That’s how long they’ve waited to bring their baby home to the nursery they’d so lovingly decorated – a little room that stood empty as pregnancy after pregnancy ended in devastation and disappointment.
But now, five miscarriages, one stillbirth and the loss of a set of twins later, Coenraad and Marissa van Zyl hope it won’t be too long before that special day arrives. Today their miracle baby is almost a year old– although her arrival in the world wasn’t without drama.
Tiny Anja was born 16 weeks premature and is still mostly confined to an incubator in Netcare Unitas Hospital in Centurion, Gauteng, while she grows bigger and stronger. Anja weighed just 590g and was a teeny 30cm long when she was born at 24 weeks on December 28, 2017.
The road her mom and dad have travelled over the past five years has been harrowing yet they refused to give up on their dream of becoming parents – and when Marissa fell pregnant with Anja they were delighted.
Her gynaecologist inserted a stitch in her womb to prevent another premature delivery and they felt positive that things would end happily this time.
A doctor's appointment just before Christmas in 2017 ,went well. “Everything looks fine,” the doctor said. He removed the stitch in her womb and sent her home to rest.
“I remember joking with the doctor to get the incubator ready,” Marissa says. “But until then there’d been no warning signs or problems with the pregnancy.”
The couple spent Christmas with family but on the way home Marissa started feeling unwell. “I had cramps and was spotting,” she says. Then she started having contractions.
The couple went to the hospital where Marissa had various tests and ultrasounds to establish whether the baby was okay.
“I kept needing the loo,” Marissa recalls. When a nurse examined her, they found not only was the baby lying on her bladder, it had started to move down her cervix.
The nurse helped to reposition the baby.
“Lord, it’s all in your hands. It’s your baby now, dear Lord,” Marissa remembers praying.
Coenraad heaves a sigh as he recalls that anxious day.
“There was no time to think. I thought to myself if it happens now, it happens. I had to be strong for my wife.” Soon afterwards, at exactly 3.54am, Anja arrived in the world.
“There was no time to ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’. I was more relieved than anything else,” Marissa says of the moments after the birth.
The tiny baby was whisked away to an incubator in the neonatal ICU, where she’s been cared for ever since. “You just saw arms and legs flailing as the nurse took her away,” Marissa says, laughing softly as she recalls her relief.
This baby was alive.
Marissa remembers the dates on which she lost each of her children. “I’ve saved all their birthdays on my cellphone,” she says.
The tragedies have clearly brought the couple closer together and they hold hands tightly when they talk about their battle to become parents.
“We’ve been expectant so many times and each time it’s been a little girl. I’ve held three of our daughters in my arms,” Marissa says.
The stillbirth, which happened after her first pregnancy in 2013, was the worst, she recalls.
“My waters broke a few days before Christmas but I wasn’t in any pain – it just felt as if something wanted to come out.” Coenraad rushed Marissa to the hospital, where an ultrasound showed the baby had turned sideways.
“She’s already dead,” the doctor told them.
Then Marissa had to go through the trauma of waiting for the baby to be born – a process that took two dreadful days.
“Every time I went to the loo, I could feel my child,” she says, her eyes welling up.
When the baby eventually came, on 22 December, Marissa cradled her daughter’s tiny lifeless body before the nurse took her away. After the stillbirth, Marissa and Coenraad went through a troubled time in their marriage.
“We blamed each other and ourselves,” she says. But they pulled through and decided it was time to try again – and then came the miscarriages.
“It’s tough to go through something like that over and over again. It’s hard to explain what it feels like,” Coenraad says.
One of the miscarriages came after an attempt at IVF ended in heartache yet again. Then in March last year the couple lost their twins who were born at 23 weeks.
The babies died within 11 hours of each other.
“Their names were Amory and MiaLynne,” Marissa says softly. Amory weighed only 380g at birth. “They were icy cold to the touch,” she recalls. The sisters were laid next to each other on her chest.
“Amory touched MiaLynne’s little face with her hand.”
By the time Mia-Lynne was removed from Marissa’s chest, she was dead. Amory was rushed to an incubator, but she also passed away.
“There are no words to describe it,” Coenraad says. But Anja is their shining hope now.
When they visit her in hospital they chat away to their “little angel” and tell her about her nursery with the newly painted pink walls.
“We also tell her about all the new teddy bears and dogs waiting at home to meet her,” Coenraad says.
“And I tell her about her grandmothers who send their love,” Marissa adds. Coenraad proudly announces he’s already promised her a car too – but there’s no decision yet whether it will be a Volkswagen or an Audi.
Anja hasn’t had an easy time: she’s had an operation to close a heart valve and laser surgery on her eyes. But her parents refuse to dwell on what could go wrong.
Marissa, who works as a shop assistant at a vehicle-tracking service, is still on maternity leave and visits Anja every morning and evening.
Coenraad, a handyman, usually visits in the evenings. The couple say the past five years have strengthened their belief in God.
“Our faith has become much stronger and we talk about things. It helps us through the tough times,” Marissa says. Asked if they’re thinking of having a brother or sister for Anja, Coenraad’s reply is a decisive “no”.
“We’ve been through too much already.I don’t know if I’d survive something like this again.”