'I had given up hope of being a mum, but this Christmas I’m cradling my miracle twins'
The run-up to Christmas at the Shannon home in Carryduff, Co Down is as busy as it is for any other family.
Ian (43) minds the children and their protective pet poodles, while his wife Sharon (39) takes her father to hospital appointments and does the last-minute shopping, all while fighting off a nasty cold and getting stuck in the usual pre-Yuletide traffic.
But, as 2017 draws to an end and the Shannons look back on the year, they have two special reasons to be thankful. The couple's "miracle twins", Chloe and Jai, arrived in June after two traumatic miscarriages and an initially unsuccessful IVF treatment that left Sharon, a jewellery designer, despairing that she would never have the children she had always longed for.
Added to her heartbreak was the loss of her 66-year-old mother Elizabeth to ovarian cancer. Her death was a huge blow and came in the wake of the loss of Ian's farm, which he had to sell after multiple sclerosis confined him to a wheelchair. Ian was diagnosed in 2002, and the couple married in 2012.
"Selling the land was tough for Ian - we had to give up all our future plans for the farm when his health deteriorated," said Sharon, a former nursery worker.
"And then we had to face the possibility that we would never have children, which was always my dream. In fact, all my friends could tell you that I always said I actually wanted twins.
"It was a long shot, but my granny was a twin, and I knew it was supposed to skip a generation. So, when I miscarried it was heartbreaking.
"It was early-term but it was awful, because you start making all these plans when you find out you're pregnant. I felt empty and gutted."
As with most miscarriages, Sharon's doctors could offer no explanation as to the cause. Ian's MS wasn't considered a factor but Sharon felt her age - then 36 - could have been against her.
So, in the autumn of 2014 the couple decided to turn to IVF and booked into a clinic in northern Cyprus, which included a relaxing holiday to help alleviate the stress of the treatment.
The package cost £5,000 (€5,630), roughly the same cost as no-frills IVF treatment in the UK.
"IVF is an emotional roller-coaster and it involves all these injections before the procedure, so the package appealed to us," Sharon explained. "The team and the care was fantastic and we just assumed it would work, but after the two-week wait at home for the results we were told there had been a 'chemical pregnancy' but a very early miscarriage.
"I was in despair. I lost hope I'd ever be a mum. I felt like a failure. My body was refusing to do what it's supposed to - to carry a child.
"And all my friends and people around me were having babies, seemingly with no problem. Life looked bleak, especially with mum losing her battle with cancer."
Elizabeth died on St Patrick's Day 2016, 15 years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
At that point, Sharon had given up on the idea of a new round of IVF, unable to face the possibility of another terrible disappointment. But her mother, on her deathbed, had other ideas.
As Sharon recalled: "Mum told me: 'I'll be talking to Jesus about your situation'. Like her, I am a person of faith and I prayed all the way through, and I do believe my prayers were answered.
"I started to research alternative therapies which help the IVF success rate and while looking online I came across Maya massage.
"It's an ancient abdominal massage to increase blood flow to the organs and uterus, and I discovered it was available here, at the Logan clinic, and that it offered a holistic fertility package with reflexology, spleen work, Reiki and a special herb and vitamin-enriched diet.
"I decided to give it a go. It was so relaxing and the owner, Ruth Ellen, was so knowledgeable about fertility and IVF, it gave me a glimmer of hope. I know it made a difference with me, it prepared me physically and mentally."
Sharon attended the Logan Fertility clinic on Belfast's Lisburn Road twice a week for six months before returning to the IVF clinic in Cyprus in September 2016.
To ease the subsequent nerve-racking two-week wait for her results, she went back to the Logan clinic for reflexology and other stress-relieving treatments.
And when the time came to take a pregnancy test, she went to a nearby private clinic.
"I couldn't bear to do the test myself and see a negative result, so I went in for a blood test instead," she explained. "There was a six-hour wait for the result on the phone. When the nurse told me it was positive, I had to get her to repeat it. I couldn't believe it, and not only was it positive, the HDL (high density lipoproteins, denoting good cholesterol) were very high. I was in tears of disbelief. My dad (Austin) and my sister Heather could hardly make me out on the phone.
"The first thing I did afterwards was go to mum's graveside to tell her."
Sharon and Ian were "gobsmacked" further when the first pregnancy scan at seven weeks showed up three heartbeats.
The second scan, at 11 weeks, revealed that one of the embryos hadn't thrived, but the couple were delighted when the 20-week scan confirmed they were having a boy and girl.
Chloe and Jai (named after his grandfathers' and father's first-name initials, John-Austin-Ian) were born at 37 weeks by elective Caesarean section on June 12 this year in the Royal Victoria Hospital's maternity wing at 7lbs 11 ounces and 6lbs 13 ounces respectively.
"It was very surreal; I'm still pinching myself," Sharon admitted. "God knows what size they'd have been if I'd gone on any longer! They're absolutely beautiful - I know all parents say that.
"Dad comes three days a week to help us; it's lovely for him and gives him a focus. The twins are starting to develop personalities and a sense of humour now. They're just lovely. We've two poodles and they love them.
"It's like they've accepted them into their pack - one even went and lay beside them in their baby floor-gym the other day."
Now the family's focus is on a very special festive season. Sharon said: "This will be our best Christmas ever.
"The twins brighten every day for us. They are so cute in their little Santa suits."
Among her happy clients, Logan Clinic director Ruth Ellen Logan has earned the moniker of the 'baby maker', due to the fertility methods she uses to assist in conception.
The clinic offers the services of six expert practitioners: a doctor, a physiotherapist, two medical receptionists, a prescriber and a fertility specialist nurse.
Ruth Ellen said: "We have helped 804 local families through conception and pregnancy, and we're now offering the very latest technologies and techniques in our new clinic, including medical intramuscular and intravenous therapy for fertility and wellbeing, which advances our capacity to treat fertility challenges, in some cases without IVF."
The Shannons spent more than £10,000 on IVF but feel the results are priceless. Sharon wanted to take the opportunity of the interview to send out a message of hope to other women having fertility problems.
"I would urge them not to give up hope - dreams can come true," she said.
"Ruth Ellen has other success stories, apart from me, and I'm so grateful to her.
"We now have very special twins, I believe, who have chosen us to be their parents. For me, that is a Christmas miracle that's hard to beat."