Baby Blake Leigh Turnbull Enters the World
Lead photo credit Jamie at JLW Documentary Photo
November 28, 2018: “D-DAY”
Many people may not remember the exact date, but they do recall the storm that blanketed Regina and much of southern Saskatchewan in thick ice. It was a lousy day for most people as they chipped away at the cement coating their windshields and sidewalks and cancelled plans to avoid the skating rink of car accidents outside. It was a bad day for many, but it was the worst day for Sarah Turnbull. It was “diagnosis day.”
At 23-weeks pregnant, the mother-to-be was trying to safely make her away across town. She gripped her steering wheel, not just because the roads were treacherous, but because she was living out a pregnant woman’s nightmare. During a routine follow-up ultrasound that morning, the technician’s demeanor changed. She became less chatty and went to get someone more senior. Sarah was hoping the first tech was inexperienced, but a second look raised some serious concerns and she was now going to meet her gynecologist to learn the details. Sarah called her husband Shane, who was out of town and told him to stay by the phone. Despite trying to reassure herself things couldn’t be that bad, she knew deep down something wasn’t right. She cried the entire drive and told her best friend: “Something is wrong with the baby.”
November 29: DECISION DAY
Sarah had planned to pick up her baby girl’s crib today but instead was at a specialist’s office with her husband. Their baby had “a grocery list” of health issues and was diagnosed with spina bifida. The pair learned it was a birth defect that happens when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly.* There were three options: have the baby and see what happens, terminate the pregnancy or undergo fetal surgery. Spina bifida can range from mild to severe, depending on the type of defect, size, location or other complications.** Their child could have cognitive issues or maybe not. She could end up in a wheelchair or she could walk. She could need constant care or she could lead an independent life. They had three choices in five minutes.
December 1: RACE DAY MODE
Sarah flew to Toronto where she’d stay for three months. She and Shane decided on surgery and were feeling optimistic. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. There were strict criteria to meet and only a 25 per cent chance of qualifying for the operation. Sarah went into “race day mode,” a mentality she developed when she trained for marathons or when she decided to open her own company, Bespoke Interior Design. She describes it as “a determination to get through any obstacles with faith.” She would need it, too, having to make more gut-wrenching decisions like whether to sign a do not resuscitate form for the baby, which she could now feel kicking inside her.
December 7: CLEARED FOR SURGERY
After a week of pokes and prods, countless tests, ultrasounds and appointments, Sarah and baby were cleared for surgery. They were scheduled to be the 15th operation of its kind in Canada.
December 12: THE DAY BEFORE SURGERY
Blake Leigh Turnbull’s name was unveiled to the world. It was a move Sarah’s online support group suggested so people had a name to pray for. “We couldn’t send our baby into surgery without a name. It’s really just a very grown up thing.”
December 13: SURGERY
Over two hours, a team of doctors from Mount Sinai Hospital and SickKids performed in-utero surgery on Sarah and her 25-week old fetus. The operation went well. Sarah spent the next few weeks in a hospital bed watching her own incision heal, knowing at the same time her baby’s two-centimetre incision was doing the same.
Feb 27: THE BIRTH DAY
Blake Leigh was born via cesarean delivery, weighing a healthy six pounds and 11 ounces. She had to spend the next 19 days in the NICU at the Regina General Hospital. While it was difficult for Sarah to see her newborn attached to tubes, it was scarier finally bringing her home without the comfort of a team of doctors.
Blake Leigh is a happy baby, sleeps through the night and smiles at everyone, but Sarah acknowledges the last six months haven’t been easy. Her daughter was among the 80 per cent of babies with Spina Bifida that required a shunt to be inserted to relieve pressure on her brain. Scares have landed the family back in the ER and Sarah describes living with the fear of it malfunctioning like “walking on a landmine.” While she doesn’t know if her anxiety will ever go away, she does feels positive about the future. Blake Leigh doesn’t have any cognitive disabilities and her mobility looks promising. The experience has made Sarah thankful for the little things most parents take for granted like a dirty diaper or wiggling toes. “There is this gratitude that exists once you’ve gone through something like this; it’s almost overwhelming.” She’s grown to find the good in the bad days, even a lousy Saskatchewan ice storm, because Sarah’s already lived through her D-Day.