Like anyone facing a follow-up appointment after a scare, Elizabeth and her husband did their best to calmly rationalize why nurses might've discovered an irregularity during their 6-week-old daughter Stella's heart test. Encouraged to keep positive, they internalized their own mantra: "it was just a murmur; it's just a murmur."
Unfortunately, however, they soon found it to be the echo of much more. Struggling to gain sufficient weight, one large hole in Stella's heart was followed by the discovery of several more. And, -- under the care of SickKids experts - - Stella was diagnosed with Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD) and scheduled for immediate surgery, filling her parents with a range of emotions from confusion to fear, and understandably panic: "my stomach dropped," shares Elizabeth.
"That first night post-op, when you walk in and see a child you don’t recognize hooked up to monitors and drains and machines, when you start to go numb and think you’ll never have your baby back... You feel like there’s no way you can survive this and make it through that night," Elizabeth explains.
But they did, and so did Stella -- through that first night and then another, and another. "It becomes a new normal, and it’s not fair, but there is hope in the midst of it," she reflects.
And, even through Stella's nearly 3-month-stay in hospital to cope with complications, that hope sustained. "I’ve been challenged more than I ever thought I could take throughout this experience," explains Elizabeth. "But I have also met some of the strongest, most inspirational people, and seen real miracles happen...and after long months filled with fear and ‘what-ifs’ I got to bring my baby home."
Elizabeth attests that, as trying as the experience has been for Stella and their family, it's also been uniquely rewarding.
"You are stronger than you know and your warrior will amaze you every single day," she shares, with pride.
It too has given both her and her family a new perspective on life -- shifting the sacred moments they share, so they perhaps take shape through more raw hardship, but still hold powerful meaning, in their own right. Regardless of circumstance, these moments, and hospital settings, was where their lives continued to unfold as a family, and they felt it important to capture them as a key part of their journey -- including healing; these images now enable them to reflect back on this time, and all the growth that came from overcoming it together.
"I feel like I’ve already blocked out so much of Stella’s battle because of the trauma and pain of remembering," confides Elizabeth. "But, looking back on the photos of her in critical care remind me of how far she has come, and in those images I can see her strength radiating even from a hospital bed, incubated, fighting multiple viruses, post-open heart surgery. These are the kind of photos I want to show her when she’s 15 and doubting her own strength and self-confidence."
Now 9-months-old, Stella is growing every day more and more into the "sweet, strong, independent, tenacious, easygoing and joyful" child she was born to be. "Stella is our champion. She has been a fighter since the day she was born and does it all with a smile on her face. She inspires me every day to keep going," shares her mom.
Today, the many hurdles have taught the family to cherish every second with one another, even more -- revealing that even the smallest moments on the most seemingly routine of days can hold magic.
"I have so much more appreciation for the small joys in life. I love the moments when my kids wake up each morning -- that very first beaming, ear-to-ear grin gets me every time," says Elizabeth. And yet, she also recognizes that even the tougher moments have a beauty to them all their own, because they are real and they are true -- they are life: their life as a family.
"Today, neither of my children napped. They were irritable, and crying was the soundtrack of my day. But, oh man...they are the sweetest gifts I could ever have asked for. I learn from both of them every day and they teach me to be a better mom and human."
In the same way their family album remains with so many blank pages ahead, ready to be filled with many more of the authentic and inspiring snapshots that form their family's story, Elizabeth shares the same wish of possibility for her little big warrior: that Stella someday be able to "do whatever her heart wants," with nothing holding her back.
And, come what may, they'll cherish every moment given: "Simply being together as a family is the greatest blessing."