By Emilie Ng
GABBY Caldwell can claim at least three miracles over her eight-year life.
The first was her birth on June 18, 2006, an event “very much anticipated and appreciated” by her parents, Kevin and Johanna Caldwell, who weren’t able to have children for eight years.
The second was surviving four days of seizures after contracting gastroenteritis, although at three-and-a-half years Gabby was left with a severe brain injury.
The third was cheating death in December last year.
Her father is the first to acknowledge her miraculous life so far.
“Some of the doctors and nurses are saying, ‘Gabby, the miracle girl’,” Mr Caldwell said.
Four months after her birth, Gabby began to have seizures and at two years old was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome.
“Her seizures kept happening every couple of months if she got a cold or something like that, or rapid change in temperature,” Mr Caldwell said.
“We were hopeful when she continued to bounce back but when she was three-and-a-half, which was December 2009, she had a cluster of seizures – she got a virus – it was gastro – and was in intensive care and had seizures for four days.
“We weren’t sure whether she’d make it through.
“We were praying a lot, and hoping for her to be okay.”
Gabby was put into a medically induced coma, spending three months in intensive care.
The ongoing seizures resulted in a severe brain injury that meant Gabby could no longer walk, talk or eat.
In March 2010 Gabby was discharged from the hospital and “started the road to recovery”.
This road began in Darwin, the place the Caldwells used to call home.
But Gabby’s parents soon realised her level of care in Darwin was not enough to give her a full go at life.
They researched and found a number of therapies available in Brisbane.
In November 2010, the Caldwells travelled to Brisbane for Johanna’s sister-in-law’s wedding, the perfect time to test out their research.
The Caldwells visited a private therapist and, after two sessions, saw remarkable improvements in Gabby’s body movements.
“In two sessions, with prompting and help to get her to turn from her back to her tummy, you could see Gabby initiating,” Mr Caldwell said.
“This was much more than she’d done in 11 months since the brain injury.”
But the family had not planned for moving and lacked the necessary funds to make the move.
“We prayed about it and said, ‘God, if you want a way for this to happen, you make it happen, if this is your will for us to go to Brisbane’,” Mr Caldwell said.
“The first job I applied for I got. That was a bit of a sign.
“We found out from another parent about a one-off Centrelink payment, and that was exactly the right amount of money to allow us to move.
“I felt like God was opening the Red Sea for us in a sense that it was possible to go and do the impossible.”
The couple moved to Brisbane in February 2011.
Mr Caldwell said 2011 was “a year of hope for us”.
Gabby began receiving weekly therapy and for a number of months had many successes. But Mr Caldwell knows the path to recovery “is a long one”, recalling a number of setbacks since the move.
Since Gabby is spastic quadriplegic and has a brain injury, her hips are misaligned because she cannot bear her full body weight on her legs.
To rectify this, Gabby had major bone surgery where doctors cut her femurs to realign her hips in December 2012.
Gabby had heart failure and breathing issues as a result of the long surgery.
Reflecting on that moment, her father paused, holding back a few tears.
“I guess, it was quite a moment,” he said.
Gabby got through this first setback, and her subsequent therapy focused on upper body movement and breathing.
But with her legs “out of action” for almost one year, Gabby needed another long surgery to remove plates and screws from her legs.
For a second time, Gabby had heart failure, but this time, chances of her surviving were slim.
“That was a real test of faith for us because we were prepared for the event of her death,” Mr Caldwell said.
“We were praying, hoping that God would allow her to live through it, naturally, but also recognising that it might not happen.
“She was on the maximum amount of drugs to keep her blood pressure up, and so she could keep breathing.
“We had a lot of support from our Church community (the Neocatechumenal Way), a lot of prayers, and help in practical ways, people bringing us meals and all that.
“People stayed with us in hospital the night she was expected to pass away.
“There was a moment there where we had 12 people praying the Our Father next to Gabby’s bed, and it was one of those moments where I thought, ‘God, You are the author of life, we are at Your mercy, whatever You want to do in this moment, just give us the grace and the courage to accept Your will’.
“It was about 2am when the nurse said she didn’t know if Gabby would make it through the next hour.
“I rang a friend, a priest, and he blessed her, gave her the last rites. By the time he’d arrived, she’d turned the corner.
“He arrived at 3am and stayed with Gabby until 6am, and people were praying by her bedside the whole time.
“There were moments, where I thought, ‘Will she make it from this or not’.
“It was very much an existential moment considering life and death for all of us really.”
Mr Caldwell recalls praying the entire time.
“It’s amazing – I prayed all the Office readings, prayed ‘Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me a sinner’, Hail Marys when I wasn’t doing the Rosary.
“I found the prayer really sustained me, and made me understand that I have no control over this situation.
“The doctors and nurses can only do what they can do, and the rest is God’s will.
“She made it through.
“She’s a miracle. I thank God for every day we have Gabby. It came very close there.
“It’s a moment where we’ve been able to praise God and say thank you for another day.”
More than a month later in January, Gabby went straight back into school at Nursery Road State Special School in Holland Park.
She has had therapy to straighten her legs, and speech therapy has helped her swallow and eat without her normal gastronomy button.
“I was amazed,” her dad said.
“Going from probably not going to live in late December to going back to school in January, it really is a miracle.”
Gabby’s parents are now looking into eye gaze technology to help with her communication. She blinks to communicate “yes” and looks away to say “no”.
“She’s very expressive with her eyes,” he said. “She enjoys being loved.”
Gabby’s mum said her daughter had taught her what unconditional love meant.
The last time Gabby told her parents she loved them was December 23, 2009, just before her four-day-long seizures.
“I know she loves me, even if she can’t tell me,” Mrs Caldwell said.
“To be honest, I mourn the way she is, but it’s wonderful how God has a beautiful way of finding glory in this.
“The cross can be a glorious witness.”
Caring for a child with a disability has been a blessing in disguise for Gabby’s parents’ marriage.
“It’s been a moment that’s really brought us together, I would say, solidified our faith,” they said.
“It’s made us pray together and I think we’ve supported each other through some tough times.”
To find out how to support Gabby visit www.teamgabby.com.com.