It was 2am and I was sitting in an ambulance beside my four month old daughter whose life was in serious danger. I never once thought I’d ever be in this situation.
In the days leading up to this moment Annabelle had been throwing up her milk feeds and suffering with an upset tummy, but when we took her to our GP we were told she had a gastro bug. It was March and we were experiencing one of the worst winters in years. Lots of children were unwell with bugs and colds so it seemed plausible to put it down to this. However, Annabelle wasn’t getting any better, so my partner, James, and I took her to our local hospital’s A&E.
We were there a day and it felt like we were watching our daughter die right in front of our eyes. She was deteriorating rapidly and we knew it couldn’t just be a gastro bug, it had to be something much more serious. And it was. A scan revealed Annabelle had a blockage in her bowels, which was a result of her intestine folding in on itself. She needed emergency treatment at a specialist hospital in either Cambridge or London. Thankfully we were transferred to Addenbrooke’s Hospital rather than Great Ormond Street Hospital.
James and I had no idea what was going on when we arrived. Devastation hit us as we were told our daughter, the most precious thing in our lives, was critically ill. We were shocked. We didn’t understand how she could be so gravely ill. She’d been sick lately yes, but not to the point that we had considered we might lose her. Annabelle was rushed into theatre and for six hours we watched the clock, waiting for news. In that time, Annabelle underwent an air enema, a procedure where a tube is passed up through the bottom and air is released into the colon in an attempt to unravel the bowel. Sadly this didn’t work and, even worse, our daughter’s bowel ruptured. The doctors had to create a stoma (a small opening in her tummy) to allow her to pass stools, but more importantly to save our daughter’s life.
Once Annabelle was out of surgery, she was taken to the paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) and put on a life-support machine where we would not be allowed to sleep by her bedside. We had no idea where we would be able to stay that could ever be close enough. I would’ve stayed in the parent’s room for the whole time if I had to. I couldn’t face leaving her all alone in hospital. But the team gave us an envelope with a key inside it. A nurse explained to us that The Sick Children’s Trust, a charity that supports families with seriously ill children in hospital, ran a ‘Home from Home’ at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. We were holding a key to Acorn House. In a time of uncertainty and fear, it was such a comfort to know we would be staying on the hospital site.
Acorn House is beautiful. It’s freshly decorated, new and homely. We were in such a rush to get to Cambridge that we only brought Annabelle’s things, we didn’t even think about ourselves. It was lovely to open a door to our own private room to find fresh towels on the bed, and to then go to a bathroom to have a hot shower. It just made all the difference.
We live an hour away in Broxbourne, so we had to stay in Cambridge. It wouldn’t have been possible to be with our daughter without Acorn House as we weren’t prepared for what was happening. Acorn House was clean and full of so many little touches that made it feel like home. Even just biscuits in the kitchen. The days are long in hospital, one day feels like an entire month. You’re constantly worried and exhausted, so being able to pick up a biscuit on my way to the ward gave me a much needed boost!
Annabelle was transferred from PICU to the high dependency unit where we stayed for two nights. She was then moved to the ward, where I was able to sleep by her side, though getting sleep on a children’s ward is not at all easy. During the day I would leave James with Annabelle and go over to Acorn House to have a shower, sleep and watch a bit of TV. In a situation that was completely out of our control, we found that Acorn House gave us a little bit of normality.
When your child suddenly becomes life-threateningly ill, you end up questioning yourself as a parent, which is devastating. You constantly think about what you could’ve done differently, what you should’ve noticed and what you would have said. Because Annabelle’s so tiny, she couldn’t tell me how she was feeling. She was incredibly brave and she didn’t cry once. At Acorn House, we were amongst other parents and families whose lives had also been turned upside down. It was hard to see those parents whose children had been in hospital for such a long time or involved in serious accidents. However, despite our differences we could all relate to one another. I spoke to one Mum who questioned herself like I had been and that’s how I began to accept the fact that there was nothing I could’ve done. People back home have since asked me how I coped with Annabelle being so ill, and I coped because I was able to speak to parents at Acorn House who really understood what I was going through.
Acorn House was so welcoming, they welcome all family which you need in a difficult time. For instance, one day when James had to go home to get supplies, my Mum came and stayed the night with me.
After six days we were told we could take Annabelle home, but we wanted to stay! The doctors and nurses were so amazing, and we’d found such a nice community at Acorn House. We felt so safe, but it was time to take Annabelle home and work together as a family to help her recover.
For five months Annabelle had a stoma until it was reversed recently, during this time we could care for her as when we were at Acorn House, we could be hands on in Annabelle’s care and attended training from the hospital.
Annabelle is the bravest person I know. If it had been me, I’d still be crying in the hospital, but my daughter’s so strong that she never ceases to amaze me.
In a few weeks I’ll be going back to work and Annabelle will be starting nursery. We’re starting to move on with our lives. But we don’t ever want Annabelle to forget how much strength she has shown in these last few months, so we’ve created a scrapbook for her and in it there is a page about Acorn House because the ‘Home from Home’ became a huge part of our journey.
Acorn House was amazing throughout our difficult time and I can’t thank The Sick Children’s Trust enough for that.
Gemma Murray, Annabelle’s Mum