Declan Colquhoun was born at 23 weeks, weighing 400g, and no bigger than this pen. Photo / Provided
When Declan Colquhoun was born, his aunt’s wedding ring would be placed on his arm.
She and her twin Riley were born at just 23 weeks and one day on March 3. This is considered the survival threshold – babies born earlier are not usually resuscitated.
Declan weighs just 400g – a photo of him next to a pen shows how small it is – while Riley is only 530g.
More than two weeks later, Riley lost his battle for life, while eight months passed, Declan this week moved out of Wellington Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit and is getting stronger every day. He now weighs 7kg.
At 22 weeks pregnant, the twins’ mother Kathryn Hutchinson, 23, discovered she was suffering from high blood pressure when she saw a midwife. She was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a condition that affects pregnant women, and doctors decided it was safer for her to deliver the baby.
They were born by caesarean section. Their eyes, still tightly closed, were directed to the ventilator, with Hutchinson and partner Chris Colquhoun unable to carry their baby boy.
Colquhoun had to return to his job in traffic management immediately.
“The reality is life goes on. Bills can’t be held.”
On March 17, the Upper Hutts get a call that Declan is fighting for his life. They rush to the hospital to embrace – their first hug since she was born – preparing for the worst. But she struggled and Riley had her kidneys failing the next day.
“In the early hours of March 19, his little body decided it was enough and he grew his wings,” said Hutchinson.
The couple held a small funeral ceremony for their 16-day-old son, days before the country was put under lockdown.
Then at three weeks of age, Declan opened his eyes for the first time.
But things got more difficult. Only mothers were allowed to visit their babies in the unit due to the risk of Covid-19 so Colquhoun would take Hutchinson to the hospital and wait outside in the parking lot. He didn’t see Declan for six weeks.
“It was terrible,” said Hutchinson. “She just lost her son and her other son is fighting for her life and she can’t be there.”
Declan’s recovery process has been slow. He underwent three surgical procedures a week.
“He’s very fragile.”
Hutchinson spent the whole day at his bedside and returned at night with Colquhoun after he finished work.
But about a month ago Declan was well enough to go out for the first time in his life. His parents took him for a walk around the hospital grounds.
And this week, she was transferred from intensive care to the special care unit for babies at Hutt Hospital but still needs oxygen and a tube to feed.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Hutchinson.
“Good things take time. His development is delayed but he’s smiling now and making quiet little sounds.”
The couple also have a marriage to look forward to when Declan is well enough – Colquhoun proposed in September.
Declan challenges all odds.
The latest data from the Ministry of Health states that between 2013-2017, 237 babies with a gestation period of 22-23 weeks were born alive. Of these, 230 babies died.
The number of babies who are part of twins surviving in the early stages will also be very rare.
Pediatric Society President Nicola Austin said last year a working group reached a consensus to alert babies born at 23 weeks gestation, with preparations starting at 22 weeks and five days. The threshold in some hospitals is 24 weeks.
Maternal use of corticosteroids in preterm labor (developed in New Zealand and used globally) and less aggressive pulmonary ventilation are some of the latest medical advances that mean babies born this early can be saved.
But Austin learned about one baby who survived at 22 weeks and six days and one baby weighing less than 400g who survived at 24 weeks.
Hutchinson has been supported by the Neonatal Trust which provides grooming packages, supermarkets and petrol vouchers, as well as arranging family gatherings with speakers.
Executive director Rachel Friend said saving younger babies is placing a greater demand on trust, as does Covid-19.
It lost over $ 100,000 due to a canceled fundraising event. But in September, Hell Pizza donated $ 2 from every Unholy Donut sold to trusts – 34,248 eaten, raising $ 68,496.
Her friend’s 7-year-old son, Ruben, was born at 24 weeks, at what was “considered the survival line.”
He’s 665g and can fit in the palm of his hand if he’s allowed to hold it but the skin is “like paper”.
But now he’s growing fast.
“You don’t know anything is wrong. He reads above his age level, he plays football, he swims, he wants to play basketball next year, he likes mountain biking.”
Premature babies in NZ
• The youngest baby who survived preterm birth was born at 22 weeks and six days of gestation.
• The hospital performs resuscitation after 23 weeks.
• Between 2013 and 2017, 237 live babies were born with a gestation period of 22-23 weeks. There were 230 infant deaths at the same time during the same gestation period.
• About 10 percent of all babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks gestation). That’s one every 90 minutes.
• There are six Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) in New Zealand that admit babies born before 32 weeks of age and 17 Specialized Infant Care Units (SCBU) at regional hospitals. Five thousand families each year use the facility.