Thank God I didn’t lose my brilliant son

Fiona Walton and her 16-year-old son, Joshua
Fiona Walton and her 16-year-old son, Joshua
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When Tapton pupil Josh Walton opened his GCSE results last week to discover seven A stars and three As, him mum Fiona had even more reason than other parents to celebrate. He is the boy who almost died before he was born. At 30 weeks pregnant, Fiona was told her baby had a 1 in 100 chance of surviving and was offered a termination. Instead, Birkdale prep teacher Fiona, now 53, opted for a revolutionary treatment which saved him, but could have left him handicapped.

The 53-year-old from Crookes, also an adviser for the charity Christians and Sheffield Schools, tell her story:

Q. You were 30 weeks pregnant with Josh, your second child, when your world came crashing in. What happened?

A. I complained to my dad, a retired doctor from The Special Care Baby Unit, about feeling enormous. Without my knowledge my dad phoned the hospital and asked for me to be seen urgently. I didn’t really pick up on the fact anything was amiss at this point.

Q. What happened next?

A. I had a scan at the Northern General Hospital, then I heard the words you dread, ‘There is something wrong with your baby. Let me go and fetch the consultant.’

he doctors said the baby had a 1 in 100 chance of survival. I was asked if I wished to continue with the pregnancy. He was waterlogged due to heart failure, caused by severe anaemia.

Q. Odds of 1 in 100... How terrifying that must have been.

A. It was both scary and unbelievable at the same time, if that makes sense! It only sank in gradually. I still feel amazed and blessed he survived.

Q. Did you consider terminating the pregnancy?

A. No I didn’t and the doctors never mentioned it again.

Q. What happened next?

A. No one knew the cause of the problem - there wasn’t time to wait for the results of tests. The baby was in trouble. I was given a choice of do nothing or try something - blood transfusions for the baby in the womb, though they carried risk of losing the baby. I chose to try the transfusions. To save his life, treatment had to start immediately. He had about 24 hours. I rang everyone I could think of and asked them to pray. We were warned that if he survived he could be handicapped. I remember a few moments later on when I felt pure fear at the thought of coping with a disabled child.

Q. How did it feel when the transfusions were taking place?

A. I heard the doctor say ‘the eight-inch needle please” – it didn’t sound good! I didn’t look at the needle going into my stomach. I kept my eyes on the scan screen.

I could see the needle, and on occasion my baby, trying to flip the needle away with his hand. The doctor said: ‘This baby is supposed to be sedated!’ It was a very rare procedure they were trying and there were lots of people in the room watching. I felt a bit faint and uncomfortable, particularly after the first transfusion, But through everything I felt that if I panicked I would not help Josh. I felt a courage and sense of peace most of the time that I attribute to my faith and the prayers of others.

Q. It sounds such a simple solution. How and why did it work?

A. He was given red blood cells from a donor. It turned out to be the right choice. Tests results later revealed I had anti-Kell antibodies in my blood. Such antibodies are rare . Over two weeks, he was given four blood transfusions and they also pumped some of the liquid out. I was given lots of steroid injections to try to develop his lungs. I remember sitting in the hospital toilets and weeping a few times.

Q. Whoever gave the blood saved your baby’s life. Has it made you consider becoming a blood donor?

A. I am extremely grateful to the donors. Joshua had a further exchange blood transfusion when he was born and was given plasma. It did make me feel I should donate blood. However, I believe there is a ban if you have had blood and plasma transfusions before a certain year.

Q. Was your son’s birth brought forward for his safety?

A. Yes. I knew I’d have a premature baby. I asked the sex, so I could name him and bond. He became Joshua (the name means God saves. There were several Joshuas in special care).

He was born two weeks later, at 32 weeks, when I developed another anti body called anti-Kidd. I had an emergency c-section. I remember writing a list of what I wanted on the back of my dad’s newspaper. (Sorry - it wasn’t The Star!) I was asked if I’d like music during the op. Lovely, I thought. They put Radio Hallam on and he was born to an advert for secondhand cars at Reg Vardy!

He weighed 5lbs 5oz but some of that was fluid. He needed another blood transfusion and was put on a ventilator in intensive care and fed through a tube. He had blood taken every hour.

I couldn’t hold him for nearly a week, but held his hand and stroked him.

He was in the unit for eight weeks. I visited everyday, 9am to 6pm. I pumped off breast milk and fed him through a tube. My husband took my milk in to him every night at 10pm for him.

During the 10 weeks that passed after the problem was discovered we were cooked 70 meals by members of our church (St. Thomas at Crookes). I look back on it as a time when I felt cared for. He came home on his due date – 11th May 1997.

Q. You had been warned there was a high risk he would be mentally and physically disabled. Did that matter?

A. Of course! I really wanted him to be able to walk, see, hear, have a normal life.. He’d have been loved whatever, but I realise life could have been so hard.

Q. Did you find yourself watching for signs?

A. Like any new mum you watch. I kept correcting his age by two months to take account of his due date. Josh seemed to take a long while to sit up. Then he sat, crawled and walked all in a rush.

Q. When did your mind finally feel at rest that he was normal and healthy?

A. He was rarely ill, although for an entire year he had reflux, so he threw up a lot of every feed. Later he needed speech therapy and failed a few hearing tests. It is difficult to know whether that would have happened anyway. But both his speech and hearing are perfect now. And he has had just five days off school ill in 12 years.

He was 16 in March. He has run for Sheffield and South Yorkshire several times, has just got 12 GCSEs, seven at A-star, and an A in an advanced maths paper, winning a physics scholarship to study A levels at Birkdale School.

Q. How grateful you must feel - to your dad, the doctors, the blood donors...

A. Massively! The doctors and my parents were amazing. Blood donors are so brilliant. My church and friends so supportive.

But I would really like to say I know not every story of this kind turns out so well, My heart goes out to those who took a different decision or had a different outcome. I took a risk and am so grateful mine and Josh’s stories had a happy ending.