Mela Mitchell's first-ever photo with her little sister Eva isn't like the pictures her friends have holding their new siblings.
"Mine's in a hospital cot and Eva has tubes, having just come off life support," recalls the ballet-loving teen, 14, whose younger sibling was born with a hole in her diaphragm. "A nurse's hands are helping me hold her."
Eva, now 12, was given a 10% chance of surviving birth, but now she and her big sister are best friends, bonded not only by blood, but a childhood growing up in hospital.
"I was the kid watching doctors resuscitate my little sister in the middle of the night, while Mum screamed at them to help," recalls Mela, who spent six years living amongst sick children and the beeping of machines as Eva fought for her life.
"People expect me to be resentful because she takes so much attention and needs so much care and help, but I'm just not," says Mela. "As a kid, the thing I wanted most and still want is for my little sister to be OK."
As the pair giggle and chat, dancing around and fussing over their outfits, it's a far cry from their earlier days.
For high-school student Mela, things like learning to ride a bike and scooter were taught by nurses down the hallway of the ward, and day-care was a hospital playroom.
Doll-loving Eva doesn't remember a lot from her years in and out of the intensive care unit, fighting gastrointestinal failure and illnesses, including numerous bouts of pneumonia. But Eva – whose stomach and bowels don't work – knows Mela ran up and down the corridors with her, helping to hold her tubes.
"Mela would cuddle me and hold my hand in hospital," beams the brown-eyed girl, whose older sister often shared a room with her.
"I felt happier when they were there," she shares.
Mela remembers the discomfort of sleeping in a bed smaller than the size of a single and tells, "Mum stuck pillows down the side and I slept in the gap! But I didn't know any different."
While Eva still needs a tube in her nose to get all her nutrients through fluid, this year has been her healthiest so far. She no longer has excruciating tummy pains thanks to an ileostomy bag and can eat pasta, her favourite. Eva's also thriving at school and has two pet lizards, two rabbits and a cat at home.
For the little girl who suffered several strokes and almost died many times over, life today is nothing short of a miracle.
But transitioning into a home in 2014, nine minutes from Auckland's Starship Hospital, wasn't easy to begin with. "I had trouble sleeping and lay awake until midnight," Mela tells. "We think it was anxiety and the stress of a change in life."
According to the well-mannered teen, they slept in the lounge with the radio on that first evening. "We also had all the lights on because we were used to it," she laughs. "At hospital, you're always on high alert."
A part of their past the girls are happy to leave behind is the terrifying "blue code".
"That's when the hospital staff run down the hall to a sick kid – and it happened to Eva a few times," explains Mela, who is petrified of needles. "It's scary to sit and watch, and so was visiting her in intensive care, not knowing if she'd be OK."
In September, Mela spoke about her experience at the Cure Kids Gala Dinner, followed by a ballet solo while singer Hollie Smith performed What a Wonderful World beside her.
"It was very symbolic," says the girls' mum Tiff McLeod, 36, dabbing tears from her eyes. And young Cure Kids' ambassador Eva agrees. "It was amazing and beautiful, and I was proud," she smiles.
Understandably, every milestone is a massive celebration for the close-knit family, including Halloween, birthdays and Christmas. In hospital, the girls woke on Christmas Day with presents on the end of their bed from the nurses. This year they'll spend the Sunday before at their dad Joel Mitchell's, before heading to mass on Christmas Eve – a tradition picked up in hospital – and at-home festivities with extended family on the day.
When it comes to their present wish list, the sweet-natured siblings are stumped. "I don't know what I want," Eva shrugs, agreeing with Mela's hope for pavlova as part of lunch.
"They're not kids who really ask for things, and I've never had them sad or cry about not getting something in a shop or me saying no," says Tiff.
"From a Christmas perspective, they're the perfect little present in themselves because they're together," she adds. "That's when they're happiest."
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