The baby clambers happily on her mother’s lap, her head a halo of dark curls, her chubby hands reaching out to touch anything and everything that comes her way.
If you didn’t know better you’d think little Hope Daniels was a typical, healthy one-year-old, but her recent first birthday wasn’t only a cause for celebration for her parents – it was nothing short of a miracle.
For 10 long years Dorianne and Lesley Daniels had tried for a baby, but a combination of medical issues thwarted them at every turn. They’d all but given up when Dorianne discovered she was expecting – although the pregnancy and birth were fraught with obstacles too.
Hope was born at just 24 weeks and weighed a fragile 300g, making her one of South Africa’s smallest micro-premature babies ever to be born alive. For months it was touch and go for the little girl, but last month she reached her milestone birthday amid much joy and fanfare.
Netcare Kuils River Hospital in Cape Town – where Hope spent the first nine months of her life – threw a party for her. Festooned in pink butterflies, she was the star of the show. As her family, nurses and well-wishers oohed and aahed around her, the scene seemed worlds apart from her tumultuous start to life – and how her parents prepared on more than one occasion to say goodbye to her.
“But she’s fine now,” her mom says, gazing lovingly at her. “And she’s still fighting.”
Dorianne and Lesley, who live in Blackheath, had always wanted to become parents but the odds were stacked against them. Dorianne (36) was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, a hormonal disorder that affects fertility. She’s also diabetic and has high blood pressure, and has to take medication for both conditions.
By 2017 she’d decided enough was enough: she was done trying to become pregnant and coping with the desperation and disappointment that came each month when nothing happened. They’d just have to accept it wasn’t to be.
Later that year Dorianne suffered another setback when she developed Bell’s palsy, a condition that causes the muscles on one side of the face to droop or be paralysed. It can be associated with diabetes and high blood pressure.
For Dorianne it was yet another thing to cope with, and when she started having bouts of nausea not long afterwards she thought it was all part and parcel of her health woes.
Just to be sure, she used two over-the counter pregnancy tests – both of which gave negative results. But when she went to her doctor for a check-up in January last year, she was in for a surprise.
“He said I was eight weeks pregnant,” she recalls. “It was a total shock because for 10 years the answer had been no and [now], finally, out of the blue, we had a positive.”
A week later the couple saw a gynaecologist who told them Dorianne was in fact a little more than three months pregnant. During her scan Dorianne expected to see “just a little dot”, but instead the unmistakable shape of her precious child took form on the screen.
“I could make out an actual baby. She was bigger than I expected,” Dorianne says.
But the pregnancy was stressful as her blood pressure had to be closely monitored. Nineteen weeks before her due date she was admitted to hospital, where doctors told her she’d have to stay until she gave birth. It was just too risky to send her home.
The couple was devastated.
“In our minds it was going to be a smooth pregnancy,” says Lesley (39), an ink technician.
There was more bad news to come: a fetal assessment showed their baby wasn’t growing as she should. At 23 weeks doctors became gravely concerned for both mother and baby and advised Dorianne and Lesley to terminate the pregnancy.
But the couple were determined not to give up without a fight.
“My husband and I had prayed for this child for 10 years,” Dorianne says. “If there was any chance she’d make it, we were going to take it.”
On 19 March last year, six months into her pregnancy, Dorianne had to have an emergency C-section. Half an hour later baby Hope Grace Daniels – all 300g of her – entered the world.
“She was so tiny she could easily fit in the palm of the doctor’s hand,” Dorianne says.
But things weren’t looking great: the baby had underdeveloped organs and a ruptured bowel. The new parents were told to expect the worst.
Hope was whisked off to the neonatal intensive care unit and there were heart stopping moments when it seemed doubtful she’d survive. A week after her birth her weight dropped to 265g. At two months, she developed an infection in her intestines and had to have an emergency operation.
Yet again the couple were told to expect the worst, and yet again Hope pulled through. Finally the little girl was discharged from hospital, just in time for Christmas.
Three months later she celebrated her first birthday. Despite the fact Hope is playing catch-up on the scales and now weighs 7kg – just two kilos less than the average weight of a one-year-old – there are still many challenges.
She needs frequent hospital check-ups and has to see an occupational therapist twice a week, a physiotherapist once a week and a speech therapist regularly.
Doctors say it will take 18 months to two years for her to catch up developmentally with other children her age.
Hope’s journey has taken a financial toll on the Daniels family, with Dorianne having to quit her job as a stocktake ledger clerk for the Shoprite Checkers supermarket group to care for her child full time.
Lesley is now the sole breadwinner. But it’s the emotional cost that weighs most heavily on the little family.
“It’s a roller coaster,” Dorianne says. “Some days are great. Others, not so much.
Hope will go from doing really well to having to breathe through an oxygen mask.”
But mom and dad are hopeful their little girl will live a normal life – which is all they want for her.
“Since day one, she’s been fighting and she continues to do so,” Dorianne says.
“She’s my miracle baby.” And she’s not called Hope for nothing.