Defying the odds

Oliver Taplin, looking forward to starting school
Oliver Taplin, looking forward to starting school
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Dressed up in his smart new school uniform, Oliver Taplin smiles and claps his hands.

Dressed up in his smart new school uniform, Oliver Taplin smiles and claps his hands.

By his side is his mum Rachel and like hundreds of other parents across the area, she’s about to see her child pass one of the most important milestones of his young life.

In lots of homes today, parents will be getting ready to see their children off to school for the very first time.

They’ll wave them off at the gates – more than likely with a tear or two in their eye.

But for Rachel and husband Dan, it’s all that more special because this is a day they never dared dream would happen.

When Oliver was just a few days old he was taken into hospital with a blood clot on his brain.

Doctors warned that he wouldn’t pull through and his parents were advised to give him one last cuddle.

Yet Oliver, now five, defied all the odds to survive.

And despite having cerebral palsy and epilepsy, he’s getting ready to take his place at a mainstream primary school alongside all the other excited new pupils.

On paper, Rachel says he’s the ideal candidate for a special needs school. But her gut instinct tells her they’ve made the right choice for their son.

‘I think he’s going to be fine,’ says Rachel with a smile. ‘I’ll probably feel a bit redundant and wonder what I’m going to do. It’s a huge thing for him though. To think that we didn’t know if he would ever do any of the things he is doing is incredible.

‘The fact that he’s going into mainstream school, with full time support, is amazing for him.

‘He’s going to be part of a mainstream experience and that’s massive considering he wasn’t expected to live.

‘It really is a day that we thought we’d never see.’

As a newborn baby, Oliver experienced the rockiest start to life. Within just a few days of being taken home he had suffered a fit, prompting his worried parents to rush him to the paediatric assessment unit at Southampton General Hospital.

After fitting again, Oliver had to be revived and a CT scan revealed blood on his brain. More detailed investigations found the clot and as the medics prepared to use thinning drugs to break it down, they warned Rachel and Dan that his chances of survival were low.

It was a nightmare for the family, from Warsash. But Oliver surprised everyone when he began to respond to the treatment and was allowed home.

When Oliver turned one, the Taplins were told he had cerebral palsy, a condition that can affect speech and mobility in a variety of ways.

The prognosis at the time was that he might never walk or talk but the couple remained positive about Oliver’s future.

In December 2007 he suffered another setback when fluid started leaking into his brain and he was hospitalised again.

It’s been a worrying few years – especially when Oliver was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of three.

But through it all, Rachel and Dan have been amazed at Oliver’s progress and how much he’s developed.

He can now say a few words, take steps using his walker and understand what’s going on around him. His development will never catch up to that of other children his age. But as his sits on the living room floor, Oliver smiles and laughs contentedly as he plays with his toys.

Sociable Oliver has been attending the pre-school at the Haven Children’s Centre in Gosport since he was two and a half and it was his experience there that encouraged the couple to go for the mainstream school option.

At the children’s centre Oliver’s development has flourished. He interacts with lots of children and isn’t treated any differently because of his wheelchair.

‘He’s had the experience of mainstream nursery and for him that’s been the way he’s learned – from other children,’ says Rachel.

‘He’s just achieved so much in that environment so while he is still at a prime age for making developments, the mainstream school was the only route.’

She adds: ‘Seeing him there has definitely made me think he has to go to mainstream school. My main concern was always whether he would be part of his peer group. People talk about inclusion but I worry about how much that works.

‘But I have seen him with the other children and he’s always been a true part of his peer group there.

‘These children don’t see him as any different from the rest of them. He’s just Oliver and that’s the way it is.

‘I think that’s a very healthy environment for these children to be exposed to at that age because, out of pre-school, a lot of people do stare at him.

‘Disability isn’t as much a part of people’s lives as it needs to be. People don’t know what to say but he’s just a little boy. His experience need not be any different to anybody else’s.’

On Monday, Oliver will start at Holbrook Primary School, in Gosport, with all the new intake of reception pupils.

He’ll have a support worker by his side and it’s an exciting time for the whole family.

‘The school he’s going to has a lot of experience with children with complex needs,’ adds Rachel.

‘They’ve got the space so that he can access everything in his wheelchair and walker. I didn’t want him to be in a mainstream school and see things going on and not be able to get there to join in. He can make different choices. I know that this school is right for him, I feel comfortable about him starting and that he’s ready for it.’

SAYING THANKS

Rachel Taplin is preparing for the fact that Oliver will soon be at school all day by training for the Great South Run.

She’ll be doing the 10-mile run in October in aid of the paediatric unit at Southampton General Hospital.

‘I’ve not really done any fundraising as yet for any of the people who helped us and there are so many people I didn’t know where to begin,’ she says.

‘But the paediatric unit is where it all began, everything comes back to that. Without them, children like Oliver wouldn’t survive and I don’t think they get enough recognition for what they do.

‘I still write to them every year and I still write to the doctor who told us to take him to hospital.

‘It’s one of those things we’ll never be able to change. Saying thank you never seems to feel like enough but I know that just the turning of a corner would have led to a totally different outcome.’

She adds: ‘It’s been a struggle but nothing would ever be worse than not having Oliver here. Children are such little fighters.

‘He’s proving people wrong all the time. The best thing is that he’s happy and I think if you asked most parents that’s the most important thing.’