First published in the Herald Sun on Saturday 1 July.
BECOMING a mother to baby Arya almost killed Leanne French three times over.
Having to overcome cervical cancer, a ruptured heart and then stroke-like seizures — all while trying to give birth — her survival has amazed even the hundreds of heroes at Monash Medical Centre who pulled her through a year of hell.
“I just kept thinking how I had to get up, get to it and be a mum,” Leanne said.
“I kept thinking what her life would be like if I wasn’t in it. How was she going to cope if she didn’t have a mum? How would I feel if I brought her into the world if I knew I was going to die …
“I’d do it all again in a heartbeat — if my heart would beat.”
ON JUNE 23 last year Leanne French was preparing to celebrate her 40th the following day when a phone call changed everything.
Having had abnormal results from a pap smear several weeks earlier her biopsy results were in: she had cervical cancer.
A small section of Leanne’s cervix was removed containing a 7mm x 3.9mm 1B invasive tumour.
Oncologist Assoc Prof Tom Jobling knew more cancer was either still present, or would soon return.
“Under normal circumstances the safest option is a radical hysterectomy and removal of pelvic lymph nodes,” Assoc Prof Jobling said.
“She was pretty unhappy with that, she wanted to have children.”
she has done the greatest Lazarus of all time
Only a year earlier Leanne had met and fallen love with her then boyfriend George Siradze and was determined to have children, even if it meant risking her life.
“They told us we were crazy, that it was a bit of a death sentence,” she said.
“We realise the massive risk were taking, we talked about it a lot and went to see other specialists. I was scared, George was scared, mum was scared — we were all scared, but we just hoped for the best.
“We said to them ‘can we hold off on the hysterectomy for three to six months just to see if it does happen? If it doesn’t happen we will be the first to come back for the hysterectomy because we’ll know it wasn’t meant to be’.”
Just a few weeks later Leanne could barely believe it. After undertaking nine positive pregnancy tests — just to make sure — the couple’s dream had come true.
While the pregnancy was a blessing, it also meant a nervous nine-month wait hoping the cancer would hold off long enough for her to give birth safely.
“We followed her during the pregnancy and the plan was for her to have an elective caesarean at 38 weeks followed by a radical hysterectomy about six weeks after she had the baby,” Assoc Prof Jobbing said
“I think she has taken an enormous chance having done what she has done. It looks like it may turn out to be a great thing for her personally and hopefully we will get a great outcome.
“I must confess, I didn’t think she was going to survive all that, but she has done the greatest Lazarus of all time.”
DESPITE the drama, Leanne had a faultless pregnancy with no morning sickness, no cravings and barely putting on weight. Her and George even got married.
“It was like a dream pregnancy, nothing was going wrong, I could feel my baby — but it was the calm before the storm,” Leanne said.
Fortnightly oncology tests confirmed the cancer had not reappeared.
Born with Marfan syndrome — a genetic disorder that can impact height, heart, eyes and lungs — Leanne also visited a cardiologist who found signs her aortic valve was slightly enlarged and should be monitored.
And then on May 21 — the day before she was due to deliver by elective caesarean — Leanne woke at 6.30am with massive pains in her chest.
With George working as a courier on the other side of the city, Leanne’s mum called an ambulance which arrived at her Hallam home almost immediately.
Monash Medical Centre emergency doctor Andre Vanzyl realised Leanne’s heart was tearing itself apart, killing both the mother and baby.
As teams of surgeons rushed to the hospital Leanne called George to tell him she was about to undergo open heart surgery and an emergency caesar at the same time.
“There was two phone calls and the second one was as she was literally going in (to surgery) … I spoke to her, she was crying … it was a goodbye conversation,” he said.
Within 20 minutes Monash had mobilised obstetrics, anaesthetic, cardiothoracic and neonatal teams, and obstetrician Dr Danielle Quittner began the first task.
As the anaesthetic needed to get Leanne through her heart surgery was administered, Dr Quittner had about 30 seconds to deliver her baby safely so the sedation did not impact on baby Arya’s ability to breathe outside the womb.
“At any minute Leanne could have gone from being really, really unwell to not being with us,” Dr Quittner said.
“She didn’t have long. It was a very delicate balance between delivering the baby in a timely fashion but also keeping Leanne stable and minimising blood loss because the cardiothoracics were going to need to have her in the best condition possible.”
Arya was in perfect health and crying as she was wheeled out to meet her father.
“It was surreal: on one hand we have a baby, on the other hand my wife is going through heart surgery as we are wheeling baby down the hall,” George said.
“We were stuck between two emotions.”
AS OBSTETRICIANS quickly finished up with Leanne, several other specialists began working on the new mum.
At the same time her uterus was being closed from the caesar another surgery team worked on Leanne’s groin to connect her artery to a heart bypass machine, which would take over from her heart for the next three and half hours while her heart was rebuilt.
Simultaneously, cardiothoracic surgeon Mr Prashant Joshi began opening Leanne’s chest to complete the bypass and begin rebuilding her heart.
“She was on the verge of rupture … it was only a matter of minutes she would have gone and the baby could have also been in trouble,” Mr Joshi said.
“It was that close, she already had blood leaking out into the pericardium.
“The aorta literally tore apart. She was on the verge of it completely bursting.
“Once on bypass we could then breathe a sigh of relief and begin a very continue with a very difficult operation.”
Inside Leanne’s chest the cardiac surgeons found Leanne’s heart ready to burst at any moment.
A tear on the inner layer of her aorta had allowed high pressure blood to seep between the layers of her valve and it was tearing her heart apart — a condition called aortic dissection which only occurs about three to four times in a million each year.
In an operation known as the Bentall Procedure, Mr Joshi and others replaced the heart valve, replaced the 7cm torn aorta and then implanted her coronary artery on to the new sections.
Leanne was placed in an induced coma to recover.
“I saw her the next day, 8am and she was feeding the baby and she had named her Arya, and I was so happy to see it,” Mr Joshi said.
“Twenty minutes from then she had a stroke, and I was so disappointed that after going through surgery so nicely and everything looking good for her.”
FOURTEEN hours after surgery Leanne was woken from an induced coma while everyone waited to see how successful the procedure had been.
As she held George’s hand on the Monday morning and met Arya for the first time, all seemed perfect.
Then the new mother had a massive violent seizure, becoming paralysed on her left side.
Amid fears of a blood deep in Leanne’s brain where it could not be removed she underwent brain scans however the usual lifesaving clot-busting drugs could not be used as they could induce fatal bleeding in the post-heart surgery patients.
Less dangerous blood-thinning drugs were tried however the following day Leanne had another violent spasm, followed later by a less severe one.
Then, on the Wednesday, morning Leanne woke and stunned everyone when she was able to again use her left side.
“I remember when I was coming out (of the coma) and they kept saying `squeeze my hand’,” Leanne said.
“They kept asking me to wriggle my left toes and I didn’t know what was going on — why would they want me to do that?
“A lot what had been going on they had not been telling me because they did not want to stress me out.”
Although days of horrifying hallucinations followed and were made worse by the prospect of having to face months of rehabilitation, Leanne’s physical condition improved to such a point there was no lasting impact from the spasms at all.
ON JUNE 1, Leanne amazed everyone, especially herself, when she was able to return home with Arya.
Further brain scans have not found any evidence of blood clots, and it is believed her spasms were not a stroke but temporary symptoms of eclampsia.
More remarkably, sensitive PET scans have not been able to find any trace of her cervical cancer.
Physiological changes that can occur immediately after childbirth may be behind the clear cancer tests, however oncologists are continuing to monitor Leanne for any changes, ready to react before it becomes a major problem.
“We won’t be going ‘o good that is all fixed’. We are going to be extremely careful in terms of not missing something that has to be treated radically through normal treatment,” Assoc Prof Jobling said.
“Ultimately I think we are going to have to re-evaluate current cancer status, and that may well mean doing a bit of relatively minor surgery on the cervix to establish exactly what is going on.”
With a host of medical bills, George out of work and Leanne unable to return to her job as a rehabilitation consultant for a long time, the family now has to overcome pressing financial issues.
For now though, Leanne is just happy to put everything else behind her and focus on Arya.
“I am exactly the way I was before all this,” she said.
“It has been crazy what my friends and family tell me, because I remember nothing.
“Arya is awesome during the day, though at night she is a party animal.
“She is the most beautiful baby and a character already. She gives me cheeky looks, has a cheeky smile and is already a little bit feisty.
“I have been asked if I would have another one: there is no bloody chance.
“I now have Arya to worry about and the risk is too great, so I would never forgive myself.”