Real Life

How Maddison’s milestone birthday defies all odds

One of the tiniest babies born in New Zealand is about to turn 10!
Pictures: Hagen Hopkins

Maddison Riddell is counting down the days to her 10th birthday celebrations later this week and like most almost 10-year-olds, it’s no surprise what she is most looking forward to.

“My birthday presents – I’m hoping for a scooter!” Maddison says excitedly, with cake, hot dogs, goody bags and a lolly-filled piñata also up there.

Reaching double digits is a special milestone in Maddison’s extraordinary journey. Weighing a tiny 410 grams when she was born prematurely at 27 weeks, she has defied the odds to become one of the smallest babies ever to survive in New Zealand.

As they plan celebrations with Maddison’s friends and family, her parents Katlin McIlvenny, 30, and Jonnie Riddell, 32, couldn’t be prouder of their remarkable girl

Mum Katlin has a few surprises in store for her birthday girl!

“It’s incredible to look back to when Maddison was a tiny little thing. She was lying under blue lights in an incubator, wearing the smallest nappy possible. It was still too big,” tells Katlin. “Now she’s at school, thriving and loving life. She’s such a special child.”

The Wellington parents were just 20 and 22 when they had Maddison. Katlin says they didn’t realise anything was amiss with the pregnancy until the 22-week anatomy scan.

“Maddison’s measurements were smaller than expected and the amniotic fluid was low. A more in-depth scan showed a huge blood clot in the placenta, which was impacting the umbilical cord, meaning Maddison wasn’t getting enough nutrients.”

Katlin and Jonnie were told by their medical team at Wellington Hospital that it would be too dangerous for the pregnancy to continue beyond 28 weeks. After receiving this devastating news, Katlin
and Maddison were closely monitored. They passed the first critical goal of 24 weeks gestation, with the next aim to increase Maddison’s weight from less than 400g up to 500g.

“She was growing, but very slowly. In early May, the doctors told me it was too dangerous to be at home any more. On 5 May 2014, they said, ‘Today is the day to deliver her.’”

Maddison’s birth was an overwhelming experience for the couple, whose little girl entered the world by Caesarean in a packed theatre, surrounded by doctors, NICU nurses and Katlin’s midwife. “It was pretty frightening,” Katlin recalls.

Jonnie accompanied Maddison straight to NICU after the birth. “Our parents were waiting in the corridor outside and got their first glimpse of Maddison on the way past. It was a few hours before I got to see her.”

Given she was 90g short of the hoped-for 500g, Maddison was put onto a ventilator to help her breathe, which was later replaced by a CPAP machine. It was 12 days before Katlin and Jonnie were able to give their daughter that first longed-for cuddle.

“I was sitting in a chair and they gave me this little thing attached to all these wires to hold,” says Katlin. “It was amazing and scary at the same time because she was so tiny.”

During the next seven months, Maddison received expert care from the NICU team, over-coming numerous challenges as her damaged lungs healed. She underwent laser surgery to save her sight, received several blood transfusions, and even required resuscitation a few times.

“There was a particularly hard event when she was five-and-a-half months old. She was really unwell with pulmonary hypotension,” Katlin remembers. “The neonatal specialist wasn’t sure if she’d make it through the night.”

Finally, just before Christmas 2014, Katlin and Jonnie were able to bring their girl home.

“It was the best feeling in the world,” Katlin tells. “We had just moved into our new place and were so excited to have her home. We were also a bit nervous as she still had a feeding tube and was on oxygen.

“The NICU team taught us how to manage this and care for her properly ourselves. I almost felt a little sad leaving, as the NICU stuff and Neonatal Trust team were so amazing, and Wellington Hospital had been my second home for almost eight months.”

Maddison Riddell is about to celebrate her 10th birthday

Together, Katlin and Jonnie did a great job managing Maddison’s care at home. They attended regular appointments with a range of specialists, including doctors, speech therapists and dieticians. Maddison grew into a curious, happy toddler and started school at five-and-a-half.

“She’s still very petite for her age and has some ongoing heath issues, including ADHD, vision issues and learning difficulties,” reveals Katlin. But Maddison loves school and her friends, plus “a wonderful teacher aid supports her learning and she’s doing really well”.

In April, Maddison was over the moon to attend her first school camp. She slept in a cabin with eight other girls, and tried everything from kayaking to orienteering and archery.

“It was fun!” she grins.

Katlin says Maddison loves adventure and the outdoors. Roller skating, bike riding and dancing are among her other favourite things to do.

Adds the devoted mum, “We’re so excited about her birthday, and honouring her strength, determination and how far she’s come. She’ll love it! We’re so proud of her.”

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