Big smiles on their faces and looking smart in their new uniform, little Grace and Olivia Oman can’t wait to start school next week.
And when the four-year-old twin sisters walk into Broomhill First School on Tuesday, it is sure to be an emotional occasion for them and their loving family.
Because it is a treasured moment that their parents and medical experts did not think they would get to experience.
The plucky siblings, from Hadston, were born in July 2013, three months premature; each weighing just 1lb 14oz and put onto ventilators straight away.
It was touch and go whether they would survive.
There had also been heartache for their parents, Vicki and Mark, who were grieving the loss of their unborn child. The twins were originally triplets but the third baby, who they named Eleanor, died when Vicki was 14 weeks’ pregnant.
Olivia spent the first few months of her life in hospital, before she was discharged.
But for Grace, her journey was to be even more complicated. Struggling with her breathing, she needed an extended stay in hospital.
At the age of just eight weeks, she was fitted with a tracheostomy – which was only removed earlier this year, following major reconstructive surgery of her airway in 2016.
It has been a torrid time for Grace, but this tough little cookie – described as a determined little miracle by her parents, has taken it in her stride.
The brave youngster is beginning to live a normal life and her speech – hindered by her ordeal – is beginning to develop. And now she and her sister – who have a six-year-old brother Jake – can look forward to starting school next week.
Vicki, 32, said: “We can’t quite believe that we have got to this point, it is quite surreal.
“We are lucky to have them here. The doctors didn’t know if they would survive an hour, never mind four years and having them start at school. They have come on so far.
“They are looking forward to starting school; it is going to be an emotional day and there will be tears. It has been an emotional rollercoaster.”
After being born and put on ventilators at Wansbeck General Hospital, the girls were transferred to the neo-natal intensive care unit at Middlesbrough’s James Cook Hospital, where they stayed for the next 14 weeks.
In November 2013, the twins were split up when Olivia was discharged and Grace was moved to Newcastle’s RVI as she still had problems breathing. It wasn’t until she was about six months old that Grace would come home for the first time.
Sadly for Grace, hospital stays would become the norm and her journey would be far from easy.
Vicki said: “We have lost count of the number of operations that Grace has had and we have nearly lost on her a few occasions.”
Two of the most significant surgeries came last year. The first was in August and involved using a piece of rib cartilage to construct her airway, followed by the fitting of a stent to keep her airway open.
Seven weeks later, Grace had further surgery to have the stent removed.
It was a big chapter in Grace’s story.
Vicki said: “Up until then, Grace couldn’t voice any sounds and she was using Makaton sign language. It was only after the stent was removed and the swelling went down that she was able to start making sounds.
“Her speech is still developing, but she can now say words. She does get a bit mixed up with sentences, but she is improving every day and she is working with a speech therapist.”
Fittingly, Grace’s first word was mam.
But for Grace, perhaps the most significant step has been the removal of her tracheostomy, which has allowed her to live a much more normal life and do things that she couldn’t do before.
Vicki said: “She had her tracheostomy out in February – the first time she has been tracheostomy-free since she was a baby.
“It has been life-changing for her and has allowed her to be more independent. She couldn’t go to the beach while she had the tracheostomy, in case sand got in it, but now she can go, so we take her to Druridge Bay and she loves it.
“It might seem insignificant to other people, but it is massive to us.”
While Vicki admits that life with the tracheostomy was difficult, she told the Gazette that she would be forever indebted to it.
She said: “It engulfed us, but it allowed Grace – who also needed to have a ventilator overnight – to have a life, albeit with restrictions.
“It saved her life and we will be eternally grateful for that little piece of plastic that has enabled our baby girl to breathe, grow and develop into the brave, determined little miracle she is today.”
To give something back, Vicki has been fund-raising for the Children’s Ear, Nose and Throat ward in Newcastle, which she admits was ‘like a second home for us’.
With the aim of raising £1,000 to buy toys for the ward, she staged a fund-raising night at Amble’s Radcliffe Club, in August, while her friend held a coffee morning at the town’s Co-op Funeralcare.
She said: “We wanted to give something back to the people that helped us, because it has played a big role in our lives and the staff have been brilliant.
“I would also like to thank everyone who support the find-raising events, it means a lot to us.
“I would also like to thank Broomhill First School. It has been so supportive and has done a lot to prepare for Grace going there, even though she is now tracheostomy-free.”