Charlotte Wyatt -- Don't give up on me!


In the week that a judge decided that Charlotte Wyatt should be allowed to die, the story of Grace Rehua, the 16-year-old who was born at 24 weeks and given no chance of survival, is a poignant reminder that 'miracles' can happen.

Doctors wanted to take Grace Rehua, born at 24 weeks, off a respirator. But her parents refused to allow it. She is now 16
By Olga Craig Filed: 10/10/2004

Dazed and still in shock after the trauma of a difficult birth, Janette Rehua sat in a wheelchair grasping the tiny bundle that had been thrust into her arms.

As she gazed down at the tiny, premature daughter dwarfed by the white nappy in which she was wrapped - the child she had delivered just an hour before - all she could see was a pained, purple face and one bruised and swollen arm.

"I remember thinking that her face was the size of my little finger," she says. "I had only seen her for a moment after I had given birth to her. Before she had been whisked away. Before the paediatrician had leaned over me and whispered gently, 'Your daughter will just close her eyes and go to sleep. Very, very soon.'

"Now I was holding my baby for what would be the first and last time. The hospital photographer was taking a picture and that image would be all I would ever have of her. That and her memory."

As the swift portrait of mother and child was being taken, doctors had already concluded that this baby had no chance of survival.

For Janette, a Lancastrian who now lives in Australia, it was a bewildering moment. "I didn't want to become attached. I gave her back without a word," she recalls. "I had no baby, I told myself."

Grace's story, however, is little short of miraculous. She was born at 24 weeks, even younger than Charlotte Wyatt, the 11-month-old baby from Portsmouth - born at 26 weeks - who a judge last week decreed should be allowed to die.

Grace's parents, Mark and Janette, were told that their daughter had a clot on her brain, would almost certainly be brain-damaged, lung-damaged, blind and deaf.

That, doctors said, was the best possible scenario. They left the couple in little doubt. Grace's chances of survival mirrored those predicted for baby Charlotte: "virtually zero".

Had she been born seven days later, at 25 weeks, doctors would have performed a Caesarean section once Janette went into labour and an incubator and ventilator would have been standing by. (The law then in Auckland, New Zealand, where she was born, decreed that babies were viable only at 25 weeks and beyond.) Grace's misfortune was to have been born one week too early.

Yet baby Grace, despite being given no medical assistance in her first hours, breathed by herself, clinging to life against all odds. Three times doctors gently suggested that her parents should sanction the switching off of her life support. Three times the Rehuas refused. That was 16 years ago.

Today Grace Rehua, Janette's daughter, is a happy, healthy teenager living in Perth, Australia with her parents "Oh, she's into playing her electric guitar very loudly, wearing mismatched clothes a typical teenager," laughs her mother.

Although the diagnosis of her disabilities was wrong, Janette and Mark believed that their daughter, despite her pitiful and pain-wracked existence, deserved the chance to fight for her life.

The Rehuas have long felt blessed that their wishes were respected, but it was not until Grace read newspaper reports of the Wyatts' plight that they decided to speak out.

"I was desperately touched when I read about Charlotte," says Grace, a pupil at Aranmore College in Perth.

"I looked at those pictures of her, read about how she was fighting for her life, and thought of myself and the terrible anguish I know my mum and dad went through.

"I know I was luckier, I did not have the extensive handicaps that afflict Charlotte. But when I was born, that was my prognosis too. I already had a brain clot and they were convinced I had a whole host of other disabilities. Yet mum and dad never gave up fighting for me.

"Something must be done to allow Charlotte the same chance, I thought. She has only her parents to speak for her: they alone should be allowed to decide. I know that her doctors, like those who cared for me, have only her best interests at heart But the news that Charlotte will not be resuscitated if she stops breathing again because of her heart and lung problems is heartbreaking. I just want people to listen to my mother tell my story to see there is hope. No one should play God. I believe, like mum and dad, in the sanctity of life."

Janette, her mother, was 21 when Grace was born. Brought up in Rochdale, Lancashire, she had emigrated at 16. She met Mark, an Australian, at 19.

In September 1988, in her 23rd week of pregnancy, she was taken into hospital after a bleeding episode. A week later, Grace was born in the National Women's Hospital in Auckland, where her parents then lived, after a four-hour labour. The couple were told by doctors that the baby would not survive.

Janette, a devout Roman Catholic, placed her trust in God. Moments after Grace's birth she was whisked away. Janette had held her only once.

"I was taken to a ward and as far as I was concerned my baby was dying, was dead," she recalls. "Mark went looking for her and found her alone in a room, in a crib. Nurses told him he could sit with her until she slipped away.

"She was alone, just lying there," Mark said. "I sat with her she never made a sound. I remember thinking, 'If there really is a God, then surely he will save my daughter's life, no matter how badly disabled she is'. Though the medical staff were doing what they felt was right, we felt as though Grace had been abandoned."

Four hours later, as Janette lay in the neo-natal ward, paediatricians and doctors burst in saying incredulously: "Your baby is still alive, she is breathing by herself. She didn't die do you want us to give her medical assistance?"

The Rehuas were overjoyed: simultaneously they said yes. Grace was given a blood transfusion, a brain scan and put on a ventilator in an incubator.

"I felt so awful when I first went into the intensive care baby ward," said Janette. "I had to ask which baby was mine, I had seen her only for moments. When I saw her I fainted. When I came round I was taken back to her. She looked so fragile, so vulnerable. Her skin was like tissue paper.

"As I touched her I told her I loved her and suddenly all the monitors began shrieking. I was terrified but the doctor said, 'That is a good sign, her heart is beating more strongly, she knows it is her mother'."

Grace's prognosis was poor and she needed monitoring hour by hour. "But her survival gave enormous hope to other parents of premature babies," said Janette. "Everyone was calling her Amazing Grace."

Each day, Grace's condition changed. She had good and bad days. "After a bad day the doctors would sit us down and ask again, 'Do you want us to keep her alive? You know her chances are slim and her disabilities will be enormous.' The first time they asked she was two days old. But we never waivered. Grace fought unaided those first four hours. We must support her and fight too."

Fourteen weeks later the Rehuas were allowed to take Grace, then weighing five pounds, home for Christmas. Although small for her age, she thrived.

She had bronchial problems but the doctors' predictions of disabilities proved unfounded. Today, as she laughs with friends at the Respect Life Youth Group holiday camp where she is spending the summer, she is the picture of health.

"Baby Charlotte's doctors say all she feels is pain," says Janette. "We had to watch as Grace screamed in agony at every injection, every procedure. But she remembers none of that. She fought for her chance of life and we cannot thank God enough for allowing us to keep her. Every child, no matter how disabled, has its worth. No child should be rejected because it is not perfect.

"Grace has so much to give. We only pray that Charlotte, who has touched so many people already, is somehow allowed her chance too."

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