Elsje Pretorius, 42, Tauranga, NZ
Turning off the taps, I listened out carefully for my bub. Silence. That's good, I thought. With my five-day-old daughter, Nadine, sleeping just metres away, I'd taken the opportunity to shower.
When I'd discovered I was expecting Nadine in January 2014, it'd been a happy surprise. My husband, Coenraad, now 44, and I already had two daughters, Vanja, 12, and Isabella, six, but we couldn't wait to meet our new addition and the girls were thrilled too. On September 20, 2014, I'd been watching Vanja in a dance concert when the contractions started. Thankfully, I made it to Middlemore Hospital in time, but the drama wasn't over. I was told I'd need an emergency C-section. The baby's position meant her head was pressing on the umbilical cord which was decreasing her heartbeat. 'You're in good hands,' Coenraad assured me. Shortly after, Nadine was placed safely in my arms. She was beautiful!
Two days later, we took her home but I felt terrible. I had an excruciating headache, the right side of my face was numb and I couldn't move my neck, making it impossible to care for Nadine. My midwife advised me to return to hospital, where a doctor discovered air bubbles had formed in my spinal region. Before treating me, they wanted to do an MRI scan to check it was nothing else. It meant Nadine and I had to stay in hospital until the appointment.
Feeling a little better, I was moved to a private room right next to the elevator. At 8pm three days later, after visiting hours ended, I fed Nadine, wrapped her up and placed pink mittens on her tiny hands to keep her warm. Soon she was fast asleep in her cot, so wandering into the corridor of the maternity ward I found a nurse. 'I'm going to have a quick shower while my baby's asleep,' I told her as she handed me a towel.
Relaxing under the warm jets of water, I listened in case Nadine woke. I must have only been in the bathroom for about seven minutes, but when I walked out again I was met by a horrifying sight. There was a single pink mitten in Nadine's cot. But my baby was gone...
Just then, a nurse came in. 'Where's my daughter?' I said, panicked and confused. In the corridor, no-one had any idea where Nadine could be. A pit of fear formed in my stomach. She couldn't have simply vanished! Terrified, I struggled to be logical - searching under the bed and in the closet. The hospital was put into lockdown and police were called. Before long, Coenraad arrived with my sister-in-law Patricia. He'd dropped the kids with a relative and rushed over as soon as he'd heard what had happened.
'Where's my daughter?' I said, panicked and confused.
Burying my face in my husband's chest, tears streamed down my cheeks. 'Police are everywhere,' he told me. 'They'll find her.' But would they? She's in the arms of a stranger. Soon there was news - CCTV footage showed Nadine being carried off by a woman. We'd never seen her but she was known to staff. She'd visited the maternity ward that evening, falsely claiming she was pregnant and asking for her unborn baby to be checked. Now she'd kidnapped my bub.
The police had been to her listed address but she'd since moved so they were following other leads. At times I was gripped with panic, but at others I felt hope. Perhaps this person wanted a baby, so she'd care for Nadine as if she were her own. Please keep her safe, I prayed. As time ticked by, I tried to stay calm but my darkest moment came when Patricia advised me to pump my breast milk. What should have been nourishing my baby was instead filling an empty cup.
At times I was gripped with panic, but at others I felt hope.
Finally, at 4am Coenraad received a call. It was the police. 'They've found Nadine unharmed,' he beamed. 'She's fast asleep.' We were so relieved we jumped around the room. After eight agonising hours, our bub was reunited with us. We took her home the next day. The hospital staff soon got in touch to inform us they'd urgently upped security, as well as having a guard at the ward and a card access system.
In November 2014, Loni Marsh, 27, appeared at Manukau District Court where she pleaded guilty to kidnapping, as well as historical charges of theft, driving while disqualified and dangerous driving. The court heard that after making multiple false claims about giving birth to triplets, being pregnant or miscarrying, Marsh had gone to the hospital on September 25, 2014, with the intent to steal a baby. After lying to midwives about needing to have her unborn child checked, Marsh had been asked to stay in the waiting room. That's when she seized her opportunity. She'd entered my room, lifted Nadine from her cot and left the hospital.
In February 2015 Marsh was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Marsh's partner at the time of the incident, Faatiga Joe Manutui, pleaded guilty to a charge of being a party to kidnapping. Marsh had told him she was in labour and Manutui believed her, even though a nurse had said she was not pregnant. The court heard that despite inconsistencies in his girlfriend's story, he helped take the baby home without contacting the hospital or police. He was sentenced to three months community detention and 250 hours community work.
Today, Nadine is a happy toddler and thankfully my health issues have been resolved too. But the kidnapping had an impact on our family. I used to break down when I was in the shower and the girls were afraid of being left alone. Still, we're safe and reunited, and for that I'm thankful.
Sentencing Loni Marsh to 18 months in prison, judge Jonathan Moses told her the kidnapping had a lasting effect on the Pretorius family, leading Elsje to become 'extremely emotional and distressed on a regular basis. I accept that yours is a case in which it does not involve any deliberate intention by you to hurt the baby, or make any money from your actions,' he said. 'However... there are still a number of aggravating features.'
Originally published in that's life! Issue 1, 2016, cover date 7th January, 2016.