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Only fetal unit in Essex celebrates first birthday with an amazing story

28 November 2015

Health Care

The dedicated fetal medicine unit at Southend University Hospital has been open for a year, in recognition of that the unit celebrated with an evening that saw the return of world leading fetal medicine expert Professor Kypros Nicolaides

The state-of-the-art unit is the only one of its kind in Essex and includes seven scanning rooms. It was only made possible by a £400,000 charitable donation from the foundation set up by Professor Nicolaides.

That unit's first birthday has also meant that many more children will now be celebrating their first birthdays and beyond. One family who have benefited from the unit were there to express their thanks and tell their inspiring story.

The Thomas's from Leigh-on-Sea are the proud mum and dad to Annabelle-Rose, who is a lively, noisy seven months old, and adored by big brother George, aged two-and-a-half. Whilst mum, Kiri, 27, was expecting Annabelle-Rose there was a complication during pregnancy called Gastroschisis (pronounced gas-troh-skee-sis), which was picked up during a scan at Southend.

It's a birth defect of the abdominal wall where the baby's intestines stick outside of the baby's body, through a hole beside the belly button. The hole can be small or large and sometimes other organs, such as the stomach and liver, can also stick outside of the baby's body.

Gastroschisis occurs early during pregnancy when the muscles that make up the baby's abdominal wall do not form correctly. A hole occurs which allows the intestines and other organs to extend outside of the body. Because the intestines are not covered in a protective sac and are exposed to the amniotic fluid, the bowel can become irritated, causing it to shorten, twist, or swell.

Dad, Nick Thomas, 28, said: "When we first heard both Kiri and I were completely shocked, speechless and the emotion we felt is hard to explain. We looked at each other, held each other's hand and convinced one and other that everything would be okay, even though we both immediately thought this defect was severe and we needed to prepare ourselves for the worst.

"The care at the fetal medicine unit was amazing and a number of the team went out of their way to ensure the family and Annabelle-Rose were okay and that any of the many questions we had could be answered.

"The support from the team, in particular Mr Singh our consultant, has been greatly appreciated and as a family we will be forever grateful. He really did demonstrate how much impact 'going the extra mile' can have on a family."

Dilatation to the bowel meant Annabelle-Rose was delivered three weeks early and at only 20 minutes old she was in theatre having surgery.

Nick continued: "We had to deliver Annabelle-Rose at Kings College in London, and although when we were first told of this, we were a little scared, away from family and close friends, Mr Singh and his team ensured we had a full understanding of the process, timelines were clear and communication was concise. Throughout the entire process, he was the person we both felt we could speak to at any time of the day."

Even post birth Mr Singh and his team have always checked in with the Thomas family to see how Annabelle-Rose is progressing. And apart from the usual teething, and waking up at all hours Annabelle is perfectly fine.

Proud dad, Nick added: "There is a small abnormality to the belly button area but this can only be identified if you were to study it up close. We really do believe she is a miracle but the main thing from our side is that the rollercoaster journey we went through during pregnancy can be parked and we can enjoy our healthy, happy, amazing little fighter of a daughter."

The Thomas's are now looking forward to seeing out an eventful and emotional year by celebrating Christmas as a family of four. Kiri said: "We really appreciate how lucky we are and we still get butterflies when we think of the experience. It's George's first Christmas as a big brother so we'll need to make sure he buys his little sister a nice gift to open on the day, he also wants to thank the surgeons and fetal medicine team for giving him a little sister."

Nick concluded: "We think it is important to share experiences with others because sometimes it is very easy to think you are alone with what is happening. The journey is a challenge but if you can stay strong as a family and support one and other, you will get through it. I also think that the support, skills and professionalism displayed from the fetal medicine unit is something that we both regularly speak very highly of.

Subspecialist maternal fetal medicine consultant Mr Mandeep Singh, who trained under Professor Nicolaides, heads up the service in Southend and works jointly between Southend Hospital and Kings College Hospital's world renowned fetal medicine unit, London, to which Southend is affiliated. He was the Thomas's named consultant.

Mr Singh said: "Stories like that of the Thomas's highlight the vital importance of this unit at Southend, it has allowed us enhance their experience of coming to their local hospital and make them feel far more relaxed in the surroundings and also take the emotional and psychological pressure off them of having to seek treatment in London. We may have just completed our first year, but our work and commitment to provide the best quality of care in fetal medicine for the pregnant women of Essex has only just begun."

The unit is also using the anniversary to begin fundraising to help keep it at the forefront of fetal medicine care so that it can continue to deliver the very best care to local families.