Doncaster sisters defy death with brave hearts

Hannah and Charlotte Roberts of Dunsville. (Buy this photo D1622TS) Picture: Tony Saxton

Hannah and Charlotte Roberts of Dunsville. (Buy this photo D1622TS) Picture: Tony Saxton

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Meet Hannah Roberts - the teenage girl whose heart was mended by the vein of a cow.

When she was an unborn baby, doctors had advised her parents to consider a termination after scans revealed she was at the worst end of the scale for a life-threatening heart condition.

But mum Frederika and dad Simon refused - instead opting for Hannah to take part in a clinical trial to have a cow’s artery and valve put into her chest in the place of her missing pulmonary artery.

Fast-forward to the present day and the 14-year-old lives her life to the full - netting goals in school hockey matches, treading the boards with her drama club and doing what all teenage girls do best...arguing with her older sister.

Hannah and her older sister Charlie, 16, seem just like your average teenage sisters. But the matching scars they have running down their chests reveal there is more to their story.

Both girls, who attend Hill House School and live with their parents in Windsor Court, Dunsville, were born with serious heart conditions. And both have come close to death, only to bounce back with tremendous bravery and strength.

“We are immensely proud of Charlie and Hannah - of how far they’ve both come and the maturity, much beyond their years, with which they have overcome all the obstacles life has thrown in their paths,” says Frederika, 41.

Problems first emerged when Fred had a scan while pregnant with Charlie.

Medics were unable to see parts of Charlie’s heart properly and when she was born, she was blue.

“Something wasn’t right,” Fred explains.

“She was diagnosed with multiple heart conditions which explained why they couldn’t see parts of her heart. Her valves and chambers were wrong - wrong shape, wrong size, wrong place.

“When we brought her home she was always a shade of purple - she had turquoise nails and purple lips.”

At age five, Charlie had successful surgery to change the ‘plumbing’ of her heart.

Meanwhile, Fred had become pregnant again with Hannah and doctors had bad news - she too had a heart condition.

“They told us she had pulmonary atresia - she didn’t have a pulmonary artery,” says Fred.

“At the time - this was nearly 15 years ago - they said there was nobody over the age of 20 that had survived in the world with her condition.

“From what they could tell she was at the worst end of the scale and we were told to consider a termination.”

But Fred, a business owner and speaker, and Simon, 42, a chemical engineer, didn’t give up and instead made contact with a highly-respected surgeon at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. She was born and then at ten and a half months old was strong enough to undergo surgery to have a bovine artery and valve fitted in her chest.

“She just went up and up,” Fred recalls.

“She started getting chubby cheeks and thriving. Before long she was up and walking and doing everything.

“They thought that with the amount of growth from being a baby, to starting school, to being a teenager she would need it changing but so far so good.

“I don’t know how many were in the clinical trial but she was in the first batch of kids to have that. The clinical trial has clearly been a huge success and hopefully a lot more kids have it now.”

But the Roberts family drama didn’t end there. On a Saturday morning in February 2010, Charlie was in bed and didn’t wake up.

She had suffered a cardiac arrest and was rushed to Doncaster Royal Infirmary.

“They did ask us the question of whether we wanted them to let her die,” says Fred.

“I think they were under the impression that she had had a bad life and had always suffered. But she hasn’t - she’s had a really good life.”

Once again, Charlie bounced back. She was unable to have a standard pace maker due to the abnormal ‘plumbing’ of her heart but became one of the youngest people ever to have a special device fitted under her skin that does a similar job.

Things have settled down for now and both girls have thrown themselves into their hobbies and studies. Charlie aspires to study history at Cambridge University before becoming an author. Meanwhile, Hannah wants to focus on sciences and maths with a view to becoming a doctor specialising in paediatric cardio-thoracic surgery - the same kind of surgery which saved her life.

Both Charlie and Hannah say they are conscious of the scars on their chests but they’re there because they tell a story.

Charlie says: “I don’t mind my scars but I don’t like people asking about it.

“It’s quite funny really because the scars get me out of cross country - after I’ve done one lap the PE teachers say, ‘That’s it now, don’t do any more, we don’t want anything to happen to you.’”

Fred says: “We have gone through all of this but on a day to day basis we still get frustrated at the typical teenage stuff like the girls leaving their bags in the lounge, not bringing their uniforms down to be washed and shouting at each other.

“To me we are just living a normal life and we are a normal family.”

l Frederika shares her essential ingredients for a fulfilled and happy life in her new book, Recipe for Happiness, which is out now and available at www.recipe-for-happiness.co.uk.

She is hosting a ‘Meet the Author’ event at Barclays Bank in Doncaster town centre from 11am to 2pm on Friday, December 13.