The Christmas tree and decorations are up, the plans for the big day have been made, and for Townsville’s Bernadette Nolan and Craig Phillipson, they’re just like any first-time parents excited about their baby’s first festive season.
With just one small difference.
The pair had thought they would quite possibly never have children as Bernadette – Bernie – has paraplegia and uses a wheelchair.
Now 36, Bernie was just 18 when she had a cancerous tumor growing on her spinal cord that had to be removed to save her life. However, the operation meant she would be paralysed from the point where the tumor was removed.
“For years I had resigned myself to believing that my body may not be up to conceiving after all the cancer treatment I had, as well as the fact that I was 35-years-old,” Bernie said.
“Our mindset was ‘if it happens, it happens’ but if it doesn’t, we were more than happy with our lives as they were.”
Bernie conceived naturally within a couple of months of trying. She and Craig were thrilled but also cautious about how Bernie would cope with the pregnancy.
“I was nervous about how I was going to cope with being pregnant,” Bernie said.
“I didn’t know how I would manage with the extra weight. I had no idea how long I could maintain my independence before the weight gain became too restrictive.”
The pregnancy was uncomfortable, with the combination of morning sickness, weight gain and other side effects from her spinal cord injury intensifying, leaving her less mobile.
“I just had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t going to last forever,” she said.
While Bernie had been advised by her obstetrician that she ‘would not miss going into labour’, she did, going into hospital for a check-up and discovering she was in labour.
She had aimed for a natural birth but complications meant Bernie’s baby was delivered via Caesarean section, with Bernie having to be put under a general anaesthetic as her previous spinal surgery ruled out an epidural.
Baby Jasper, born in May, is ‘a treasure’ said his mum and she is delighting in motherhood.
“We have enjoyed every minute with him. I love the simple things like teaching him how to hold his little bear and seeing his face light up when I read him his favourite book.
“His smile melts my heart!”
Bernie said having paraplegia actually prepared her well for adapting to parenthood.
“I think being in a wheelchair has been an advantage in adapting to parenthood, as I’m used to adjusting to difficult situations on a daily basis and so having a baby is just the same,” she said.
Bernie soothed some of her pre-baby nerves by practising carrying and lifting a doll (‘Lucy’) before Jasper arrived and has now set up what she describes as a ‘simple’ nursery which makes caring for her son easier.
She also sourced an innovative new cot and baby car seat that were accessible to her and when she’s out and about she carries Jasper in a regular baby pouch on her lap, where he happily falls asleep.
With Jasper now almost seven-months-old and increasingly inquisitive, Bernie and Craig said they were looking forward to a special first Christmas with their little boy.
“We are very excited about it and can’t wait to give him his presents under the tree, although at this stage he’ll probably be more interested in the wrapping paper,” Bernie said.
Jasper has just experienced his first meeting with Santa and surprisingly, was cheerful about it!
“He was one of a few kids who didn’t cry; he grabbed his present quite happily,” Bernie said.
Spinal Injuries Association Peer Mentor Maria Hutton, who also has paraplegia, was a great source of information to Bernie, as she had three daughters following her spinal cord injury. The three are now aged in their 20s.
“Having someone to talk to who has been there before was invaluable. What works for one person may not work for others but it was great to get ideas,” Bernie said.
“I was inspired by Maria and another local woman who has quadriplegia, Richelle Carta, and able to adopt some of their parental techniques to tend to my own baby.”
Maria said, as a Peer Mentor, her role was to show people who have a spinal cord injury that life goes on and could still be enjoyed with a permanent injury.
“Being a parent is an option that all people should be able to have,” she said.
“Certainly using a wheelchair has its ongoing challenges, but it also doesn’t define you as a person.
“There’s a whole world out there waiting to be embraced – you just need to be a little more creative to overcome some of those obstacles in your way.”
Bernie demonstrates her lateral thinking when it comes to parenting in a series of short YouTube videos where she demonstrates, among other things, how she picks Jasper up off the floor and how she gets him in and out of her car, and his cot.
The following videos can be viewed:
Issued 1 December 2011.