For most mums, cradling a newborn baby against your body for the first time is extremely emotional.
For Melissa Wiggins, it was a moment of pure joy and overwhelming sadness.
Melissa had to wait seven long days for her first proper “kangaroo” cuddle, where she could hold daughter Faith against her chest, and when nurses took her baby out of the incubator she’d been in since birth and handed her to Melissa, the first-time mum was bursting with happiness. But her heart was also breaking, because she knew that the next day, the oxygen keeping her adored daughter alive would be turned off, and Faith would die.
“I’d be laughing and smiling at her one minute, then bursting into tears when the realisation hit me,” recalls Melissa (27), her voice catching. “She looked so perfect, it was hard to believe she was so sick. I kept asking the doctors if there was anything else we could do, but there wasn’t – she was fighting a battle she couldn’t win.”
For the legal secretary from Waipukurau, the last couple of years have been intense. First there was delight in September 2011, when she learned she was pregnant. She has polycystic ovarian syndrome, which can make conception difficult.
“All I have ever wanted was to be a mum, so I was ecstatic. My partner was excited, too – we’d been together more than four years and I was sure he would be popping the question any day. I was in love, I was having a baby, life was great.”
But then, at nine weeks pregnant, her partner left her.
“It came completely out of the blue,” she says. “I think he was just freaked out by everything.”
Melissa was distraught, but with the support of parents Sheryl and Vern, she prepared for life as a single mum. Sheryl was with Melissa when she went for her 20-week scan, and they were both excited to see the baby kicking and sucking its thumb. But that night, her midwife contacted her with terrible news.
The scan revealed the baby had a life-threatening condition called congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), in which the baby’s diaphragm doesn’t form properly. An amniocentesis then showed that the baby – a girl Melissa decided to name Faith – had a rare chromosome disorder called Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome. This can affect many parts of the body, including the diaphragm, and lead to intellectual disabilities, seizures and developmental problems.
Yet again, Melissa was devastated, but determined to go ahead with the pregnancy, despite being offered a termination because the chances of the baby surviving were so poor. “I couldn’t go through with a procedure to stop her heart beating – I could feel her moving and hiccupping inside me. I just kept hoping the doctors were wrong.”
As if she hadn’t already been through enough, Melissa then developed the pregnancy condition pre-eclampsia – which can be fatal to both baby and mother – and Faith had to be delivered at 35 weeks by emergency Caesarean at Wellington Hospital in June last year. Melissa was warned it was unlikely her daughter would be delivered alive, but says she somehow knew Faith would be a battler.
“When they lifted her out of me, she gave a little cry... a little message to tell me she was ready to fight for her life. And she really did fight – she was so brave.”
As the hours, then days, passed, doctors were astonished at Faith’s strength. However, tests showed that as well as her stomach sitting where her left lung should have been, her heart was on the wrong side of her chest and underdeveloped, so unable to do its job properly. As she began to get weaker, she was given increased amounts of oxygen to help her breathe, but it wasn’t a long-term solution.
“Nothing else could be done for her. I had to make the heartbreaking decision no mother should have to make – to turn off the oxygen.”
On the eighth – and last – day of Faith’s life, Melissa was given her little girl to hold in the morning and cradled her against her chest all day.
“I kept watching the clock, knowing the oxygen was going to be switched off at 6pm. While it was wonderful holding her against my skin, it was so, so heartbreaking, knowing what was going to happen."
“She kept gazing at me and responding to my voice. When my dad came over and said, ‘Hello Faith,’ she put her head up and looked straight at him.”
“As the time came, Mum sat with me and held my hand, and with all my energy I smiled and kissed Faith, then held her while she took her long last look at me with her beautiful big eyes.”
After Faith passed away, Melissa got huge comfort from being able to bathe and dress her daughter for the first and last time. Now, more than a year later, Melissa says the pain of losing Faith is starting to ease a little, but she will always feel like “a massive chunk is missing”.
I will always be Faith’s mum, and even though it was only for eight days, I feel enormously privileged. She was an amazing little person and has made me so much stronger. She’s my hero.”
Photos: Melissa and parents Vern and Sheryl by John Cowpland. Melissa and Faith by Sharyn Reeve, bysharyn.com