Born prematurely at 26 weeks, together with her twin sister Hope, Amber had been rushed to intensive care for an emergency tracheostomy – an operation to make it possible for her to breathe – within moments of her birth.
It saved her life, but the little pipe in her neck meant that no air flowed over her vocal cords, which are higher up. Amber was alive but she was mute. Unable to talk as well as unable to laugh, her parents were beside themselves; happy their girl had survived her very difficult early years, but devastated at the thought she might never be able to express herself.
“I didn’t feel happy with the idea of her going to nursery school, let alone primary school, if she wasn’t able to make her needs known,” explains Tracy, 37, who hoped her daughter’s doctors would be able to find a way to help her find her voice.
Surgery to her windpipe was considered too risky, as there was no certainty that it would work.
“I was convinced that there had to be something else we could do for her,” she adds.
Finally, when she was three, and following her mother’s determined urging, Amber was old enough to be fitted with a device that could perhaps make speech possible.
A Passy-Muir valve, or speaking valve, enables air to flow into a tracheostomy – or trachy – tube, but seals shut after a breath has been taken. The result is that when air is exhaled it passes up over the vocal cords in the usual fashion.
She really does love him
It takes a while to learn to use the device, but if a child’s vocal cords have not been damaged, this should theoretically make speech possible. But it was a big ‘if’.
Even if air was flowing in the right direction, there was still the chance that Amber would not be able to make a sound. Tracy was desperate to find out if her little girl would be able to communicate like any other child. She gently fixed the valve to the trachy tube and talked to her daughter, but Amber smiled and continued to mouth words without speaking them.
This went on for days with Amber continuing to favour the sign language she had been taught. “Why couldn’t she connect the vocal cords with the words?” Tracy wondered.
Then she had an idea that was to change Amber’s life.
“Maybe Shocks will help Amber to speak?” she suggested to her husband Julian.
Shocks is a rescue donkey. He was found tethered so tightly to a rope on a farm near Galway, Ireland, in 2010 that his neck was lacerated. He had been horrifically abused and was very distrustful of people.
But following a tip-off from a member of the public Shocks was rescued and sent to the Donkey Sanctuary’s Assisted Therapy Centre in Birmingham where he was trained as a therapy donkey for disabled children. It is close to the Austwick’s home.
Amber had first met Shocks when she was two-and-a-half. At that time she could just about hold her head up but couldn’t sit unaided. Her short life had been one of constant medical intervention and a need for ‘suctioning’ the trachy tube – sometimes 100 times a day – to keep her airways clear.
As well as the need for the trachy tube, Amber’s premature birth had led to a brain bleed and this, in turn, had led her to develop cerebral palsy which made it difficult for her to coordinate her movements.
“The best Amber could do was shuffle around on her side in circles,” says Julian, 44, a filmmaker. “It was heartbreaking.”
But when Shocks met Amber in 2013 something remarkable happened. The equally withdrawn little donkey lowered his head and let Amber wrap her arms around his neck. It was to prove an intense bond, and one that was to help both child and donkey – and change Amber’s world entirely.
Over time, riding Shocks helped the little girl develop muscles that allowed her to walk, defying her doctors’ expectations. She was even able to let go of the saddle for short periods.
Her parents were overwhelmed with the change in their young daughter.
“It was to do with confidence and trust,” says Tracy. “They trusted each other, no words needed to be said, they just got on with it.”
Her father agrees. “Everybody she had ever met had been doing something horrible and medical to her, including us; sticking tubes up her nose for example,” he says.
“Shocks was the first creature who didn’t want to do anything like that. She was enough as she was. He had no expectations of her.”
And if Shocks had helped Amber find the motivation to move, stand and walk, despite her disability, perhaps he could help her find the confidence to learn to speak.
Tracy dared to hope that if she attached the special valve over the tube while Amber was with the donkey she adored, perhaps that would encourage her to express herself through speech?
After riding Shocks, that day in November 2013, it was time for Amber – who had still not said a word – to say goodbye.
She looked sad and leaned forward to cuddle his furry neck. “I love you, Shocky,” she said.
Tracy burst into tears.
“I’m sorry,” she told the therapist who was with Amber. “I just never thought this day would happen.”
Since then, Amber hasn’t stopped talking. Her voice sounds like any enthusiastic six-year-old’s [NB to subs, Amber will be 7 on 16/06/17].
She is thriving and meeting all her targets at school, where she has a Complex Care Carer to help her manage her trachy tube.
And Shocks remains central to her affections.
“She really does love him,” says Julian. “When she saw him a few weeks ago she had him on a lead and was walking him around, later telling me ‘Shocks was really good today because he listened.’”
But for many months there was one thing missing. Shocks himself had never made a sound.
The staff at the donkey sanctuary knew that he would truly be on his own road to recovery when he let out his first bray.
According to experts, every donkey’s bray is different. But no-one at the sanctuary had ever heard Shocks demand food or make his presence felt vocally.
In February 2014, six months after Amber first spoke, she had to go into hospital for a severe infection.
It meant she didn’t see Shocks for two months. The day she returned to the donkey sanctuary Shocks was so happy to see her he let out his first bray.
“I’d say they healed each other,” says Julian, of the remarkable bond between donkey and child.
● To order “Amber’s Donkey: How a Donkey and a Little Girl Healed Each Other by Julian and Tracy Austwick (Ebury Press, £8.99) Please call the Express Bookshop with your card details on 01872 562310. Alternatively please send a cheque or postal order made payable to The Express Bookshop to:- Donkey Offer PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.com UK delivery is free. For more information on the work of the charity see thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk