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Rockhampton’s Karen Messmer was born 15 weeks early and with a hole in her heart, weighing a tiny 825 grams and given little chance of surviving.
Sixteen years on, the determined teen has defied the odds, and in June will head to Berlin to compete in the Special Olympics Summer World Games – one of four equestrian riders chosen for the team and the only Central Queenslander.
In September 2006, at just 25 weeks gestation, Karen was born at South Brisbane’s Mater Mothers’ Hospital after her mum Suzanne Messmer haemorrhaged three weeks earlier.
Despite being told by doctors Karen might not survive due to being born so early, Ms Messmer awaited the moment she could hold her daughter for the first time.
“I was told I could put Karen on my chest and hold her until she passed away,” an emotional Ms Messmer said.
“Thankfully we never had to experience that. Karen was so little when she was born, she was a real fighter.
“She weighed as much as a coke bottle and her tiny nappy would fit in the palm of my hand.
“Karen is my miracle and I love her dearly. I am so proud of her – she has had some big challenges.”
Karen said she was grateful for the opportunity to represent Australia by “doing something I love”.
“For me to have this opportunity means that people can see if they try hard their dreams can come true,” Karen said.
“I have hypotonia, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and dyslexia. Hypotonia means I have weak muscles in my arms and legs, this means that if I do a lot of activity, I can become tired quickly and my legs can hurt. Horse riding has helped me strengthen my muscles. I also go to physiotherapy three times a week.
“I was born with a hole in my heart and had three heart surgeries to try and close it. The hole is small enough not to do any damage, but I still have a heart murmur.”
Mater Neonatologist Dr Elizabeth Hurrion cared for Karen 16 years ago, and said at that time, babies born extremely premature did not survive.
“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 of being selected for the Special Olympics in Berlin this year,” 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. I am so proud and excited for her.”
Mater Paediatrician Dr Aaron Easterbrook also cared for Karen and agreed she was “lucky to be alive”.
“Extremely preterm babies born today have an extremely stormy course in Special Care, go to theatre multiple times for example and still come out with a normal neurological outcome,” Dr Easterbrook said.
“The improvements in neurological long-term outcome have been extremely dramatic in the last 10 to 15 years and the doctors are clearly doing something to minimise all the previous poor neurological outcomes. Neonatologists say dramatic improvements can be made thanks to ongoing research.
“Funding research is extraordinarily important.”
Ms Messmer who also has a 25-year-old son, Caleb, said for more than 100 days Karen was cared for around-the-clock in the Neonatal Critical Care Unit at Mater Mothers’ Hospital in Brisbane before being transferred closer to home, to Mater Private Hospital Rockhampton.
With one in five Queensland babies born at a Mater Mothers’ Hospital, Ms Messmer said Karen started riding four years ago to help with a disability from being born premature.
She started riding at Granlea Riding Centre with coach Grant Paddison (EA coach) as therapy for muscle development, Ms Messmer said.
“We found out about the Special Olympics in 2019, when Karen saw local rider Shelby Hill-Davis (who was at the time also training with Grant Paddison).
“The very first time she competed she wanted to be part of Team Australia for the Berlin games in 2023.
“She competed in September 2022 in the Special Olympics Invitational Selections where she was successful in winning a gold and two silver medals.”
However, Ms Messmer said her daughter’s achievement was marred following the 2021 death of Karen’s father, Gunther Messmer, who was of Austrian heritage, and dreamed of showing her his homeland and meeting relatives.
“He never got to know Karen qualified for selection or team Australia, he would have been very proud,” Ms Messmer said.
To get Karen to Berlin she needs to raise a minimum of $9000.
Donations can be made at
07 3163 1524
07 3163 6142
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