The little girl watches from the safety of her mom’s arms as the front door opens to let us in. A rose-gold balloon in the shape of the number three still floats in the living room as a reminder of her special birthday party two weeks ago.
Despite little Lara still not being able to walk at this age, her mom is delighted at the progress she’s making.
She’s their miracle child, Jean-Mari van Vuuren tells YOU as we chat in their home in Durbanville, Cape Town.
There was a time Jean-Mari (39) wasn’t sure she’d ever see her daughter grow up. Now she and her husband, Divan (38), celebrate every milestone Lara reaches, even though it takes her longer than other kids her age to get there.
“Last week she managed to feed herself with a spoon for the first time,” JeanMari says proudly.
“And she’s also started pulling herself up on the furniture. I’m so proud of her but I know I need to be patient.”
In October 2016 Lara was born 13 weeks early, weighing just 648 grams. She was born in her parents’ bakkie on the way to the hospital and her sisters, Lily and Julia, followed soon after.
Sadly, little Lara is the only triplet who survived – but although she pulled through, her journey has been anything but easy. Earlier this year she was diagnosed with a form of cerebral palsy.
“It causes low muscle tone, which is why she can’t crawl or walk yet,” JeanMari says.
The condition is a result of Lara’s severely premature birth and also because she suffered bleeding in the brain during birth, she explains.
“She scoots on her bum from one place to the next, although we’ve now bought a paediatric walking frame and she practises with it every day,” says Jean-Mari, who runs an online clothing shop for toddlers as well as a cake-baking business from home.
Lara has to go for regular paediatric and other medical specialist visits.
“We thought she’d have hearing and sight problems but so far so good,” JeanMari says. “They told us her chances of ever being able to walk are small but she’s proved many people wrong.”
Jean-Mari and Divan, an earth-moving technician, were already parents to Mia (then seven) and Colin (then five) and hadn’t planned to have any more kids.
So it came as a shock in 2016 when they discovered they were expecting triplets.
They soon got used to the idea though and started looking forward to their bumper crop of babies. But, from the outset it was clear this was going to be a difficult pregnancy.
Ultrasounds and tests indicated the babies might have heart problems and there was also a chance at least one of them would have Down syndrome or another kind of genetic disorder.
Jean-Mari and Divan were faced with the difficult decision of whether to have more risky tests or terminate the pregnancy. After careful consideration, they decided to let nature take its course. About three months later, when JeanMari was 25 weeks pregnant, she started experiencing labour pains.
Divan dropped Mia and Colin off with friends then drove Jean-Mari to hospital. They’d barely left home when Lara was born right there in the bakkie.
Three joggers stopped to help the Van Vuurens and drove them to nearby Mediclinic Cape Gate. When they arrived at the hospital, Divan was holding tiny Lara in his hands. “She was ice-cold and blue,” Jean-Mari recalls.
Shortly after medical personnel took her away, Julia was born in the lift. Lily, the smallest and weakest of the three, was born just outside the maternity ward.
Each of the girls had a large opening in their heart. Lily died the next day and Julia followed 62 days later.
For a while it was touch and go for Lara too. Like Julia she had digestive problems as a result of her premature birth and struggled to gain weight.
She spent 118 days in hospital and was finally discharged at the end of February 2017. “That first year we were in an out of hospital because she’d been diagnosed with chronic lung disease. She kept needing to be put on oxygen,” Jean-Mari recalls. “It’s still hard to walk into that hospital.”
She looks at her daughter and strokes her hair. “But now Lara’s actually doing well.”
The little girl isn’t on any medication and has neurophysiotherapy sessions twice a week in which she does exercises to stretch her legs and improve her balance.
Lara is able to speak in short sentences and learns new words every day. She’s attached to Colin and Mia and they in turn lavish attention on their youngest sibling.
“She knows when it’s time to fetch them from school,” Jean-Mari says. “She says, ‘Colin, Mia fetch.’ “Luckily, she suffered no damage to her grey matter.”
Grey matter is one of the determinants of intellectual ability.
“The brain scan showed there’s no damage, which is a complete miracle. “It took her a long time to develop verbally but she chats well now. She’s so cute,” her proud mom says.
Divan also dotes on their youngest. “He’s a good dad and she’s crazy about him,” Jean-Mari says.
This time of year is hard for Jean-Mari and Divan. “It’s a bittersweet time,” she says. Because along with the joy of Lara’s birthday, there’s also the painful reminder that Lily and Julia aren’t there to celebrate with their sister. “We always do something to remember her sisters on this day and to honour their lives.” This year the family blew bubbles in remembrance of the lost babies. “You never get over it. You just go on and learn to live with it,” Jean-Mari says.
She wants Lara to know she was one of a set of triplets, so she often talks to her about her late sisters. There’s a small memorial garden in their yard where they’ve put two angel statues. Jean-Mari also runs a Facebook page where she shares her experiences and she recently started the Triple Heartbeat Foundation, an organisation that aims to comfort women who’ve lost babies by gifting them with memorabilia such as hand-knitted teddy bears.
“It’s to be a voice for the loss of a child, to not keep quiet about it,” she says. “I started it to honour Julia and Lily. Now it’s to create hope and to support other moms with babies in the high-care unit or whose babies have died.”
She doesn’t worry about what the future holds. “I used to be like that – I’d plan everything in detail. But now I’m living in the moment,” she says. “One day at a time. We’ll tackle everything as it arises.”