As the cries of baby number four echoed from the delivery room, parents Laura and Paul West held their breath.
Not just for their newborn baby girl, Emma, but for their third child, Charlotte, who was desperately awaiting the arrival of her sister – a much-needed stem cell donor.
As the umbilical cord and placenta were removed, Laura whispered to her healthy little baby that she was destined to save her big sister’s life.
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Charlotte, who lived with cerebral palsy, couldn’t walk, talk or eat on her own.
Doctors told the West family they would never know their 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 move up and grow into the chest area.
Charlotte also had a hole in her heart, a number of bowel issues and white matter in her brain, among other issues.
Specialists suggested Paul and Laura consider termination – Charlotte had a 10% survival rate at best.
At home, the couple tried to come to terms with the gravity of the situation.
They gently broke the news to their two children, Josh, then seven, and Isabella, then four.
“Every day they would rub my belly and say ‘Hello 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 against the dismissal and left Charlotte to make the decision for herself, praying every day for her safe and healthy arrival.
When the time came, the hospital room was filled with more than 30 medical staff and bereavement counselors, prepared for the worst possible outcome.
But Charlotte chose life.
During her first days, she went back and forth in surgery – every day, back and forth.
“When she was really sick those first few days, Josh turned to me and said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be able to just take her soul and place it in a healthy body so she could enjoy life like us,” says Laura.
“He was seven years old. He just says the deepest things.
Luck of battle
Charlotte was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and epilepsy and told she would need care for the rest of her life.
His prognosis was unknown.
Laura and Paul started making changes to their little girl’s home 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, helping to care for Charlotte.
There were more surgeries, therapies and intensive care visits, and Charlotte took on each new challenge with a smile.
With a wheelchair, an oxygen bottle and a feeding tube, Charlotte became Laura’s best friend and the couple never left each other.
Then, when Charlotte was two, Laura got pregnant again.
While waiting with Charlotte for an appointment for an ultrasound early in her pregnancy, Laura surprised a woman watching her daughter from across the room.
“I was pretty used to it and just thought, ‘Here we go again,'” Laura says.
“She asked me what was wrong with Charlotte and I started telling her.”
The woman stopped Laura mid-sentence and revealed that she too had a daughter with cerebral palsy.
She then pointed to her pregnant bump – and revealed she had conceived in hopes of using her unborn child’s stem cells to help her eldest.
Umbilical cord cells from the newborn would be infused into her eldest child, hoping to help increase movement and brain development.
“She talked about a medical trial in Melbourne, she quickly grabbed a piece of paper and wrote all the details on it and handed it to me,” Laura says.
Back home, Laura rummaged through her bag to find the crumpled piece of paper.
“I thought, ‘What was the harm?’ so I called the number,” she said.
The trial was purely about procedural safety around fraternal stem cell infusions, and Laura was told they had no evidence that stem cells could benefit Charlotte at this point.
“But what did I have to lose,” Laura said.
As she began her own research into stem cell trials, she discovered that children around the world were benefiting from the infusion – with dramatic developmental changes and increased independence.
For the Wests, the trial has raised hope for their daughter’s future. So they signed up.
Laura and Paul learned that Charlotte only had a 25% chance of matching with her new brother.
And they should wait until their latest bundle arrives to test their compatibility.
When Emma was welcomed into the world, the family was thrilled – not just with baby number four, but with the endless possibilities for Charlotte.
Emma’s placenta and umbilical cord were quickly sent for testing.
“When we finally got the call, we couldn’t believe it – they were compatible,” says Laura.
Then aged three and a half, Charlotte and Laura flew to Melbourne for the two-hour procedure, which went “perfectly”.
“From what they (doctors) told us, we had no expectations,” says Laura.
Just two days after the infusion, Charlotte grabbed a bottle and started making a sucking motion with her mouth.
“I know it seems like such a small moment, but she’s never done this before, she’s being tube fed,” the mum says.
A few weeks later, she was rolling – then crawling, standing, and finally walking.
Without prior motor skills, Charlotte was speeding past every milestone she had missed in her three short years of life.
“We were told that she would never have a chance to speak or walk, that she would never know you, that she would never bond or relate to people, that she would never know her family “, says Laura.
“Now she knows her family, she loves us very much, she can hold a pencil and draw.”
Every day Charlotte, now eight years old, continues to improve.
Josh and Isabella share a special bond with Charlotte, but Emma and her sister’s connection is on a different level.
“Emma grabs Charlotte’s hand and leads her onto the trampoline and just cheers her on,” Laura says.
Laura is in contact with the woman in the doctor’s waiting room and the couple share their journeys with stem cell research.
Laura calls the encounter her “turning point”, saying that without meeting the friendly stranger, Charlotte wouldn’t be where she is today.
“Doctors always give you the grim side of everything,” the mother says.
“But looking at Charlotte now, she’s doing everything she was told she wouldn’t do.”
Laura shares her family’s story to raise awareness of the importance of stem cell therapy research, umbilical cord blood and tissue storage, and initiatives such as the cord blood collection program fraternal of Cell Care.
Visit www.cellcare.com.au for more information.