Nearly a year ago, when Paola Grech’s daughter Andrea was just six weeks old, she was diagnosed with a rare liver condition, which would eventually lead to her having a liver transplant at just eight months old.
Sitting down with Paola, it was incredible to hear her recount her journey from start to finish.
I’ve known Paola for almost eight years and through that time, she’s become one of my closest friends. We met through our now husbands who were school friends and, we somehow managed to get married and have kids around the same time.
Paola is one of the most genuine people you will meet and as long as I’ve known her, she is always busy working away on a business venture. For the last few years she’s been building her brand Paola Andrea (formerly Lucas Designs) specialising in leather bags, clutches and wallets. But, it’s her resolve, positivity and strength over the last year that I have been most encouraged by.
Paola recalls the moment that changed her life, “At 6 weeks old Andrea got quite sick with a flu and we wanted to make sure it was nothing serious, like whooping cough, so we took her to the hospital.’
While they were there, the doctors questioned Andrea’s jaundice and asked if they could do some blood tests. Jaundice normally clears up before a baby is six weeks old.
“Long story short, after the tests, she was diagnosed with a rare condition called Biliary Atresia. I had never even heard of it.”
Paola says she found her whole world crumbling around her. She was also told that her daughter was born without a gall bladder and would need to be transferred to Sydney Children’s Hospital for her first surgery at just eight weeks old.
“Just prior to the operation at Randwick, I remember speaking to the team there and them telling me 101 different things. The surgeon spoke to me and tried explaining what was happening." Paola gets emotional just speaking about this moment.
"He even mentioned to me that he had just been to Cambodia and met a little boy who had the same condition and unfortunately being a third world country, they don’t have the facilities we do.
He said, ‘you can just imagine what’s happening to that little boy.’ So as much as I was feeling like my whole world had come crumbling down at my feet, I knew there were so many people going through the same thing who don’t have the options we do.”
Unfortunately that first procedure wasn’t as successful as they had hoped and Paola and her husband Anthony were forced to wait and watch Andrea’s health decline until she was put on a waiting list for a transplant.
While this was happening, Anthony also had to have a work-up. If there was no donor, he may have needed to donate part of his liver to save her life, which would mean both he and Andrea would be in recovery for three months.
‘We were lucky enough not to go down that path but were told to prepare for a call at any time of the night for a transplant.’ Paola tells me.
One night at Christmas time, at around 3am, they received a call and were told to be at Westmead Children's Hospital within two hours as there was a potential donor.
Paola and Anthony got up, got ready and brought Andrea straight in to hospital. This also meant leaving their daughter Audrey at home with her grandparents. Andrea had to be fasting and prepped for surgery which included a full work-up including putting in a canula which was never an easy task.
After this process, and waiting a few hours at hospital, they were told the donor liver was incompatibale.
“It was so hard, we got so worked up thinking this is the one, this is going to happen, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Exactly one week later, to the day, the received another call from the hospital, this time, the liver was compatible and Paola and Anthony anxiously sent their baby girl in to theatre.
“I thought, this can’t be happening and at the same time, there is a family out there who just lost a loved one and have given us such a wonderful gift, for our child to have a second chance at life.”
The procedure went well but recovery was slow and steady with Paola spending five weeks in hospital with Andrea, caring for her but also desperately missing her daughter Audrey and sometimes wishing she was home with her.
During this time in recovery, there were more tests, biopsies and many hours spent in ICU waiting for Andrea’s body to adapt to the new liver.
“Andrea always maintained a happy attitude, no matter how many times she got poked and prodded. Without being able to say a word yet, she’s touched so many lives. There’s been family members who have now said they would definitely be donors and just to hear that, it’s amazing. This little being has created awareness for this rare condition that I hadn’t even heard of.”
Paola’s outlook always remained positive, thinking of the other families she met along the way.
“Even though it’s been a battle, it is what it is and there are other people out there that are going through worse scenarios.
I’ve definitely learnt not to judge a book by its cover because you have no idea what they’re going through. It could be a worse situation than yours.”
This is the first time I've shared this publicly but I wanted to, in the hope that maybe it could create awareness or help someone else going through a similar situation.
Andrea isn’t cured from biliary atresia and due to the transplant; she is unable to have live vaccinations (making overseas trips difficult) and will be on medication for the rest of her life, “she started off with 11 types of medication every day, I call it her morning cocktail.”
Looking at Andrea, you would never guess what she has been through, and all before the age of one. She looks healthy and happy, her cheeks are chubby, her skin is clear and her smile is contagious.
Now that Andrea is on her road to recovery, Paola is more determined than ever to build her business.
“Now that she’s had the transplant, I’ve decided that 2017 is going to be the year to get things happening. To put 100% in to everything I do and to live in the moment.”
But what she’s been through has also given her a new perspective. She wants to give back. She’s changed the name of her brand to make it more personal and she wants to connect more with her customers.
“Like an artist when they create a masterpiece, I want to be able to give that personal touch, that loving touch to each bag. Creating this bag or clutch, it’s more than a sale it’s giving them something that I have loved creating.”
On top of that, she will be giving back to the people who helped her along the way, donating $5 from every Paola Andrea sale to the Liver Transplant Unit at Westmead Children’s Hospital.
At the end of our chat, I ask Paola how she does it. How she remains so positive, how she still has energy to build her business and how she is still so hopeful for the future. She tells me it was ‘faith, hope and prayer’ and reads me a quote she heard while in hospital ‘God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers.’
“At the start, when everything happened with Andrea, you have a lot of people come up to you and say ‘I’m so sorry’ and I know they mean well but I don’t see it as a burden. If this is a path that I had to take as a mum, then I’m going to take it with positivity and love. It was tough but it taught me so much and as hard as it’s been for us as a family and we spent so much time apart, it’s made us a stronger as a whole.’
For more information on the Liver Transplant Unit at Westmead, please visit the Leaping Livers Facebook page.
All photos by KMA Photography