Cathy and Keith Wheatley knew from the start that they might have fertility issues. Cathy has endometriosis, so when they married in 2013, they sought help straight away. While waiting for an appointment with a fertility specialist, the couple, who met at the first birthday party of a mutual friend's child, became pregnant naturally.
"It was like hitting the jackpot," Cathy, originally from Kilkenny but now living with her husband in Wicklow, explains. "I just couldn't believe it; we were pregnant, and we didn't have to do anything. It's what everyone who knows that there might be a problem dreams of."
At first, everything went smoothly, but at seven months Cathy began experiencing "horrific" pain. Unable to travel, her mother called an ambulance. Cathy's uterus had ruptured spontaneously. "Without labour, it's unheard of," Cathy explains. "At that point there was me, and another girl in America, who had cases of this happening." The couple's daughter, baby Helen, was stillborn.
"We were absolutely privileged to get to spend a week with her," Cathy says now. "She was in the hospital with us because we had a cool cot from Féileacáin, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland."
Cathy was very sick at this point. "I couldn't leave the hospital; I didn't think they were going to let me go to baby Helen's funeral. But like any mother, you think 'I don't care what I have to do, I'll crawl out of here'. I wasn't going to leave her at that point. We were lucky, you know, in the saddest and most desperate circumstances, we got to get her christened in the hospital, we got to have our family there, to spend that time with her, which was amazing."
Helen would be six this May. Cathy still attends counselling sessions, to help her cope with the loss. "The absolute injustice of having to lay your little girl to rest. People would say stuff to you like 'Oh God wanted another angel,' or 'She's in a better place'. I would think there's no place that's better for a baby than in their mother's arms. The grief is unbelievable."
Because of what had happened, Cathy's doctors were concerned about her attempting another pregnancy, but the couple decided they would try IVF.
"The odds of it happening were a million to one," Cathy says of the uterine rupture. "So you kind of convince yourself that that can't happen again." There followed three full rounds of IVF and 10 medicated cycles (akin to IUI).
"We spent a long time doing IVF and it just wouldn't work. The damage caused by the uterine rupture meant it was never going to work," Cathy explains. In the midst of the fertility treatment they conceived naturally. "You just think 'Oh my God, this is our second chance, this is our miracle, this is everything,' but we had an early miscarriage, because the uterus was not going to be a receptive place to have a pregnancy."
The toll by this stage on Cathy and Keith was brutal. "I think infertility in itself is absolutely horrific, and when you add onto that the grief and the loss of baby Helen, it was crippling. Apart from desperately wanting to get pregnant, you did get pregnant, you had the miracle baby. And she died. And you just can't put together the world, and where it fits into place. Everything is turned on its axle. To bury your child, it's not part of the natural order of things."
Cathy describes watching Rosanna Davison recently on The Late Late Show, and the identification she felt when the former Miss World described asking her husband Wes to leave her.
"I think as a female that's definitely something that you feel. The problem was me. I had a uterus that was… wonky. It didn't work. And then on the other hand you had my husband, who they were asking if he would consider going into a sperm bank, because he had this amazingly high-quality healthy sperm. You just feel like if he wasn't married to me, things would be so different for him."
She explains how the situation, and the loss of their daughter, was all-consuming. "You carry on as much as you can but it's there with you. You're thinking about Helen. You're thinking will you ever get to mother a living child. Who you are and what your purpose is, is thrown up in the air. You feel like you've already failed because your baby has died. You feel like you've failed, because you can't carry another pregnancy. You feel like you've failed, because your eggs didn't work."
Remarkably though, the situation only served to strengthen the couple's relationship. "We're very lucky in that it didn't ever put a strain on our marriage. I think the loss of baby Helen cemented us together as a family. No matter what else happened, we were a family, and Helen was very much part of our lives, and still is. We talk about Helen all the time."
At this point, Cathy describes reaching what sounds like rock bottom. "You hear constant talk if you've had a stillborn baby, or any neonatal loss, about rainbow babies. They say that a rainbow baby is born after a storm. I think we got to realise that not everyone gets a rainbow baby. And it is when that realisation hits that your world just empties. You question everything. What's the point of everything?"
They wondered whether this was their load in life, whether they should accept it. Instead, they decided to try surrogacy.
They went to Ukraine, as it is the less expensive option (between €37,000 and €40,000. Additional legal fees on returning to Ireland bring the total bill to somewhere between €69,000 and €75,000). Having exhausted all their savings on fertility treatment, the couple were forced to remortgage their house, which only concluded after the 20-week mark of the pregnancy, further compounding the stress.
At the first meeting with their surrogate, Ivana, Cathy describes feeling an immediate bond. Initially, they had planned to use one of Cathy's eggs, but during the procedure in the Ukrainian clinic, nothing was retrieved. "It was absolutely devastating. Even more so because with every previous round of IVF we'd always got eggs." They had to make a decision immediately. Ivana had been stimulated in preparation for implantation. Cathy was now 40, and they felt time was not on their side.
"We were at the point where we were like 'we want a family, and however that family is made up, that's the way it's meant to be'." The egg donor was a woman in the clinic that same day, something Cathy felt was serendipitous.
From the beginning, the couple had fully informed friends and family of what they were going through. When it came time to broach the topic of surrogacy, Keith's family's farming background proved surprisingly helpful. Embryos being implanted in animals is a common process in farming, giving rise to immediate sympathetic understanding.
Two embryos were implanted, and a few days before they were expecting results, Ivana sent the couple, through the clinic, a picture of a positive pregnancy test. Throughout the pregnancy, which transpired to be twins, Keith and Cathy maintained an unusually high level of contact with Ivana.
"After baby Helen had died, I just couldn't imagine somebody carrying our babies and not being in touch with them. I pushed the clinic a lot to have the kind of contact we did. Ivana was very strong-willed, and I'm very strong-willed," she smiles.
She suffered exceptionally high levels of anxiety throughout; Ivana's empathy proved hugely helpful.
"You couldn't dare to dream that it would be OK. At every point you'd think 'Oh God, this is the phone call'. Since baby Helen's death I have some post-traumatic stress. Not having control was horrendous.
"It stays with you, it's something you have to work on," she says of the trauma, the constant sense of fight or flight, she suffered in the aftermath of her daughter's death. "It's after the grief; that's what takes you by surprise. You're just constantly firefighting. In your mind, you're trying to anticipate what's going to happen, and put that out before it does."
A scan was due to take place the day after baby Helen's birthday. "I was absolutely crippled with fear, thinking that the babies just wouldn't be alive by the time the scan came around. Ivana went to her local doctor of her own accord, paid for it herself, and got me an early scan so that I could have reassurance that the babies were OK. To just let that little bit of air out and go 'OK, we can cope now', those pictures meant the world to me."
Cathy describes a feeling of holding her breath throughout the pregnancy, but says the six-and-half week scan, when they first heard their children's heartbeats, was absolute joy.
"I don't think there was ever a time during the whole pregnancy when you actually believe that you're going to bring them home. With the PTSD, you always have that thought that comes in behind it, this isn't going to work out. My mam would always say 'Take it one day at a time, so that's what we did."
The couple were not allowed in the delivery room; the babies were brought to them within minutes.
"They were so small, but they were perfect," Cathy says now of Elsie and Ted. "I think the first thing that hit us was that Elsie is the image of baby Helen. That was really a shock. We didn't expect that because we had used a donor egg, and we didn't want to be looking for it. And then Ted was like a mini Keith. Instantly, the connection was there. There was never a moment of them not being ours. It was our family."
To this day, they remain in contact with Ivana. Upon arriving home, the couple were greeted by their family at the airport, Cathy recalls, welling up now at the memory. "I knew that our family were going to meet us, but I underestimated the absolute outpouring of emotion and joy for all of us. We walked out the door, this was the moment I'd envisaged the whole time, and they were all there. They had banners. It wasn't until I handed Elsie to my mum, that it hit me, and it absolutely floored me. I was giving a living baby to my mum that was my daughter. The absolute joy of it was indescribable."
Cathy and Keith decided that just they would bring the twins home to the family house. "We never got to bring Helen home. The whole way down the road I kept thinking 'we're not going to make it home'. Bringing them in, and all of a sudden we weren't just the two of us anymore, we were a family, and this was what we had absolutely craved and begged and borrowed."
Now four months old, the twins are helping their parents to heal. "The healing and the love they bring is so amazing. For nearly a decade I've been having some level of fertility treatment. It started when I was 30 having operations for the endometriosis. Then hormone treatment. There's a certain level of this is too good to be true. But there's also a level of thinking this is what you've wanted, this is what you've wished for, and feeling so grateful. So eternally grateful that I get to do this."
Under Irish law, Cathy is not recognised as the twins' mother. The couple received a declaration of parentage of their twins for Keith, last week, granted by the High Court. Cathy now needs to be recognised as a legal guardian; her current options include applying for guardianship and adoption.
"I absolutely enjoy every minute of it. Ted teething and wanting his mammy. Looking at the two of them interacting. Their smelly poos. All the normal stuff. There are difficult days in terms of tiredness, but everything that is thrown at me now, I'm just so grateful that I get to experience it."
⬤ You, Me & Surrogacy, a 3 part series starts tonight at 10PM on Virgin Media One.
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