Real Life

Mother’s shock: My blood was killing my baby

A disease attacked wee Adelaide in the womb, but she fought through to become her doting mum and dad's "miracle baby"

As she sleeps soundly in her mother’s arms, three-month-old baby Adelaide is blissfully unaware that her mother’s own blood began attacking her little body before she was born.

The beautiful wee girl is a true miracle for her Auckland parents Damian and Queeny Penhall, who spent an agonising nine months worrying about her during the pregnancy. Her birth was only possible with the help of blood transfusions.

Queeny, 37, explains Adelaide is their third child who suffered from rhesus disease in the womb, which can arise when the mother’s blood is Rh negative and the baby’s is Rh positive. The condition occurs when the mother’s body responds to the Rh-positive blood by producing infection-fighting antibodies to attack the baby, often causing anaemia, jaundice and stillbirth.

Dad Damian cradles his little girl.

After birth, the antibodies can continue destroying the baby’s red blood cells for a few months. If left untreated, it can lead to brain damage, learning difficulties, deafness and blindness. Queeny’s first pregnancy, with son Samson, now four, was straightforward, but after his arrival, she was given an injection of anti-D immunoglobulin, to destroy any incompatible blood that had entered her bloodstream during birth.

“But I was never tested to find out how much I needed – and it didn’t work,” Queeny explains. “I’d become sensitised, so my immune system was producing antibodies which were then effectively killing my babies in all my other pregnancies since.”

Sadly, on her second pregnancy, Queeny went on to have a miscarriage at 20 weeks. But she didn’t realise her body was rejecting her pregnancies until her third, with son Elijah. While 32 weeks along, Queeny had an uneasy feeling. She explains, “You could call it intuition – I call it God – but for some reason, I found myself driving to hospital. I got admitted and a scan revealed the baby was severely anaemic. A few more hours and he would have died. We had to get him out there and then, and we spent the next two months in a neonatal intensive care unit. It was touch and go.”

After several blood transfusions and UV-light therapy, Elijah, now 20 months, is a bundle of energy, tumbling with his brother and pet dog Pup during our Woman’s Day photo shoot as their baby sister sleeps on.

Adorable Adelaide is now growing in strength after enduring 10 blood transfusions in the first few weeks of her life.

‘Don’t give up!’

Queeny and Damian were overjoyed when they discovered they were expecting a baby girl last year. However, along with the excitement came the fear she wouldn’t come to full term.

Their unborn baby had to be carefully monitored and was given eight blood transfusions while still in the womb, then a further two transfusions after she was born. “She may need more,” tells Queeny. “Adelaide was born at only 1.75kg. She looked so tiny, but she’s a fighter. Both Adelaide and Eli are gifts. We were close to losing them.

“The miracle is not the avoidance of the disease – it’s the management of it. I know people who have given up because they are devastated after stillbirths and miscarriages. It shouldn’t be this way. It can be prevented.”

Queeny is now on a mission to campaign the Ministry of Health to fund anti-D injections for all pregnant Rh-negative women before they give birth, rather than after, which she believes will prevent anyone else going through a terrifying ordeal like hers.

She also wants midwives and obstetricians educated on rhesus disease. In other parts of the world, Rh-negative mothers are offered injections of anti-D immunoglobulin at certain points in their pregnancies when they may be exposed to the baby’s red blood cells. But in New Zealand, most women are not given the injection until after their first baby’s birth. Women can opt to have the injections at a cost of $120, but Queeny says many pregnant women are not given all the information.

Sam, Adelaide and Elijah snuggle up to family pooch

Love story

The Australian-born beauty had been working in event management in New York when she took a holiday in Aotearoa and met “rugged Kiwi bloke” Damian, 44. The environmental engineer showed her waterfalls and took her kayaking, and she ended up falling in love with the country as well as the man.

“I love New Zealand – this is my home,” says Queeny. “We are so happy to have our three children grow up here.”

The mum is busy looking after three children under four, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. She grins, “Last night, we had no sleep monitoring Adelaide, but I was smiling. I was so happy to be so tired. She is my miracle baby.”

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