Amy and Stephen’s fourth child was born very prematurely at only 29 weeks. Poppy Smith arrived with many of the complications that preemies often have: for months she was in an incubator with a very uncertain future. Her parents supported her unwaveringly and at last after more than 12 weeks she was strong enough to come home to her family in Cumbria in northern England.
The delighted parents soon noticed something to cause concern: Poppy dribbled food from her mouth and seemed to have less control than their other kids had at that age. She was quickly diagnosed with Möbius syndrome, a rare neurological disease that affects facial musculature. It seemed now that she might never learn to walk and talk.
Despite the bad odds, the family wasn’t going to give up. And Poppy grew and learned like any other baby. Other than some minor respiratory problems, 2016 was a good year. But then, when Poppy was about to turn two, everything collapsed.
One morning Amy went in to wake up Poppy, but her little daughter didn’t react. “We could feel her heartbeat, but she was unresponsive. We knew there was something seriously wrong. She was breathing but she was sort of gasping for air,” Stephen said. She was rushed to their local hospital and then on to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.
On her birthday came the next blow. Stephen recalled with anguish, “Her eyes were starting to roll to the back of her head. A chest X-ray showed that her lungs were full of fluid and she had another respiratory arrest. That night she started to develop twitches and seizures. She was deteriorating fast.”
In addition, a scan revealed that Poppy was suffering from severe cerebral hypoxia. The doctors were again unsure whether she could survive. Would Stephen and Amy have to lose their daughter after all, after all the energy and love they’d invested for the last two years? Those next few days were the most painful of their lives.
On Christmas Eve, the entire family went to see Poppy in the hospital, knowing that it might be the last time they would celebrate all together. Poppy hadn’t appeared to be conscious for weeks. She hadn’t reacted to them but they still couldn’t give up. Then Macey, her 12-year-old big sister, reached down and playfully blew a “raspberry” on Poppy’s abdomen as if to tickle her. And to everyone’s astonishment, the toddler began to laugh.
“It was astonishing. We found out afterwards that it wasn’t uncommon for people in this state to show emotion […] Doctors said it could be spinal reflexes, but I felt like it was so much more.”
In the months since that moment Poppy has shown huge strides. After her sister tickled her, her recovery started progressing much better. She can now crawl and speak (even more than before, her parents report). She’s now in intensive physiotherapy to recover her lost mobility.
The family started a gofundme campaign to finance the private physiotherapy that Poppy requires to have better expectations for the future. Many have already supported the little girl and believe that she has a bright future ahead if given the right care. She’s already proven to be quite a fighter. But above all, the affection from her sister seems to have helped her turn a corner.
Love (and tickling) really can work miracles!