Adrianna Contoleon has never let her physical challenges stop her from embracing life to the fullest.
The birth of her ‘miracle’ baby in July is testament to her and her husband’s hope and determination to become parents despite the physical disabilities they both live with.
Nearly eight weeks after the birth of her beautiful daughter, Layla, the Greek Australian mother from Queensland is enjoying every minute settling her into their home. “Time has flown,” she tells Neos Kosmos. “She’s such a good baby. She’s just perfect.”
And even though Adrianna has faced several surgeries since she fell pregnant, she says she wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again.
The 36-year-old mother was born with a severe form of spina bifida and hydrocephalus (build-up of fluid in the ventricles deep within the brain), and her husband Andrew Vikstrom, also faces challenges, since he became quadriplegic after fracturing his vertebrae in a diving accident when he was just 16.
The two met 14 years ago, during a Sporting Wheelies and Disabled Association ski trip in Perisher and they have always dreamt of raising a family together.
“I have always wanted children. I look at Layla and would do it all over again!” Adrianna said after the birth of their little girl.
Maiden Health and Mater Specialist Dr Lisa Harris met the couple when they were exploring IVF options, and adapted the treatment to their medical needs.
After two complete IVF cycles and multiple transfers over two years, Adrianna fell pregnant.
Dr Harris and the Mater medical team including endocrinologist Dr Erin Fanning and neurosurgeons Dr Jason Papacostas and Dr Robert Campbell closely monitored the pregnancy.
“Honestly I had the best medical team that you could possibly ask for Dr Lisa is incredible. And the two neurosurgeons, Dr Papacostas and Dr Campbell, they’re just amazing. I credit them to being as well as I am today, and the whole staff at the Mater that looked after us were incredible. We couldn’t have asked for a better team,” she says.
The first difficulty occurred when at 34 weeks into her pregnancy, and as the baby grew in her womb, Adrianna’s shunt -a tube which helps drain excess fluid from the brain- became blocked, leading to debilitating neurological symptoms, such as confusion and memory loss, and required a shunt revision to avoid permanent damage.
“The obstetric team were on standby if she was required to deliver. Thankfully, Adrianna recovered very well, and her pregnancy continued for a further 10 days until the shunt blocked again when she was 36 weeks pregnant,” Dr Harris stated in the Mater newsletter.
Once they knew they had a healthy, well-grown baby, when the shunt blocked the second time, Layla was delivered via emergency caesarean section at 36 weeks, so that the Brisbane mother could immediately undergo a brain surgery with Dr Papacostas to fix the shunt.
Little Layla was born on 24 July, weighing 2.57kg.
Her husband stayed by the newborn’s side for 20 hours after she was born. He said he felt extremely emotional during Layla’s birth. He stayed with her at the Special Care Nursery as much as he could to touch her, hold her and try to make her feel safe, while they waited for her mother to come out of surgery.
It was 36 hours later that Adrianna could finally hold her precious baby.
While there are only a few cases world-wide of women with ventriculoperitoneal shunts or spina bifida having children, very few women born with the severity of Adrianna’s spina bifida go on to have children, according to Dr Harris.
“Their story serves as a beacon of hope for couples with disabilities who aspire to have children.”
“You must never discredit what you can do,” Adrianna says. “We were really hoping to start a family and it may not have been in the traditional sense, and it may not have been an easy road, but it was definitely worth it. So I think if there’s a will there’s a way, and sometimes you have to find different ways, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
The couple has never let the hard things get the better of them. “We’ve both been brought up to be very resilient, independent people.
And so we we don’t usually let hard things get the better of us. We just make it work!”
The pair has even travelled extensively, flying three times to the US since they got married. They are now hoping to travel as a family and specifically to Greece, to introduce Layla to her heritage and the beautiful place that her great grandfather was from.
“My grandfather on my mum’s side was from Kythera, from the little town Viaradika. He came over to Australia when he was 16. And that’s where he met my grandmother. My mum has kept his surname, Contoleon, and so have I. We are very proud of our Greek name.”
Nicholas Angelos Contoleon, Adrianna’s grandfather, who passed away ten years ago, was very much a part of her life. “He was my biggest and fiercest supporter, except for my mum of course. I think that the person that I am today is in no small part due to the way that he helped raise me. He’s a shining example of a very good human being.”
Before the arrival of Layla, the couple spent six months trialling ways to see how life would work with a baby, in order to give her the best they could.
They made many extra preparations, including adjusting how to lift a baby up and out of a cot from a wheelchair and figuring out how they could easily take her to places.
“We talked about what we needed with our occupational therapist, we looked at what other couples in wheelchairs had done, and we knew the biggest thing we could do was to love this little girl to bits and therefore find a way to care for her – to adapt what we have and what we need.”Andrew Vikstrom said.
Adrianna has made a remarkable recovery from her surgery and c-section. Her parents live in the same complex with them in Fortitude Valley and they pass by every day to see their grandchild and take her sometimes, to give Adrianna some time to rest.
Looking to the future, Adrianna and Andrew hope for happiness and health for Layla, and that she will see the world through a lens of empathy, kindness and humanity. “And that she understands that families come in all different shapes and sizes. And that hers is no different.”