Looking at 11-month-old Ava Vickers and her bright smile, it is hard to believe that only five months ago her parents were planning her funeral.
Struck with a serious case of chicken pox and several other infections in July, there were terrifying moments where mum and dad Natasha and Duncan thought their expressive wee girl would never see another day.
But now, the Aberdeenshire family are preparing for Ava’s very first Christmas.
And after the year they’ve had, they say they’re going “overboard” to make it as special as possible for her.
This is the incredible story of Ava’s courage and resilience.
Ava became covered ‘head-to-toe’ with chicken pox
Out of her three children – her oldest Sophie is aged five and Jack is two – Natasha said Ava was definitely her “best birth”.
After Ava was born on January 3, as the months went on she also appeared to be a very healthy baby.
When their eldest Sophie got chicken pox in June, Duncan and Natasha said they worried more about Jack who was in and out of hospital when he was poorly.
Two weeks later, the other two kids caught it. However, while Jack’s started to heal on the Tuesday, Ava kept breaking out in more spots.
By the Friday, Ava was covered “head-to-toe”, had a soaring temperature and was feeding less.
They took her to the GP, but after she stopped feeding completely overnight they were sent to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary (ARI) the next day.
“By the afternoon she’d started to get a bit spaced-out and she’d been asleep by 24 hours at this point,” said Natasha, 31. “We were struggling to keep her awake.”
Having had sepsis in the family before, the advanced psychology practitioner with CAMHS knew the warning signs.
“And I said to Duncan ‘She’s really, really sick’,” Natasha added.
“And then we saw this big chicken pox on her back and it was black.”
A long night at ARI
After Ava was admitted, Natasha told Duncan to go home, sleep and to come back refreshed in the morning.
They did not realise how long a night they were in for.
Natasha and Ava went to sleep, but at 1am Natasha woke up knowing something was not right. After she called the nurses and doctor through, they asked her what the problem was.
Natasha explained: “I said ‘I don’t know but I can’t sleep, there’s something wrong with her.’
“Then they put a continuous monitor probe on her and her heart rate was tanking.
“From that point it just started going downhill really fast.”
Ava had to go for surgery for staff to put a PICC line in. When she came back, she seemed “floppy”.
Just as her dad Duncan arrived, Ava’s stats suddenly crashed.
Her organs started to fail, her body was swelling and she had to be hooked up to a lot of different wires.
Staff in Aberdeen said they would try to move Ava to Edinburgh or Glasgow in the morning.
In the meantime, they said Ava would have to be intubated but both the staff and Ava’s parents were scared she would not wake up from another round of general anaesthetic.
‘I’m sorry, I think she’s going to die’
At that point it was 11pm. The doctors and nurses had stayed on all day and were camped outside Ava’s room keeping an eye on her stats.
Before she went for surgery, Duncan and Natasha were encouraged to get last photos.
Duncan, 32, who is the healthcare chaplain at ARI, said: “It was the longest day of my life.”
“They asked if I wanted to hold her and I said ‘no I’m ok’ and they said ‘no I think you should’.
“Then she went down, she got intubated. We were waiting for a while, and I texted my family saying ‘I’m sorry, I think she’s going to die.’”
Natasha added: “It was awful because I sat in an empty hospital room that just felt like what it would be like had she died because there was no baby in it and I was sitting in it myself. I just cried.
“In the morning the plan was we would get moved as soon as we could, and while we were waiting to hear news, we basically planned her funeral.
“Then a friend texted and said: ‘We were praying about it and we just remembered that Ava’s name means life.’
“For us we were just like, even if it’s not a good outcome, it just felt like we were held by everyone and we weren’t alone even though we were sitting in this room by ourselves.”
Ava flown to Edinburgh
After the surgery, a consultant — who looked “shell shocked”— came to tell them Ava’s intubation had gone well.
Natasha said: “And he said ‘this is the first time I’ve felt hopeful for you all day’.
“It still wasn’t plain sailing from that point… but that was the first it felt like things were getting slowly better.”
Ava and Natasha were “blue lighted” to Edinburgh by air ambulance in the morning.
The parents were told to expect Ava to go up and down, but from then on, Duncan said she went from “strength to strength”.
Although she still seemed traumatised on the Wednesday, Duncan and Natasha were able to stay tucked in bed with her for 24 hours.
“It just changed her,” said Natasha. “After that she was just back to Ava again. I think she just needed to know we were there, and she was safe and things were ok.”
She stayed in Edinburgh for around 10 days before being transported back to Aberdeen to finish her care, where she received a “stream” of visitors from all over the hospital.
Natasha added: “It just meant so much that not only was it so nice for us to come back to Aberdeen and to see everyone, it felt like everyone needed to see her as well.”
When Ava’s tests came back, they realised she had also contracted Strep A and Rhinovirus, as well as chicken pox which had caused her to go into septic shock.
Making lots of plans for the future
Five months on Ava is thriving, but Duncan admitted he is still struggling with what happened and is getting counselling.
The parents said the experience has changed them, making them want to create more memories with the kids – hence their plans for a whopping eight Christmas celebrations.
Duncan added: “That’s what we want to do, just make memories when we can because you don’t know what’s happening next.”
How Ava and her family got help from The Archie Foundation
For anyone going through a similar experience, Rebecca encouraged people not to bottle up how they are feeling.
She added: “It’s one of those things, you’ve just got to try and be hopeful and talk to people; don’t keep it to yourself because it can drive you insane.”
Speaking on behalf of the Archie Foundation, chief executive Paula Cormack said the charity has been supporting the Aberdeen Neonatal Unit for nearly four decades.
She said: “The difference Archie funding and support makes for babies, families and staff at the unit is immeasurable.
“For many neonatal families the most valuable thing the charity provides is a listening ear in the form of the Archie counsellor.
“Having a baby is a life-changing experience, and having someone impartial to speak to about feelings and emotions can be enormously beneficial – especially if things don’t go to plan and those feelings and emotions are difficult or challenging.
“We couldn’t provide any of this were it not for amazing supporters and donors who help ensure Archie is here for families when they need us most.”