Real Life

Tiff McLeod's family miracle: Eva turns 16!

From a childhood spent in hospital to now learning to drive, Eva keeps fighting

By Fleur Guthrie
For so many years, Tiff McLeod sat next to a cot in Auckland Starship Hospital with a very sick little girl in it, and the arms of her other scared little girl tightly wrapped around her neck, wishing for a different life for her daughters.
Many times in between it felt impossible. Tiff never dared to dream that younger daughter Eva Mitchell – who doctors initially said wouldn't be born alive – would make it past childhood.
"But now here we are!" exclaims her triumphant and proud mum. "Eva has just turned 16 and is proof that miracles exist.
"I would have thought we'd be complete fruit loops and have lost the plot by now. I think about those long nights sitting on the ward and it was so terrifying feeling that Eva would never ever get better – in fact it got worse – and we felt so lost in the world. Now she's thriving and finding her way in the world.
Eva became the face of Red Nose Day when she was younger.
"I wished for so many years in hospital that Eva would be able to grow up, that I actually feel a little bit shocked and in disbelief that she actually has! This is a girl who had multiple strokes as a baby. I was told after one surgery that they had to cut the muscles so deeply in her neck, she probably wouldn't be able to turn her head.
"And here she is about to start driving around West Auckland with her sister Mela [who's turning 18 this month] because Eva's just got her learner licence and they've saved up to buy a car together.
"They learnt to ride bikes in Starship together! I just never thought driving would be possible for her. In fact, I never even envisioned Eva as a teenager… it was too scary to get my hopes up."
After her dramatic birth, Eva had been whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and the first Tiff knew of her baby's fate was when she received a phone call to say Eva's heart had stopped beating.
The tiny tot had a hole in her diaphragm, causing her organs to push up towards her heart and lung cavity, stopping the lungs from forming properly. All of Eva's organs were up in her chest cavity.
"They said her chances were pretty slim because there was massive pressure on her heart. It was so full in her chest, she wasn't able to grow lung tissue. It was pretty major."
Big sister Mela has been by Eva's side all the way.
She spent her first three months in a coma on life support and, at just six weeks, underwent the first of many surgeries. Doctors didn't expect her to survive. However, she defied them every day.
Her stomach and bowel didn't function either, and she used to be fed nutrients through her bloodstream.
So it's another win that at her birthday family dinner celebration, gorgeous Eva was able to actually eat her birthday cake, beautifully-decorated with a badge that read "Sweet 16 and an absolute miracle".
"She can eat now!" rejoices Tiff, 39, from the family's home in West Auckland that she also shares with husband Jason, 43, and their children Cooper, seven, and two-year-old Kenzie.
"That was something that was pretty big on our minds. For years this was the little girl who couldn't eat anything like cake. So for Eva to have an Italian-themed dinner full of food and desserts that she could enjoy is not something we take for granted."
In fact, Eva's "party trick" is to put the nasal-gastric tube in and out herself, laughs Tiff. These days, the teen only uses it depending on how well her gut is working and if she needs extra fluids or nutrients.
For her milestone birthday, Eva had a simple request when asked what gift she might like.
"She asked me to write her a poem and wanted a painting or art piece from Mela," shares Tiff. "Because those things – painting and writing – kept us sane during those five years living at Starship. They helped us cope and process the trauma we were going through.
"I didn't cry writing the poem, but I did cry reading it out loud at the family dinner. It was that sudden realisation of, 'Oh, she actually made it to 16.'
"Everything that Eva was as a little girl – cheeky, funny, loving and fiercely brave – is still the essence of her as a 16-year-old."
'We felt so lost. Now she's thriving and finding her way in the world'. Eva celebrated her milestone birthday with her supportive family (from left) Mela, Kenzie, mum Tiff, Cooper and Jason.
She admits there are times when she questions "how have we ended up the lucky ones?"
"I remember when Eva was born, there was a little boy who was born with the same condition," recalls Tiff. "They were in the same intensive care room next to each other. And he was doing really well, whereas Eva was doing terribly. So his beautiful family was consoling us the whole time.
"Then one morning, I came down and he had died in the night. Everyone was so shocked. In fact, a health-care assistant had thrown out my breast milk because they assumed it was Eva who had died.
"We stayed in contact with that family and I just felt sick that they had lost their baby and I got to keep mine. So there is a bit of 'survivor's guilt'."
Now in Year 11, Eva hopes to study nursing or become a nanny when she leaves school. Older sister and make-up maestro Mela is off to university next year to begin a visual arts degree.
The close-knit pair are also having a joint birthday party in October, to which Eva's original hospital team of nurses are invited.
"Growing up, Mela was her sister's biggest advocate, always by her side cheering her on," reflects Tiff.
"And we've always told our kids we don't care what they do in life, as long as they can wake up every day and can say they're happy. We didn't all fight for Eva to survive for her to have a miserable life. But Eva is the kid who makes the most of every day."
Tiff, now a caregiver for a 95-year-old woman, shares that even the last couple of years haven't been easy for her "incredible, inspirational" daughter either.
The brave teen and Cure Kids ambassador had her back reconstructed last year to fix scoliosis (she has a 75-degree curvature of her spine), followed by knee reconstruction and heart surgery earlier this year.
"So there were times recently when we thought, 'What's going to happen?' She's currently doing really well though and faces every challenge head on.
"There are some times where she's like, 'Why me?', when her friends are off doing something fun and she's facing something big medically. It does take a toll, but she troops on through.
"If I say that I need to contact an elderly friend of ours, she's the kid that goes, 'Oh, I spoke to them yesterday and they said this and this.' She checks up on and cares for everyone, and that's quite unusual for a teenager.
"She relates so well to adults because she's always had adults around her growing up."
Tiff believes the moment Eva was born, the world needed her to show others that life is a precious gift.
"I've been reminiscing on how much love and support from others it's taken to get her to 16 years. You know that old saying 'it takes a village?' Well, for us, it's taken a whole nation!
"That's why I wrote in her poem, 'The whole of New Zealand cheering her to her feet.' Well, we bloody did it! All of us!"

Tiff’s birthday poem for Eva

Despite every odd there could have been
She arrived on this day the sweetest baby ever seen
Perfect in every way to her mum
But a huge fight to survive was to come
Every day from the moment she arrived was the best
But also filled with so much fear it was the biggest test
Life support, tubes, lines, endless operations and drugs
Mixed with tears, laughter, so much love and hugs
Her eyes tell stories no one will understand or get
But I know her future holds the greatest of magic yet
Sick of living in a hospital castle
Running the halls and chasing nurses, the rascal
Nearly losing her life multiple times
Sometimes feeling like in prison for committing crimes
She just kept on going and did it with grace
Holding her sister's hand and a smile on her face
Stealing the hearts of everyone she would meet
The whole of New Zealand cheering her to her feet
Starting school with a drip pole at age nine
She took it in her stride this child of mine
More surgeries then anyone could say
The fact she is here is a miracle in every way
It's taken a team to get you to where you are
But it's taken you the most my darling star
You fought to survive as a baby
You have fought to survive as a young lady
Facing things your mother never could
Going through pain and challenges no one should
Years of surgeries battling the pain
Yet always looking at life with sunshine not rain
You fight with a bravery that's superhuman and strong
Determined to prove everyone wrong
And now my darling girl is 16 today
The most kindest human in every way
She is beautiful inside and out
Always caring and gentle, filled with hope not doubt
Funny and smart and clever and cool
Proof that miracles exist for us all.
  • undefined: Fleur Guthrie

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