She was so small—only 2½ kg—with a feeding tube in her nose and an eye which didn’t close, yet this vulnerable baby was a fighter and drew a compassionate parish community around her.
The life of Kathlyn Shanahan began shakily. Her parents, Fiona and Grant Shanahan, chose to adopt her as a sibling for their son Patrick.
They had always wanted a large family. But Fiona was hospitalised during pregnancy with an illness that eventually led to kidney and liver failure and threatened future pregnancies.
However, after many trials Grant and Fiona were blessed with the birth of Patrick, now 6, a bright and healthy social dynamo. After a subsequent pregnancy which lead to a miscarriage, Fiona and Grant decided she could not put her body through another pregnancy. As Fiona said, ‘I couldn’t cope with another loss.’
The Shanahan family spent six months touring overseas to try to deal with the grief of not being able to fulfil their dream.
On their return and still wanting a sibling for Patrick they asked about adoption and, after a year of processing, they took the family profile to Adoption Services. On that day they were told a baby was available in Auckland. This five-week-old child had Down syndrome.
‘We had gone into the adoption for a child for our home, for our family. We never said it had be the perfect child of this race, this culture, this anything. It just has to be a child that God wants us to look after.’
Fiona and Grant signed up, along with 16 others, to adopt her.
‘We didn’t think we had a chance.’
When Fiona and Grant were told they were chosen, they were ecstatic.
She ‘was my baby from the moment we were told,’ said Fiona. However, Grant was scared and needed help to understand the implications of Down syndrome.
‘We went round and saw some people who had children with Down syndrome—one family who had adopted a child with Down syndrome and another family with a teenager.’
Both families shared their experiences of raising a child with Down syndrome, what the child had brought to the family and how this had changed them. Grant appreciated their openness in talking about their expectations, what challenges the children had brought and how things had worked.
‘This was important because, after the initial rosy feeling, we needed to know that there would be hard times and that we should not go into it blindly.’
Fiona found meeting the parents and the baby difficult.
‘I just didn’t think I would be good enough. I just wanted this baby so much. I didn’t realise until she was so close to my grasp. All those mothering instincts kicked in.’
Fiona and Grant took Patrick with them. He walked in the door and said ‘Where’s my baby sister?’ Without having met the child they felt that she was already part of their family. Grant warmed to her quite quickly.
Within two months Kathlyn started to go into congested heart failure from two holes in her heart. After open-heart surgery at Starship hospital in Auckland, Kathlyn was given a 30 percent chance of survival.
‘She is such a fighter and she’s got so much spunk,’ Fiona said. ‘The doctors would tell us that she might not make it overnight and the next day she’d be drinking more than she’d drunk for the last three weeks.’ Kathlyn had a point to prove!
With Kathlyn in hospital for several weeks, St Peter and Paul’s parish and St Martin De Porres community rallied around the Shanahans. The Passionist Family Group and the school gave clothes, nappies, and toys. A roster was set up to provide meals and look after Patrick. The family was divided between Hutt hospital and Starship. With the community’s support, Grant just managed to keep his job going with the increased family commitments.
Kathlyn’s surgery was successful and she recovered enough to begin to settle at home. Through the illness she was a much-loved child.
‘Everyone has fallen in love with Kathlyn. Being Down syndrome, she naturally loves affection and so she attracts a lot of attention,’ Fiona said.
As the family was starting to enjoy having Kathlyn around, life turned again. Fiona became pregnant.
‘I didn’t believe it because it just wasn’t supposed to be able to happen. I couldn’t get excited because I was so scared.’
The memory of the first two pregnancies and the threat of Hyperemisis and miscarriage returned. This pregnancy proved equally exhausting for all the family.
Fiona was bedridden and in and out of hospital for the first five months. She felt unable to do anything for Kathlyn. Grant held it all together with the support of an amazing parish community.
About this time Fiona had an experience she will not forget.
‘I got to the stage where I was so ill I was thinking, am I going to die from this? After the seventh doctor asked if I had considered abortion I got quite scared. I spent two days crying because I knew then how some people get to the point where they make that decision.’
At 22 weeks, Fiona and the baby both had a severe blood infection which marked a turning point.
Nevertheless, Fiona began to get on top of the pregnancy. She returned home and gained confidence in her ability to cope with the impending birth due to a new drug and support from the Hutt Hospital staff.
Meanwhile Kathlyn has had two eye operations for her congenital eye condition and grommets in her ears to prevent infection. She has also had five days in hospital with croup.
Grant and Fiona talk with pride of the milestones Kathlyn is achieving. She is now a year old and exploring everything around her. Her personality is determined and responsive to those who greet her. She has a look that says, ‘hello world I’m here!’
She regularly surprises her parents by doing things she shouldn’t be able to do yet. Kathlyn is determined to make up for lost time.
Fiona and Grant were humbled by the generosity of their community. At worst they did not know where to turn for financial support for the trips to Starship. Because they did not at first have Kathlyn’s birth certificate, they were not entitled to the usual allowances. The stress on their family life of the separation and worry exhausted them.
They now wonder how people cope when they don’t have such support—the meals, the child-minding, the clothes and toys, the constant phone calls asking if all was well kept them afloat. For Fiona and Grant life is a gift.
‘We are so lucky. We have two beautiful children and one on the way.’