Isabella survived, but at 18 months she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy – a disability caused by damage to the brain before or during birth. Doctors told the couple she would probably never walk.It is only now that Isabella is three and making good progress that 31-year-old Julie, and Phil, 30, can finally bring themselves to talk openly about their experiences.
When Julie was 28 weeks pregnant her water broke needing her to be hospitalized. After staying in the hospital for 2 weeks she suffered a placental abruption which forced the doctors to deliver the baby by emergency caesarean.
The night after she was born, Isabella was so ill that doctors thought she might not make it. Phil sat next to her incubator the entire night, but Julie was in a poor state and wasn’t deemed well enough to visit the intensive baby care unit until 30 hours after the birth.
But within just a few days Isabella’s lungs were strong enough to enable her to breathe on her own. After five weeks she was well enough to take a bottle. At six weeks, and weighing 5lb, Isabella was allowed home.
Phil and Julie thought their daughter was perfect and, putting the trauma of her premature birth behind them, tried to get on with their lives. But Isabella was always ill.
“It took more than an hour to get her to take her bottle, and then she would be sick straight afterwards,” says Julie. “At the time, I just thought Isabella’s problems were because she was so premature, and assumed things would get better.”
But as the weeks turned into months, Isabella failed to reach her developmental milestones.
“Other babies were sitting up by six months, then crawling and walking, but Isabella didn’t,’ Julie says. ‘I just knew something was wrong.”
Family, friends and health visitors all reassured Julie that Isabella would catch up. “But when she did start to crawl, it wasn’t like other babies – she seemed to be weaker on her left side. And it was always a very slow, concentrated crawl, as if she always had to think about which movement to do next.
“When we held her arms to help her walk, she seemed to drag her left foot.”
When Isabella was 18 months old, Julie and Phil took her to see a paediatrician at St Mary’s. Hip scans, leg scans and blood tests ruled out other problems and the family were finally given the news that Isabella had cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy is a condition that affects movement, and around one in every 400 babies are born in Britain with it each year. There are several causes, although the most common is failure of part of the brain to develop – perhaps because of a blocked blood vessel or complications in labour.
An MRI scan showed that Isabella had probably suffered a stroke in the womb about six months into the pregnancy. The section of brain affected is responsible for sending messages to muscles to control movement and co-ordination.
However, the condition varies with the child: in some, movement problems are barely noticeable, in others, all four limbs can be badly affected. Some can also have learning difficulties, problems feeding and talking, and may suffer sight or hearing loss, and develop epilepsy.
Depending on the child, treatment may involve a combination of physical therapy, medication and surgery.
“At first we were told Isabella’s cerebral palsy was mild, but now the doctors say it is medium,” says Julie.
Not long after Isabella was diagnosed doctors gave her a less than 50% chance of walking.
Both Julie and Phil were determined not to accept the diagnosis and decided to do everything in their power to help their daughter to walk.
They erected hand rails at Isabella’s height all around their home, and converted their garage into a soft play area so she could play and climb to keep her muscles loose without hurting herself if she fell over.
When Isabella was two, physiotherapists and the paediatrician decided her best chance of walking would be to fit her with special leg splints, which she would have to wear 24 hours a day.
“Isabella hated them. The day they were fitted, she cried for eight hours, begging me to take them off.
“But I knew that if I gave in, her chances of walking would be ruined. Philip was away for two weeks on tour in America with Everton, and I remember me, Isabella and Harvey all just sitting at the top of the stairs crying.”
The splints helped support her, but because Isabella’s legs were so turned inwards – a classic cerebral palsy stance – the doctors said she would never be able to take steps independently and they suggested a ‘twister’ brace.
This would be strapped around her waist, with metal rods attached to splints on her legs. These would pull Isabella’s hips outwards so she could stand up straight and give her stability.
For months the family didn’t see any progress and just received more bad news. Just a few weeks after using the help of a walking frame, Isabella started to take her first faltering steps, but the best was still to come.
On Christmas morning the little trooper surprised her parents by letting go of her walking frame and taking her first steps unaided.
We couldn’t believe it,” says Phil. “It was the best Christmas present ever. At first we didn’t want to tell anyone in case it was a one-off. But as the days went on, she became more confident and started letting go of her walker more and more.”
Through Isabella’s traumatic premature birth and disability, Julie and Phil have become involved with several charities to help other families in similar situations. They are patrons of the New Children’s Hospital Appeal in Manchester and Julie is also an ambassador for the premature baby charity Bliss.
“We were lucky to have had Isabella at St Mary’s in Manchester, which is one of the top neonatal units in the country. The help and support we got there was fantastic” says Julie.
“But not everyone is so lucky. One in eight babies born in the UK is premature or sick, and some hospitals just don’t have the staff, resources and time to provide the kind of support we got.
The diagnosis that a doctor gives you is only one small part. The strength and drive that the child has to do more is the large part. It is amazing what can be accomplished when you don’t settle for what is bring offered.