News / South Africa
In the early 2000s, babies born four months prematurely were at the extreme edge of what was considered feasible for survival.
Today, two teenage twin brothers are, however, living proof of what can be achieved with the love of their devoted parents and the dedication of a team of specialists and neonatal intensive care nursing professionals.
Yiota Hadjipetros, mother of twins Alexandros and Stefanos, said: “When my babies were delivered by emergency Caesarean section on 5 December 2004, I was in shock. Being a first-time mom is usually stressful, but our twin boys were so tiny and underdeveloped that my husband Aki and I were warned that they were extremely vulnerable. It was a surreal, frightening time.
“We were in survival mode for months, praying and spending every moment we could with our boys in the neonatal intensive care unit at Netcare Park Lane hospital.
“To this day, we are so grateful for the family of caring medical specialists and nurses who took care of our babies and, by the grace of God, saved their lives.”
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Dr Neli Stoykova, who was the Hadjipetros boys’ paediatrician at birth and is still practising at the hospital, said because the twins were so premature, there was great concern for their survival, especially for Alexandros.
“This was a real spiritual journey for everyone involved,” she said.
“As always, we gave our all so that the tiny brothers would not only have the best possible chance of survival, but would also have the best possible quality of life, knowing that the clinical decisions we made at that early stageto help save their lives would also influence their future well-being.”
She said the twins had to be intubated, ventilated and closely monitored around the clock.
“We spent many days and nights at the hospital with the parents watching over the babies. We had no time for Christmas and New Year. Who could feel like celebrating when the twins were still in a critical condition?
“All we wanted was to see an improvement in their condition. After several long and very emotional weeks, one night we were all sitting in the neonatal intensive care unit [NICU] watching over the babies with their parents,” said Stoykova.
The smaller twin, Alexandros, who weighed just 700g at that stage, had to have surgery and then developed life-threatening renal failure. The specialists feared that if he did not pass urine within 12 hours, hope for his survival would be lost.
“There was a tiny drop of urine in a catheter tube and we were anxiously watching its progress, praying for it to safely leave the baby’s body,” said Stoykova.
“NICU nurse Pat Naransamy came on duty to care for the boys during the night shift and she told those of us whowere still there after our day shift to go home and get some proper rest. It was sister Naransamy’s 40th birthday and she told us that she had prayed for one birthday wish – to keep the twins safe and guide their progress.”
Today, Naransamy is still caring for babies in the NICU and she remembers that night vividly.
“I think I remember all the preemie babies I’ve cared for; and when you get to know them so well you pick up on their personalities – and some of them have such attitude,” she added.
“I just love them. Even though Alexandros was so tiny, I could see he had a strong spirit and will to survive.”
Alexandros made it through the night and his condition gradually began to improve. Stoykova said on another occasion the boys needed a blood donation and the community responded to the call for donors, to find the matching blood type.
“It was so rewarding to see the community embrace these babies. Everyone wanted to donate blood to help the twins, the support was really wonderful.”
Nowadays, if babies are born four months premature it is considered a viable age, which is an indication of the considerable advancements in neonatal technology and treatment techniques since the Hadjipetros’ twins were born.
Naransamy said the NICU incubators were open-top in 2004 when the twins were born, and plastic sheets were used to create a protective humid environment for the twins because their skin had not fully developed.
“Now, the incubators are much more advanced and are designed to mimic a womb-like environment for thepremature babies,” she said.
“We have input from neurodevelopment specialists, speech therapists and other disciplines, with everything geared towards providing a nurturing and stimulating environment for those who need specialised care in the first weeks or months of life.”
The establishment of the Netcare Ncelisa human milk banks was another step forward in neonatal care. Breast milk is donated by eligible women who are breastfeeding and have excess milk, which they express under specific hygienic conditions and deliver it to Netcare Ncelisa human milk banks, or depots based at Netcare maternity facilities.
The milk is then pasteurised, tested, frozen and safely stored, until it is needed.
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Through the banks, the Netcare Foundation supplies ageappropriate breast milk free of charge to premature and underweight newborns with compromised health, both within the public and private sectors.
The twins were finally discharged on 15 March 2005 – nearly four months after they came into the world. At birth, they had bleeding on their brains, but any effects on their development would only become evident later.
“Stefanos and Alexandros have worked hard and Stefanos is now in Grade 10 in a mainstream school,” said Yiota Hadjipetros.
“Alexandros continually exceeds expectations, as one of the specialists told us he would likely be quadriplegic for life but then, with the help of a physiotherapist recommended by Dr Stoykova, he surprised us and learned to walkwithin 18 months. He has some learning barriers and we have done a lot of research into various education models. We work with Alexandros daily to help make the best of his abilities.”
Stefanos said as a prematurity survivor his message to others is perseverance: “Push through the difficult times; believe in yourself and don’t listen to people who don’t believe in you.”
The boys and the neonatal team were reunited on the eve of World Pre-Maturity Day on Wednesday this week.