells at that stage.
“But what did I have to lose,” says Laura.
When she began her own research into stem cell testing, she found that children around the world benefited from the infusion – with dramatic developmental changes and greater independence.
For the Wests, the trial sparked hope for their daughter’s future. So they signed up.
Laura and Paul were told that Charlotte had only a 25 percent chance of matching with her new sibling.
And they would have to wait for the arrival of their latest bundle to test their compatibility.
When Emma was welcomed into the world, the family was overjoyed – not only because of baby number four, but also because of the countless opportunities for Charlotte.
Emma’s placenta and umbilical cord were quickly sent for examination.
“When we finally got the call, we couldn’t believe it – they were a match,” says Laura.
At the age of three and a half, Charlotte and Laura flew to Melbourne for the two-hour procedure, which went “flawless”.
“We had no expectations from what they (doctors) had told us,” says Laura.
Just two days after the infusion, Charlotte picked up a bottle and began making a sucking motion with her mouth.
“I know it seems like such a small moment, but she had never done that before, she is tube fed,” says the mother.
A few weeks later she was rolling – then crawling, standing and finally walking.
With no previous motor skills, Charlotte raced past every milestone she’d missed in her short three years of her life.
“We’re told she wouldn’t have a chance to ever talk or walk. She’ll never know you, she’ll never form bonds or relationships with people, she’ll never know her family,” says Laura.
“Now she knows her family, she loves us dearly, she can hold a pencil and draw.”
Charlotte, now eight, continues to improve every day.
Josh and Isabella share a special bond with Charlotte, but the bond between Emma and her sister is on another level.
“Emma grabs Charlotte’s hand and takes her to the trampoline and just encourages her,” says Laura.
Laura interacts with the woman from the doctor’s waiting room, and the couple share their journeys with stem cell research.
Laura calls the meeting her “turning point” and says Charlotte wouldn’t be where she is today without meeting the friendly stranger.
“Doctors always give you the grim odds of everything,” says the mother.
“But when I look at Charlotte now, she’s doing everything she was told she wouldn’t.”
Laura shares her family’s story to raise awareness about the importance of research into stem cell therapies, cord blood and tissue storage, and initiatives such as Cell Care’s cord blood collection program.
Visit www.cellcare.com.au for more information.