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Against all the odds
“I’ve done everything I would have done if I were walking; I just did it differently.” This pretty much sums up Eleni Koudounari, the first quadriplegic woman to give birth in Cyprus.
Koudounari had her second child, daughter Dahlia, at Limassol General Hospital on Wednesday morning surrounded by her husband and a medical team.
Little Dahlia, who is still in an incubator after being born at 35 weeks, was taken off the drip on Thursday and needs to gain just 200 grams in weight before the family can take her home. The birth, which was considered so risky no private doctor would agree to take Koudounari on, went really well, and Dahlia didn’t even need to be placed on a respirator.
“She is doing very well,” Koudounari told the Sunday Mail on Friday. “I don’t know who she looks like, but when I ordered her, I wanted her to have my husband’s blue eyes – because he’s got very beautiful blue eyes – and my nose because he doesn’t have a nice nose. I think the nose looks like it’s there, but with the eyes you can’t really tell yet.”
The new mum, who didn’t wish to reveal her age, has been a quadriplegic since 1989, when the car she was riding passenger in overturned after the driver fell asleep.
“There were four of us in the car. I was passenger in the front seat with the seatbelt on and we all fell asleep, even the driver. The car overturned and I knocked my spine on the roof of the car and I broke my spinal cord,” said Koudounari who was living in South Africa at the time.
She became a quadriplegic, from a T6 to a T7 level, which means she has partial use of her arms, though her hands have little strength in them.
She also has full head and neck movement, normal shoulder movement and full use of her wrists and fingers. However, her lower body and legs are completely paralysed.
Koudounari refuses to let what happened prevent her from living life to the full.
“I don’t think I have many choices. It is either sit back and do nothing and vegetate or carry on with life,” she said. “The second option is obviously the better one.”
Having a new baby, especially when it is later on in life, is daunting at the best of times. But Koudounari, who was born in South Africa along with her sister to Greek Cypriot parents and lived there until 2006, is refreshingly upbeat over the task ahead.
While she admits to having a strong support system in place to help her with Dahlia - her husband, relatives, friends and a domestic helper - she is determined to do as much as she can herself.
“I’ll need a lot of help and I’ll have a lot of help,” she said. “I’ll do whatever I can and the rest everyone else will have to do for me.”
Koudounari’s second pregnancy was much harder than her first, despite her son - who is 20 years old - being born just two years after the accident.
“With my son, the pregnancy was very different. I think because it was so early (after the accident) my body hadn’t quite come to understand it had gone through this major change.”
In fact, the first time Koudounari didn’t even know she was pregnant until she was four months gone. She said this was “because they said I would never have children because of the shock to my system”.
She only realised she was pregnant because she kept fainting. “I have low blood pressure and the pregnancy brought it further down so I kept fainting. I didn’t have any nausea or vomiting, I didn’t have any pain and then I gave birth and that was it. But with my daughter it was very different; a very difficult pregnancy. I think age had a lot to do with.”
Straight from the start of her second pregnancy, Koudounari had nausea and sickness all day and night, right up to her caesarean.
She also had a lot of pain, which meant she spent a large part of her pregnancy in hospital. “I was one week in hospital and two weeks at home. So it was very stressful.”
At this point, her doctor, Yiannos Pavlides, walked in to see how she was getting along and the special relationship between the two is instantly evident.
With a broad smile on his face, he asked her how she was feeling.
“He has taken care of me from day one,” said Koudounari.
Her doctor was equally impressed. “She was a very good patient; yes, she wanted to know absolutely everything, but she was also patient, unlike the rest of us Cypriots,” he said. “Although whenever we saw her we would always put her first. But she never came herself to ask to be given priority.”
The doctor said this was the first time the hospital - or any other Cypriot hospital - had faced such a case. “We were a bit more concerned to see what would happen, how she would do, how she would give birth, if she would feel the contractions, as she can’t feel much.”
But in the end, Koudounari did feel enough for the doctors to opt for a spinal injection as means of anaesthetisation.
Both mum and doctor said they were very pleased with the end result.
Koudounari couldn’t stress enough how happy she was with the way Limassol hospital’s medical staff took care of her.
“Obviously they had more concerns, because they didn’t know how I’d react, 20 years later, my body had changed,” she explained.
“The hospital was wonderful. No private doctor would actually take the risk with me”.
And of course, Koudounari says she couldn’t have done it without the support of her husband, Ezzat, whom she married five years ago. He was always there with a bucket when she felt nauseous - day and night - and generally to help her get about.
“He is truly wonderful. He is one of those rare people. I don’t know how he finds the patience to deal with everything,” said Koudounari.
Koudounari has recognised an improvement in Cypriots’ awareness over disabled people over the past few years, though she admits, there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Quite nonchalantly, she told me how a few years ago she was run over in her wheelchair. An inconsiderate driver had parked his car on the pavement, forcing her to wheel her chair out on to the road where she was hit by another car.
“People generally are very, very helpful, but they sometimes don’t think. They’ll park in a disabled parking space, without thinking they could just walk. But I think they are more aware now of people with disabilities.”
As I get up to go, feeling inspired and humbled by this amazing presence, I tell her just that. But she wasn’t impressed.
“I don’t think I’ve done anything different to what any other woman has done,” she told me.
She said she wanted to have a second child and just did it.
“I’ve done everything I think I would’ve done, even if I wasn’t in an accident. I studied when I wanted to study. They said I would never drive, I would never do lots of things and I’ve done everything they said I wouldn’t. I travelled, I drive, I had children,” said Koudounari, who has two bachelor degrees - one in commerce and information systems and another in psychology - and managed an auditing company’s call centre in South Africa.
“Life carries on. Life doesn’t stop because something unpleasant happens to you.”