VIKKI Mitchell's heart swelled with pride as she looked away from the kitchen sink and saw her youngest daughter take her first, unsteady steps towards her.
Yet the milestone moment was bittersweet – for Vikki knew her older little girl, Kia, would never do the same after she lost all four limbs in the "worst case" of meningitis seen by doctors.
Little Kia Gott, now two, was just starting to crawl when she was struck down with a rare strain of the disease at nine months old, leaving her fighting for life with black arms and legs.
At one point, she was so poorly that doctors asked her mum Vikki and dad Paul Gott, from Bradford, West Yorkshire, whether they wished to continue with treatment or let her die.
They chose to keep going and, incredibly, after four amputations, Kia survived. But doctors warned her parents she'd suffered severe brain damage and would never see or smile again.
Smiling against the odds
Yet 17 months after coming home, brave Kia is proving them wrong. She can do both – and has even more reason to smile now she has beautiful baby sister Espe by her side.
"There were moments when I thought, 'is it going to be fair to keep Kia alive?'" Vikki, 32, tells Sun Online, in her first interview since Espe's birth 13 months ago.
"I never thought I'd know in any way that she was happy, but with her smiling, I know that she's glad to be here with us and that she's enjoying life."
From playful to limp and blue
Kia had been an energetic, playful baby before she fell ill in September 2017.
"She liked clapping her hands," recalls Vikki, who also has older children Kayden, 10, and Elsie, six.
But just months before she was due to get the Meningitis C vaccine on her first birthday, the youngster became sick and clingy and developed a high 38.5C temperature.
Doctors told her parents she likely had a viral infection and sent them home. Yet that night, the couple awoke to a strange "coughing" sound coming from Kia's cot in their bedroom.
"Paul turned the light on and she looked like she had bruises," Vikki tells us.
"Looking away and looking back, more were just appearing."
'Drilling into her shins'
Realising Kia was seriously ill, Vikki and Paul rang 999 and raced to Bradford Royal Infirmary. By the time she arrived, she was "droopy" and had started going blue.
"It was like a scene from Casualty and I was watching it," says her mum.
"They even started drilling into her shins to administer medication into her bone marrow."
She adds: "I sat by her bed holding her hand. They were hard and going black."
After a series of scans, doctors told her parents she had the worst case of Meningitis C septicaemia (blood poisoning) they'd seen in 25 years – as well as "high brain damage".
They said she was almost certainly blind, and would never be able to move herself or smile.
"The doctors did obviously ask us if we wanted to carry on treatment," says Vikki, admitting that the question "crossed her mind" at times as she tried to do what was best for her girl.
But as Kia's parents refused to give up on the youngster, they were dealt another devastating blow – she'd need all four limbs amputating if she were to have a chance of survival.
Doctors told the couple they couldn't carry out all the amputations at once in case Kia died on the operating table – so they kept taking her down to theatre, starting on October 19.
"Every time she went down, we didn't know if she'd come back," says Vikki.
Vaccine change "makes me sick"
Paul has since slammed the NHS for its MenC vaccine policy change, which took effect in 2016 – five months before Kia's birth – and means children like Kia don't receive the injection until they're a year old, rather than at 12 weeks.
If the youngster had received the vaccine as a three-month-old, she would have been protected against that particular strain of the disease.
"It makes me feel sick that they can just stop something that could save so many lives," said Paul.
Meningitis: signs to look for
Meningitis can affect anyone, but is most common in babies, little kids, teenagers and young adults.
If it's not treated quickly, the disease can cause life-threatening septicaemia (blood poisoning).
This can result in amputations, kidney and lung damage, and permanent damage to the brain or nerves.
The symptoms of meningitis develop suddenly and include:
- A high fever of 38 degrees or above
- A headache
- A blotchy rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it
- Stiffness, especially in the neck
- Sensitivity to bright lights
- Drowsiness, irritability or lack of energy
- Cold hands and feet
Research has found 38 per cent of mums and dads wrongly think a rash is the first sign of the infection, when actually the spots only appear when the child is already very ill.
A hospital "blessing"
But amid Kia's hospital battle, there was a ray of light – Vikki was expecting again. She fell pregnant with her youngest child just three months after Kia contracted meningitis.
"We weren't planning on having any more, [it] was a massive shock," recalls the mum, who stayed by Kia's side as Paul gave up his window fitter job to look after Kayden and Elsie.
"We thought maybe it's just been a blessing and something for us all to focus on."
After eight months in hospital, against all odds, Kia came home. And just months later, on September 9, 2018, her baby sister was born and named Espe, meaning "hope" in Latin.
The siblings quickly formed a close bond.
"Kia loves Espe, they'll both lie there next to each other," says Paul, 37. "It's been a breath of fresh air."
Today, the girls regularly go out to the park and on day trips to the seaside in a double buggy.
A year of challenges
But with a small infant to care for and tube-fed Kia requiring medication through the night, the past year hasn't been easy for Vikki and Paul.
"Kia has epilepsy too, so she's on two different medications for that," says Vikki.
"I used to have to set my alarm for midnight, then at 4am. We're always at the hospital."
She adds: "We take Kia to the seaside… but I'm not sure we'll ever be able to take her abroad."
However, Kayden and Elsie are eager to help out.
"They don't leave them alone. Elsie is always wanting to pick Kia up," says Vikki.
And Kia's achievements make the difficult moments worth it.
Although her parents don't know what her future holds, she's so far defied doctors' predictions by holding her head up, getting a glasses prescription, and smiling for the first time.
"I went in one morning and said, 'Hey chicken', and the corner of her mouth went up," recalls Vikki.
"When she does it, her face lights up. It's a proper grin now.
"She makes me proud every day."
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