A premature baby who was expected to die a few hours after being born when surgeons discovered she had a dead bowel has made a full recovery against the odds, with her mother saying “we’ve been crying happy tears ever since”.
When Deborah La Spina, 36, a marketing specialist from Sutton, London, gave birth, everything appeared normal – but after a few hours, her baby, Connie, now six months, began vomiting, had to be resuscitated and was rushed to the nearest children’s specialist hospital.
The hospital, St George’s, was the only one in the UK that could carry out an emergency procedure which would save Connie’s life.
After “being in the right place at the right time”, Deborah and her husband Dominic’s journey with Connie did not get any easier – after multiple surgeries, IV drip feeding and three months in hospital.
Before Connie was born, antenatal scans revealed she had an abdominal cyst, which Deborah and Dominic were told not to worry about – little did they know, it would turn out to be life-threatening.
Connie was born one month early, on July 27 2022, at St Helier Hospital, London – all appeared well, and her parents were overjoyed with their new arrival.
Deborah said: “The examiner told me that the cyst hasn’t caused her any trouble, so I was hugely relieved and I breastfed her and she fed beautifully.
“But, within a few minutes, she started vomiting – that’s when I knew something was terribly wrong.”
A few hours later, Connie was blue-lighted to St George’s, a specialist children’s hospital in London, after continuing to vomit and having to be resuscitated.
Deborah explained: “That’s when they said she has some kind of an intestinal blockage.
“I didn’t know how bad things were until they did some scans and said they needed to operate immediately to remove a small piece of bowel.
“They said everything should be OK, and we’ll be home in a few weeks.
“So we waved our baby daughter, who was only a few hours old, off to theatre and we hoped for the best.
“I had just given birth, so I didn’t really know what was going on. I just trusted that the doctors knew what they were doing.”
After nearly five hours, Connie’s surgery was over.
Deborah explained: “The surgeons arrived back, and they looked genuinely shocked. They looked like they’d seen a ghost.
“They explained that things were far worse than they anticipated and her intestine was twisted, cutting off the blood supply.
“We were told that most of Connie’s bowel was dead and not compatible with life. We were terrified.
“I was waiting for the news of them telling me everything is going to be OK, but that punchline never came.”
The surgeons explained to Deborah and Dominic that the surgery they performed was unconventional, St George’s was the only hospital that could do it, and they did not want to give up on Connie.
Deborah said: “The risk was high and the odds were low. Even if the surgery worked, her quality of life would be very questionable.
“They tried something they wouldn’t have done unless they thought there was some hope.
They looked like they’d seen a ghost
“So while we were deeply shocked, saddened, and terrified, we had something to hang on to and they weren’t telling us this was the very, very end.
“So we just clung on to that for dear life.”
As the days went by, there was progress – Connie came off her medication and ventilator and was moved from intensive care into the high dependency unit, where she was given parenteral nutrition through an IV drip.
Deborah said: “She miraculously was only in intensive care for one week. After surgery, we were told seven days was a critical period, and if it didn’t go to plan, she would die.”
Connie improved in the next week, and the doctors were able to teach her how to accept milk, and did so by feeding it through her stomach directly.
Six weeks later, she underwent another procedure to remove the tube holding her bowel together – which Deborah said was “the true test to see if everything had worked”.
After things were looking up, just one week later Connie began vomiting again, and so she had another surgery to remove even more of her bowel.
Deborah said: “It was scary, because she was doing so well. I was very nervous, and when she started vomiting, that’s when my heart just sank. It was very, very tough.
“It was tough for Dominic too, he was trying to remain positive I think for me.
“We had to remember, at this stage, it was still just quality of life more so than her actual life.”
The surgery was successful, and revealed Connie had grown new bowels, meaning she could be fed orally.
Deborah explained: “She had recovered better than anyone had anticipated.
“The surgeons came out with smiles on their faces.
“Instead of her needing years of this parenteral nutrition to support her growth, and absorption of nutrients, we were looking at maybe six to 12 months. So that was a big deal.”
A few days later, after three months of Connie being in hospital and “emotional hell”, Deborah and Dominic could finally take Connie home.
Deborah said: “We visualised that day every day.
“When you find out you’re pregnant you visualise walking out of hospital with the car seat in your hand and watching the husband in front of the hospital door.
“It was very different from when I walked out of St Helier with her in an incubator and an ambulance.
“So when we finally got to walk out of the hospital and put her into the car, we just looked at each other and had just a sigh of relief – we’ve made it, we’ve gotten through the toughest, most challenging time of our lives.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
Deborah explained how grateful she was for the team at St George’s, saying: “We just couldn’t believe our luck that we came upon this team who are able to fix our very sick little baby.
“I think we’ve been crying happy tears ever since.”
Deborah and Dominic took Connie home on Halloween in 2022, without any parenteral nutrition, and were welcomed by their loved ones.
She said: “We drove up in the car and Connie’s sister, Peigi, came running out.
“We were finally a family of four, we were able to begin our lives all together.
“Our lives had been essentially torn apart because we were in the hospital so much.
“It was the biggest relief, and we’re so thankful for our miracle baby.”