Born 15 weeks early with a hole in her heart and weighing as much as a coke bottle, Karen Messmer had little chance of surviving.
16 years later, the Rockhampton teenager has defied the odds to compete in the upcoming Special Olympic World Games as one of four equestrian riders chosen for the team.
She is also the only team member representing central Queensland.
Karen has shared her story more than a decade after her troubled birth at South Brisbane’s Mater Hospital.
Hospital staff feared she might not survive due to her early birth at just 25 weeks gestation after her mother Susanne haemorrhaged three weeks earlier.
An emotional Susanne revealed she was told by doctors she could put Karen “on her chest and hold her until she passed away”.
“Thankfully we never had to experience that. Karen was so little when she was born, (but) she was a real fighter,” she said.
“She weighed as much as a coke bottle and her tiny nappy would fit in the palm of my hand.”
“Karen is my little miracle … I am so proud of her, she has had some big challenges.”
Now a teenager, Karen revealed she underwent three separate surgeries to close the hole in her heart.
While the hole is now small enough not to do any damages, she still has a heart murmur.
Karen had to be cared around-the-clock by doctors for more than 100 days at the Neonatal Critical Care Unit at Mater Mother’s Hospital in Brisbane, before being transferred to a closer private hospital in Rockhampton.
Karen, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and dyslexia, also has hypotonia – a low muscle tone that has caused her to have weak muscles in her arms and legs, rendering her tired quickly after a lot of activity.
“Horse riding has helped me strengthen my muscles, I also go to physiotherapy three times a week,” she said.
After her childhood struggles, Karen said she was thrilled to represent Australia doing something she loved.
“For me to have this opportunity means that people can see if they try hard their dreams can come true,” she said.
The Rockhampton teen began riding at Granlea Riding Centre in central Queensland, eventually competing in the Special Olympics Invitational Selections in September last year.
Karen won a gold and two silver medals.
Mater Neonatologist Dr Elizabeth Hurrion – who cared for Karen 16 years ago – said it was an incredible journey for the young girl from such a difficult start to life.
“From her tiny start to life, fraught with difficulties, and faced with many challenges through childhood, I am truly impressed that Karen has reached this exciting milestone,” Dr Hurrion said.
“Karen shows us the power of harnessing your abilities to achieve your dreams.
With enthusiasm, passion and a huge amount of persistence and determination, Karen has achieved her dream of representing Australia at an elite level.”
Karen’s family are raising funds for the teen to compete in Berlin here.