Real Life

Willow & Poppy’s unbreakable bond

As one sister struggles, the other gives her love and support

Little Willow cradles her twin sister Poppy’s face in her hands and gives her a quick kiss. “My Poppy,” she says. The gorgeous tots, who turn two on Christmas Day this year, share an unshakeable bond.

“Even as newborns, they would find each other’s hands in the cot,” their mum, Hayley Harrison tells us.

Hayley, 31, and the fraternal twins’ other mother Charli, 28, have a simple ethos for parenting – to love each girl unconditionally and allow them to reach their full potential, whatever that may be. “Every opportunity we give Willow, we give Poppy,” explains Hayley. “If we do that, we know, hand on heart, we’ve done right by our girls.”

But while Willow totters around chatting non-stop, Poppy can only watch on from her beanbag. Born with arthrogryposis, the joints in her hips, left hand and shoulder are contracted and don’t move properly, and since September, she has worn a Spica Cast that runs from her waist to her ankles.

Charli (left) and Hayley want Poppy (front left) and Willow to have the same chances in life.

Adding to her medical complexity, Poppy also suffers from obstructive sleep apnoea, chronic lung disease and severe reflux. “She’s stubborn, strong, and despite it all, happy,” says Hayley. “Poppy will have wires, tubes and contraptions sticking out of her – and still flick us a smile.”

Both Poppy and Willow are happiest by each other’s side. Hayley and Charli fought to keep their girls together for the first six months of their lives – which was no mean feat, given Poppy’s health.

The wee girl has already spent more than 300 nights in Christchurch Hospital. “We stopped counting after 288,” Charli confesses. “Keeping them together was the best treatment. If Poppy was distressed and her heart rate went through the roof, all we had to do was put Willow in the cot.”

Hayley and Charli were in the navy when they met at a function at the Devonport naval base nearly 10 years ago. “She skipped across the bar like a little deer and I offered to buy her a tequila sunrise,” Charli remembers.

Although they’ve since left the forces, navy life set them up for Poppy. “A confined room at the hospital is a breeze,” says Charli. “And we are organised, we make lists – we get things done.” And as a former navy medic, Hayley adds, “I speak doctor speak.”

After marrying six years ago in Canterbury’s Hampton Lea Gardens – a laid-back affair where a Mr Whippy van delivered dessert – a baby was on the couple’s wishlist. “Just one!” laughs Hayley. “We said, ‘One, and we’re done.’”

Using a donor, Hayley became pregnant – but the eight-week scan gave them a shock. “The radiographer said, ‘There’s one, and there’s two.’ And I thought, ‘What? It’s too early to see two arms!’” laughs Hayley. “She said, ‘No, two heartbeats,’ and Charli went grey!”

The girls were born five weeks premature on December 25, but poor Poppy has spent nearly half her life in hospital.

But Poppy, or ‘Twin B’, caused concern because she wasn’t moving. At first, the doctors thought she had club feet. “We thought, ‘Oh well, we can fix that,” says Hayley. But

at 19 weeks, the specialists mentioned arthrogryposis.

“From there, it got worse,” recalls Hayley. “They told us our baby may never walk or talk.” The couple refused to discuss selective reduction or terminating one twin. “Nah, that’s not us,” says Charli. “From the start, we wanted Poppy to do things on her own terms. For us, it is what it is and we make the best of it.”

Then in the last trimester, Hayley and Charli called it quits on all the tests. “Every week, they were poking and prodding. We said, ‘Stop, it’s not going to change anything.’”

And although an army of specialists was lined up for the high-risk delivery, Willow and Poppy arrived five weeks premature. “My waters broke, but I thought I’d peed my pants. I went back to bed and then Googled, ‘Am I in labour?’” laughs Hayley as Charli rolls her eyes.

The twins arrived one minute apart in the early hours of Christmas morning in 2014. “I heard Poppy cry, and I cried with relief,” Hayley remembers.

But within seconds, she stopped breathing and was rushed off to be incubated. From there, the struggle began. Poppy’s breathing, feeding and joint issues have meant the tot has spent nearly half of her young life in hospital.

“They treat her like a rock star,” smiles Hayley. “The doctors and nurses at Christchurch Hospital are amazing. They’ve become like family to us.” Now the girls are older, Poppy is often in hospital with one parent, while Willow is at home with the other. “But if one girl is unsettled, you can bet the other will be the same,” says Hayley.

It’s a tough schedule, but the women make it work by maintaining a sense of humour and focusing on the positive. “And we always debrief in the evening,” adds Charli.

Although their daughter’s hospitalisations and casts mean she has missed the milestones her twin sister is reaching, little Poppy isbusy charming everyone who crosses her path. “She’s now blowing kisses and saying ‘Mum,’” laughs Hayley.

The loving parents know they have a long road ahead, but they say Poppy is a little fighter – and her sister Willow will always have her back. “She’s our Poppy, the Rock Star Pop Star of the world,” says Hayley proudly.

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