Aimee and Kirstie Messenger from Lowestoft, Suffolk, told us how their wedding guests funded IVF instead of buying them presents.
Article appeared in Pick Me Up Magazine
Aimee, 31, fell pregnant with twins who survived against all odds when they were born prematurely.
Holding the matching blue sleepsuits – one embroidered with ‘Prince Cohen’, the other ‘Prince Ethan’ – and both aged 3-6 months, I looked at Kirstie and burst into tears.
‘I can’t believe it,’ I sobbed.
‘Me neither,’ she said. ‘I never thought we’d see this day.’
It was a huge milestone for all of us. Our twin boys were turning one and yet almost a year to the day, we had been planning their funeral.
Instead, now we were inviting 60 of our closest family and friends to cram into our house for a double celebration. For not only were we celebrating the fact that against all the odds our sons had survived, but without their generosity they would never have been born in the first place…
When Kirstie and I got married in 2014 rather than compiling a wedding list of kettles and toasters, asked our guests to donate towards our savings.
‘Are you saving for something special?’ friends asked. ‘A nice holiday somewhere?’
‘Better than that,’ Kirstie grinned.
What we really wanted was a second round of IVF so that we could expand our family. It was hardly your usual wedding present, but then Kirstie and my relationship had never been what you’d call run of the mill.
We’d met five years earlier when I registered with a Facebook support group after my daughter, Megan, was stillborn at 33 weeks. Kirstie had set up the group, having also suffered a loss. Soon we were chatting online every day.
I lived in Liverpool with my boyfriend while Kirstie lived with her husband of nine years, and her kids — Charlotte, Mikey and Harrison — in Lowestoft, Suffolk. hundreds of miles away.
But as I turned to Kirstie for comfort, our friendship soon turned into more. Three months later, in June 2010, met for the first time and knew we were meant to be together. Neither of us had ever had a relationship with a woman before but I knew this was more than a fling: I had fallen in love with her. Six months later we were living together as a couple.
The kids took it all in their stride and our family and friends came to accept our decision, too. We’d already had a two-year-old son together, Austin, after IVF treatment using donor sperm, and were desperate to have another.
‘A little girl,’ I cooed. ‘That would be perfect.’
We announced our plans amidst a round of applause at the reception and split our honeymoon between a kids-free break at Kirstie’s brother’s caravan in Hunstanton and arranging treatment at a fertility clinic in Cambridge.
But after starting treatment we had devastating news. Kirstie’s mum Maureen suffered a stroke. ‘I can’t believe it,’ I sobbed as we rushed to her bedside in hospital. I’d only been chatting to her the night before about the IVF. ‘ You’d better not give me any more grandsons,’ she’d joked. She already had 24, but only two granddaughters. ‘ I’ll do my best Maureen,’ I’d promised. Tragically she died 13 days later. The week after her cremation the eggs were implanted. Maureen had made such a gernous donation to our wedding IVF fund, we knew she would have wanted us to carry on, in fact we felt like she was looking after us…
Not long after the egg was implanted, on my 30th birthday, I found out I was pregnant. It was the best birthday present ever and I couldn’t wait to tell everyone. I rang my mum and dad first.
‘Happy birthday love!’ Mum said. ‘What did Kirstie get you?’
‘Kirstie didn’t get me anything…but everyone got us a baby!’ I announced, delighted.
They were over the moon for us.
An early scan at five weeks showed we were having twins.
‘I don’t believe it!’ I said. ‘That takes us from four to six overnight!’
‘Next we’ll find out they’re both boys!’ Kirstie joked.
And ten weeks later, that’s exactly what happened.
‘How on earth will we manage five boys?’ I fretted.
‘We’ll cope!’ Kirstie said.
Hours later, we were in Mothercare buying up two sets of everything we could find in blue…little vests, booties, rompers.
Soon our tint two-bed house was crammed with two of everything. ‘It’s like the ark in here!’ Kirstie joked.
And it was. The boys had matching cots with identical silky blue blankets, a double buggy sat in the hall and matching car seats cluttered the lounge. We were so excited we just couldn’t stop shopping for our new arrivals.
‘I think I’ve overdone it.’ I said one morning in February when I was 23 weeks gone. We’d travelled to Norwich to stock up in the Mamas and Papas sale the previous day and now I felt rotten. My bump seemed to have dropped, too.
‘You do look pale,’ Kirstie agreed. ‘Try to take it easy today.’
But later that morning, I went to the loo and –
‘Kirstie!’ I cried. ‘I’m bleeding.’
She rushed in and I burst into tears. ‘They’re gone, the boys have gone,’ I sobbed. My Megan didn’t survive at 33 weeks. What chance did my boys have. Going by my IVF dates I was only 23 weeks pregnant.
‘Try not to panic,’ Kirstie soothed. She put the kids in the car and drove me to our local hospital, James Paget in Gorleston.
By the time we arrived I was having strong pains seven minutes apart. ‘I think I’m in labour,’ I cried.
The consultant confirmed that my waters had gone. I was indeed labour.
‘What can we do?’ I wailed.
‘I’m a senior paedetrician and in my experience babies born this early will not survive,’ he said.
He said that it was hospital policy to help babies born after 24 weeks and although, thankfully by our hospital dating scan I was 24 weeks, the consultant said as our babies were twins they would be smaller so there was no point.
‘So you’re telling us that we should just let our babies die?’ Kirstie said in disbelief.
‘My advice,’ he said. ‘Would be to let nature take its course.’
‘I can’t just sit back and do nothing,’ I said angrily. Kirstie agreed.
‘I suggest you get us to a hospital that will give our babies a chance,’ she snapped back.
We insisted on being transferred to the Rosie Hospital, part of Addenbrooks, in Cambridge. I was given a magnesium drip and made to lie upside down with my legs in the air.
The boys held on for four more days. We used the time to plan how we were going to say goodbye to them. We’d decided on a joint coffin with a blue silk interior and a Peter Rabbit-themed ceremony. We’d written down our wishes, along with the telephone number of the undertakers and where we wanted the service, so our family would be able to make the arrangements if we were too choked by grief.
And then the contractions started again and we knew it was time…
Cohen was born first. Weighing just 1lb 7oz, his tiny scrap of a body was placed into a special freezer bag to help keep him warm because the fat within the skin hadn’t yet formed and he would have lost too much heat to survive.
He was tweeting like a baby bird, just the tiniest little cry. As he was whisked off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and placed on a ventilator his brother Ethan was delivered weighing a fraction more at 1lb 8oz, still in his amniotic sac with his placenta attached.
I couldn’t believe it when Kirstie wheeled me down to see them both two hours later. They had wires coming out of every vein and artery, their eyes blinked in confusion and their skin was almost see-through. But most of all, they were so, so tiny. No bigger than the iphone we used to take precious photos of them with, they could have fitted in the palm of my hand.
I felt flooded with love the instant I saw them. But at the same time, they looked so vulnerable that I had to prepare myself for them fading away.
‘You must be aware that the twins only have a 25 per cent chance of survival,’ the consultant told us.
We nodded. Both were on ventilators to keep them alive. We knew that the odds were stacked against them. But how could we just give up on them?
Two days later, I was discharged from hospital. We were lucky enough to have free accommodation at the hospital’s unit for parents with babies on special care, Chestnut House.
It meant we could be a proper family and that Kirstie and I could walk across to see the boys at three o’ clock in the morning in our dressing gowns if we wanted to – and we often did.
Even though we realised it was still touch and go, as the days passed, we grew more and more attached to our little men.
But then, at eight days old, we were told that Ethan needed surgery to remove a section of infected bowel and a temporary colostomy bag fitted while his bowel matured.
‘He’s so tiny,’ I fretted. I was sure we were going to him. It was heart-breaking to think he had already been through so much and now had to undergo such a serious operation at just a week old.
We were warned he might be too small to survive the hour-and-a-half op but somehow he pulled through.
‘Thank God,’ I sobbed as Kirstie held me tight.
But we still had a long way to go. The following week, Cohen suffered kidney failure at 15 days. His body was shutting down.
‘I think you need to prepare yourself for the worst,’ the consultant said gently. ‘The reality is that Cohen is a very sick little boy.’
We were told that he may have to wait up to three weeks for his surgery – if he was still alive. But thankfully, he was rushed to Great Ormond Street that same afternoon. Kirstie went with him while I stayed to express milk for Ethan.
I watched the clock anxiously. ‘Things are looking positive,’ the surgeon said after what seemed like days and I slumped in relief.
It seemed like it was just one thing after another. The boys suffered setbacks on an almost daily basis and there were some very tough days, particularly when we were told that Cohen had meningitis.
Their immune systems were so underdeveloped that they picked up infection after infection. But they battled on and we just had to hope they were strong enough to hang in there.
When Ethan was three weeks old, I was allowed to hold him for the first time. He almost seemed weightless, he was so small. We had to wait another fortnight before we could give his brother his first cuddle.
I was so relieved. Up to then, I’d felt so helpless. But now, I somehow felt like a proper mum to them. Holding their frail bodies against mine I became even more fiercely protective over them.
At 35 days both twins were transferred to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and the nurses showed us how we could help to feed the boys and change them.
‘I think we should let the kids meet them now,’ I said to Kirstie when the boys were six weeks old. She agreed. We’d been waiting until they were more stable, less covered in wires. Harrison and Austin especially were so young and we didn’t want to frighten them.
As we drove them to the hospital, we tried to warn them that Cohen and Ethan were still very poorly. But as we walked into the NICU and they met them for the first time I could tell that Charlotte especially was shocked.
‘They’re so small, Mummy’ she sniffled. ‘Are you sure they’re going to be alright.’
‘They’re still very tiny but they’re strong. They’re doing so well,’ we tried to reassure her.
‘I love them,’ Austin said simply, smitten by his two little brothers.
Finally, at the end of June were told that we could finally bring them home. Cohen came first, followed four days later by Ethan.
Strapping into their matching car seat felt amazing.
‘We’re finally Mums, we’ve finally got our boys!’ I smiled to Kirstie as she enveloped me in a hug.
Now, nine months on, both the boys are doing well. Ethan is due a stoma reversal in the next few months and has almost caught up with his peers; he’s a real little bruiser doing everything that a 9-month-old baby should and I reckon he’ll be walking within weeks.
Cohen is a little further behind. He still can’t hold his head up unaided and is still fed via a tube into his tummy because he has a high palate. His consultant is investigating the possibility of cerebal palsy, but he is always smiling and loves to play with his toys. He’s a joy to be around.
We have spent most of the first year of married life in hospital with our boys but we couldn’t be happier or more proud. There was a time when we were planning their funeral so to celebrate their first birthday is a dream come true.
How many people can say they got given two miracles for their wedding present but that is exactly what our sons are and we are so grateful to those that donated towards their birth and who supported us through their survival. They really are two in a million!
To help raise funds for medical equipment visit www.gofundme.com/cohenarchiejack