Doctors found her baby girl’s left arm severed in her womb at birth due to a condition called Amniotic Band Syndrome (ABS). Single mum Christabel Koh battled through denial, postnatal depression, and suicidal thoughts before coming out the other side.
WORDS CHRISTEL GERALYN GOMES
For Christabel, the birth of her first daughter wasn’t easy. Ten hours after her water bag burst, Christabel was only dilated 1.5cm, putting the life of her baby at risk. “I was wheeled into the operating theatre after 10 hours because I wasn’t dilating. My doctor was concerned if Chrislyn would be okay… so we went for a caesarean birth. I was given an epidural and was awake through the whole process, with my partner beside me,” said Christabel.
Amniotic Band Syndrome
During delivery, doctors found that Chrislyn’s left forearm had been cut off by amniotic band syndrome (ABS), a rare congenital disorder where the baby (foetus) becomes entangled in fibrous string-like amniotic bands in the womb, restricting blood flow and affecting the baby’s development.
The condition can cause various birth defects depending on where the bands wrap around the baby —
a baby may be born missing fingers, toes, an arm or leg.
It can even cause a cleft lip and palate if the band wraps around the baby’s face.
In Chrislyn’s case, the bands had gone all the way around her left arm, cutting off half of the forearm, and fusing the fingers on her right hand. “They found Chrislyn’s tiny left hand inside my womb,” Christabel sais as she recalled the horrifying moment. “Throughout my pregnancy, there hadn’t been any symptoms that showed I had ABS.”
The Blame Game
Christabel wasn’t prepared for the slew of emotions that came with the news. “My immediate thought was… how is she going to feed herself? And how is she going to survive in Singapore’s harsh environment?” remembered Christabel. In the hours, days and months to follow, Christabel felt like darkness had swallowed her whole. There was no one to blame for the misfortune but herself. “I felt totally lost. I kept blaming myself. Was it because I did something wrong? The Chinese believe that the child pays for the faults of the mother… that’s why she is missing one hand. Eventually, I went into postnatal depression, as I was not able to accept her condition. Even now, I still blame myself.”
It wasn’t all that Chrislyn only had one hand. The fingers of her right hand were also affected by ABS and had fused together. Christabel learned that three operations were needed to separate her fingers.
The first operation was to separate her pinky and ring finger. “She was six months old. Before that, she had been in and out of the hospital for various health issues. Each time I would carry her through the night to comfort her so she could fall asleep. I always ended up squeezing in the baby cot with her. Post-operation she was in pain but I didn’t like the idea of too much medication. Only when she cried inconsolably would I look into medication for her.”
Chrislyn’s second operation took place when she was 15 months old. The aim was to insert
“something similar to a safety pin in her middle and index finger to grow more skin”, says Christabel.
The third and final operation was to separate the middle and index finger at 18 months. “That was the worst operation as she had to go back due to an infection,” said the mother.
“I had mixed feelings each time she went for an operation. I was happy that she would be able to use her fingers but it hurt to know she had to go through the pain. Each time I left her in the operating room, I came out crying. At that point, I was already going through depression so I was just crying each night,” said Christabel.
Financial Troubles, Depression and Suicide
The operations were not only taxing emotionally but were costly as well. “Bills were coming in and I had no money to pay. I could not get a job, no matter how much I tried looking for one. My partner and I were quarrelling all the time. I felt so guilty towards Chrislyn because I chose to deliver her and she had to come out so imperfectly. I thought about how she will be subjected to stares and unkind words. Thinking about how Chrislyn will have to go through this, I just wanted to end the pain.”
Having never been a person who liked to burden or impose on others, Christabel felt like she needed to deal with everything on her own. “I don’t like to ask people for help. To me, everyone was busy with their own stuff… how much help can I get anyway? Also, due to the depression, I shut down from everyone. I deleted everyone from my life. I just wanted to be as independent as possible so that I would not feel that I was baggage to people.”
Christabel struggled for a period of one year. Finally, one night, when it all seemed too much, she picked
up Chrislyn and went to the top of her HDB block in 2015, during the Chinese New Year period.
“That was when the police were called in and Chrislyn was taken away from me. I was handcuffed and taken away in the police car to lock up. During the 24-hour lock up… it was crazy.”
At this point, in the quiet of her cell, something shifted. Christabel experienced a kind of catharsis. “I cried nonstop because I was missing her so much. At that point, I knew that it was so silly and crazy of me to want to commit suicide. I was sent to IMH for a review but I already knew that I was depressed. I think it was the experience of being separated from Chrislyn for 24 hours that woke me up. I knew I could not be doing this,” said Christabel.
Christabel and Chrislyn Today
Today, Christabel works with Honestbee, joining at first as a personal grocery shopper. Surrounded by supportive management and colleagues, Christabel used to bring her daughter with her to work. Today, she is able to afford a full-time helper who looks after Chrislyn while she commits to her day job. “When I started as a shopper in Honestbee, it was freelance work and I could work when I had a pocket of time. Chrislyn was younger and much easier to handle. But now at three years old, she no longer can sit in the trolley quietly. Now I am working full time as Chrislyn does not have to go for any more operations and doctor appointments are fewer. I am holding the lead supervisor role in the company. A typical day at work would be having to make sure I have enough shoppers on the ground and that they are able to pick fresh products accurately for the customers using us.”
Chrislyn now attends a normal childcare and a special school.
“To be able to go back to work and to be able to take care of Chrislyn financially is something I never thought would happen. Yes… I am happy. I just need to manage my time better so that I get more time with her, just like any other working mum. Chrislyn is the only source of my strength. She makes my tiredness go away. No matter how many times I want to give up, when I see her, I know I have to continue this journey. I am looking to start up a small children’s fashion business using Chrislyn name,” said Christabel.