Me: When did you learn Annie had Trisomy 13?
Barb Farlow: After the 22-week ultrasound, the geneticist said "this is Trisomy 13, 18, or something equally lethal." We were told she would likely die before birth or in the delivery room. Initially, the research we did suggested these babies were ‘incompatible with life.’ We were confused because it seemed that many of the anomalies they had could be fixed. When I was six months pregnant we found Living with Trisomy 13, a web site for families. We came to know many living children and their families and discovered these children were very special and loved, that some did benefit from medical intervention, and that while the experience was challenging, it was life-changing for the families.
Me: How did you decide to continue with the pregnancy?
Barb Farlow: It wasn't a process, it was immediate. By the time of the diagnosis, I had grown to love my baby and felt very protective of her. I realized the odds were against her even coming to term, but it didn't mean I would take steps to end her life. The geneticist said “We don’t do surgery on these kids” and an obstetrician later told us: “You don’t crack the chest open for these little kiddies.” That prompted us to meet with staff from three departments at the children's hospital to ensure that if Annie needed life-saving surgery, she would be eligible for it. We were told she’d be treated like any other child. We knew surgery might not be indicated for her – that it might be too burdensome or not in her best interest, but we didn’t want the door closed on account of her genetic condition or disability. We wanted full information about the benefits and risks of any treatments so we could make good choices.
Me: What were your hopes and dreams for Annie?
Barb Farlow: We wanted her to have a chance. We wanted her to survive as desperately as any parent wants their child to survive. We were well aware of the disabilities and challenges she would have. My husband had taken an indefinite leave from work so that we could both devote ourselves to Annie and our other children. We wanted Annie to have comfort and happiness and we knew that through loving her we were going to learn so much. With Annie, we took nothing for granted and lived each day to the fullest. One clear, hot night, when everyone was asleep, we took Annie outside and looked at the stars together. We viewed life differently when Annie was born. Her first smile was like magic.
Me: How was Annie affected by Trisomy 13?
Barb Farlow: When she was born, we learned she didn't have the brain defect or the major cardiac condition they predicted. She was seven pounds, with Apgar scores of eight and nine out of 10, which was amazing. We were more shocked than anybody. She wasn't blind or deaf, which was a possibility, and she didn't have any major structural deformities in her organs. As we were rejoicing about how well Annie was doing, a medical fellow asked my husband: "Do you really want to treat this child? She's going to have these disabilities." He suggested she shouldn’t be treated, irrespective of her physical status. It was like a slap in the face. Annie was treated in hospital for six weeks for low blood sugar and received excellent supportive care at that time.
Me: How did Annie die?
Barb Farlow: We only recently received the medical certificate of death and it lists respiratory distress that began one month prior to her death. When we took her to the outpatient clinic two days before she died – because she was having trouble breathing and her face was beet red – we were told it might get better on its own and sent home with no tests and no measure of comfort for her distress. Earlier on, a pulmonologist had suspected she had a tracheal disorder, but she was never tested for it. When she was rushed to hospital in acute distress for a tracheal assessment, we were told her trachea was fine, but she had pneumonia. She didn’t. We later learned that throughout her life, doctor after doctor ignored critical indications of impending respiratory failure. Meanwhile, we were led to believe that Annie was receiving full care.
Me: How are children with serious genetic conditions viewed in our culture?
Barb Farlow: Especially with the financial challenges in our health system, I think there's an element of anger similar to how some people feel when a person is obese or a smoker and needs expensive medical treatment. There's the perception: "This is a choice, a life choice, we have ways of preventing these things." I think there are many in health care who see these children this way – as something we can avoid and have the ability to avoid. There's a perception that if a child isn't perfect, it's cruel to bring them into the world. It's expected that the vast majority of women are having testing and will terminate for these conditions. I think it's a challenge for health-care providers to have compassion and see value in our children when it's a road they wouldn't have taken themselves. Especially when there are limited resources and they're already short of NICU beds.
Me: What about in the community at large? Did you feel supported as a mother who chose not to terminate a child with a genetic condition?
Barb Farlow: I had a sense that most of our friends and neighbours wouldn't understand our choice, so during the pregnancy I confided in only a few close friends. It's unfortunate, because a person needs a lot of support at that time, but the support doesn't exist. When you terminate in our system, you're given a gift package – with hand-knit booties, a swaddling blanket and a kit for making footprints. There are support groups and psychological counselling and it's all there to help you go in that direction. If you choose not to terminate, you're on your own, with some of your friends and relatives thinking you're crazy.
Me: How has the rise of prenatal testing influenced public perceptions about children with genetic conditions?
Barb Farlow: I believe it creates the perception that we have a cure for these conditions. There’s a sense of “I’ve done all my prenatal screening and testing, I have a right to a perfect baby.” I’ve heard from genetic counsellors that more women are terminating for less serious conditions like cleft lip and palate, or club feet. I think we need to review whether the training doctors receive allows them to counsel in a neutral and balanced way. I found an educational presentation online created by Ontario’s Fetal Alert Network that included a photo of a stillborn child with a severe deformity related to Trisomy 13 placed next to a picture of a one-eyed Cyclops from Greek mythology. This was a terribly dehumanizing picture. When a family doctor has a patient whose fetus has been diagnosed with Trisomy 13, what picture will come to his mind? Annie had an extra finger on both of her hands. But she wasn’t less human.
Me: You’ve spent the last three years sharing Annie’s story across North America and further afield. What do you hope to achieve?
Barb Farlow: I hope I’ve opened the eyes of health-care providers to how a family makes decisions and how they feel. I hope I’ve held a mirror to them to reveal how their actions or inactions were perceived by a family. I think there’s a group-think approach in health care to issues related to disability. Everybody does what everybody else is doing and no one thinks for themselves. I believe a lot of denials of care are tacit and “let’s all do this because we think everyone is doing this" and based on the assumption: "These kids are hopeless and no one wants them.” I hope I’ve changed that, and allowed providers to start thinking about things in a different way, so they can stand up and speak for what they believe is right.
Me: What advice would you give a parent who’s chosen to bring a baby prenatally diagnosed with a genetic condition to term?
Barb Farlow: Number one would be communication. It’s important that the doctors know you’re aware of the challenges of the medical condition, that you’re realistic and realize you might have to make difficult decisions. Emphasize that you want to make decisions based on medical reasons and not quality-of-life reasons, that you’ve accepted the disability. It’s helpful if you connect with other families of children with similar disabilities prenatally, so you can say you’re aware of what you’re getting into and you’ve made the commitment.
Click here to read an overview of Annie's story.