It’s a life story that is almost too far-fetched to be true, but Derry mum Leona Doherty is living proof that life can be stranger than fiction.
Born with two wombs, the Hazelbank woman gave birth to her beautiful son Hugh seven weeks ago, who lies curled up in his father Gary’s arms.
“He’s our Christmas miracle,” she declares. “He was due on Christmas Day but was delivered by caesarean section on 9th December, 2014, weighing just 5lbs 9oz.
“We’ve been through so much to have him, but I never gave up hope. My faith is strong. I always said if it was God’s will then we would have children.”
But the journey to have Hugh was a long road. A long road that saw the couple face more trauma and heartache than you think is possible for one family to face and get through.
The couple met while working at B&Q in 2000 and Gary had his eye on Leona from the moment they met. When they finally got together Gary was so convinced that Leona was the woman for him that he asked her to marry him just two weeks later. Laughing, Leona says, “I told him he was mad and to ask me a year later!”
But besides marriage the young couple knew from early on that they wanted to have a family together.
Leona, 35, continues, “I always said I wanted a big family; at least six children, and Gary and I had the discussion about children very early on in our relationship. We were trying to fall pregnant from I was 21.”
After a year of trying they decided to ask if everything was okay.
“At that stage I weighed over 19 stone,” Leona says, “My monthly cycle was never normal and the doctors originally asked me to lose some weight to see if that would regulate it. So I did, losing over ten stone in two years. But in addition they decided to perform a laparoscopy, to check all was as it should be.”
As a result of this investigation Leona was given news she was never expecting.
“They told me I had a rare condition that meant my womb had split in two while I was in my mother’s womb. As a result I now have two wombs, two cervixes and two vaginas. But I never had any idea. It was devastating. All I could think about was if I would ever have a family.”
Doctors told Leona that each womb had just one fallopian tube and one ovary, and as a result the chances of conception were reduced to 50%.
“I still didn’t give up hope. They told me they could arrange for me to go on a waiting list to get Intrauterine insemination (IUI) - a fertility treatment.”
In the meantime the couple married in 2003 and kept trying for the family they so desperately wanted.
Then in 2006 Leona went through a year of health problems, suffering a mini-stroke in May, followed by her first miscarriage in August, and then epilepsy in October.
“Talking now about that year, it seems a bad year, but we just got through it. My family were amazing, I couldn’t have done it without their support.
“That first miscarriage happened very early, I was only about six weeks pregnant. We hadn’t even the time to get excited or be happy. But it was reassuring to know that we had fallen pregnant naturally.”
The next few years revolved around ovulation, conception and timings. Leona recalls, “It constantly took over. I started to feel like a robot. That was how we operated, right up until 2011, when we had our fourth miscarriage.”
The couple’s second miscarriage happened in 2009. They had finally gotten to the top of the IVF waiting list, but the procedure failed.
“I had some of the drugs that make you ovulate leftover at home, so me being me,” continues Leona, “I took some more.”
“We fell pregnant straightaway but lost the baby at ten weeks. That was hard. We had told our family and it felt like it was going to happen. Instead we had to go to Belfast for a D&C.
“The third miscarriage was in 2010. We had decided to keep our hopes alive and continued with IUI treatment. It failed three times but I had the fertility drugs at home and kept taking them. It worked and we fell pregnant naturally but once again I miscarried, and this time I needed a D&C in both wombs as fluid had built up in the second womb.”
She continues, “That was the first time we ever saw the heartbeat. In my previous pregnancies I had miscarried too soon to have a scan but because of my history I was kept under close watch and had one early on. I remember saying, ‘Oh My God, this is it for us’.”
After the third miscarriage Leona’s doctor decided to refer her to a specialist to see if they could get to the bottom of her problems.
She explains, “Dr Hunter wanted to see if they could connect my two wombs into one, to see if that would help me carry a baby to full-term. But Professor Regan at St Mary’s Hospital in London refused to carry out the procedure because she said there was a high chance that I could be left infertile. But she also insisted that there was no reason that I couldn’t conceive despite having two wombs.”
But it was the fourth miscarriage that finally had an affect on the young couple.
With their home empty and so much love to give to a child, Gary and Leona started to help out with the Chernobyl Project, housing two young children every summer.
In 2011 they had just welcomed the children when Leona found out she was pregnant again after her doctors advised she use Clomid, a fertility drug.
She went straight to Altnagelvin once the pregnancy was positive, and was immediately put on aspirin and an anti-clotting medicine.
“Dr Pendargast was amazing. He had never seen anything like my case; but he was nervous too.”
However, this pregnancy too was not to be and this time Gary found it very hard.
He comments, “My mother had passed away just before we lost the baby and I fell into a depression. I was off work for three months. It was hard.”
Leona decided then that she had to put Gary first. “I made it my mission to get Gary well again and back to work. I always encouraged him and finally he was able to go back part-time and build his hours back up.
“I kept thinking about my dad, who tells me all the time that we are in good hands, and that if it’s for you it will not pass you.”
It was this positive attitude that kept the couple going and in time they started to talk about fostering.
Leona says, “I kept saying that even if we had our own children I would like to foster. So we went through the process, which was long and hard, and finally in May 2013 a seven-year-old boy came to live with us.”
Around this time Leona also started to speak to her doctor about other health issues she was having.
“I had followed a gluten-free diet for some time, but had never been officially diagnosed as coeliac. In order to have a test carried out I had to start eating normally again.
“Once I was eating everything my health was awful, I felt terrible all the time. I spent three months really ill, throwing up all the time, and eventually I was unable to even drink water.”
Having children was the last thing on Leona’s mind and in September she nearly lost her life.
Recalling the day her body started to shut down she says, “On the 12th September I was having cold sweats and started hallucinating. Gary phoned my parents, who took one look at me and rang our doctors. My temperature was down to 35.1°C and I was hypothermic.
“My parents were terrified. An ambulance was called and I was taken straight to hospital.
“I was in and out of consciousness for eight hours. I remember some of it but Gary has had to fill in the gaps for me.
“But the next morning at 5am, doctors called my family and told them they needed to come to see me.
“They didn’t know if they could save me, my body was shutting down and I was in organ failure.
“I do remember waking up and seeing everyone around me; my brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles.”
At this stage doctors were considering putting Leona into a reduced coma but instead they flew her to King’s College in London in an effort to save her life.
While Leona was flown to London her parents Hugh and Bernie Toland had to travel by boat.
Leona says, “My father has a heart condition and he’s not allowed to fly. So their friend Terry White drove them over. For ten hours they travelled not knowing if I was alive or dead. They kept in close contact with Gary but they tell me that it was the longest ten hours of their lives.”
Gary says, “They told me she had 24 hours to live. They talked about Leona needing a liver transplant but it was too soon to look for a match. She spent the first week in intensive care.”
But Leona, now aged 33, rallied and over the course of the next month continued to amaze her medical team, as gradually her body started to work again.
“They kept telling me they had never seen anything like it. My liver and kidney had been failing and yet I seemed to recover fine. I was flown back home after a month and spent a further week at Altnagelvin.
“They have since told me that I had ischemic hepatitis - acute liver failure, which can be caused by low blood pressure or dehydration.”
Leona has since been tested for coeliac disease. “The initial blood test came back clear but a gene test revealed that I was coeliac. I haven’t touched gluten since, even if someone uses the same knife to butter my bread and theirs, it can have an effect on me.”
With the foster child back at their home - he had been cared for by Leona’s sister while she was sick - the Doherty’s took heart from the fact that they were “providing a safe and loving environment for a child to grow up in.”
Leona had also been told that it would take a full year for her body to recover.
“We didn’t talk about conceiving and while it was in the back of my mind we didn’t focus on it.”
However, just six months later Leona had a feeling she might, once more, be pregnant again.
“I just didn’t feel right. So I took a test and I couldn’t believe it when it was positive. I immediately phoned Gary at work and we made an appointment to see Dr Pendargast straight away.
“He was amazing and saw us every week for the first 12 weeks. Getting to that milestone was a first for us and then we focussed on 14 weeks. They then put a stitch in my cervix and when we got to the 20 week scan they told us we were having a boy. I was so nervous throughout the whole pregnancy and had to inject an anti-clotting medicine every day.”
Incredibly, this time, after all they had been through, Gary and Leona were hopeful that this baby boy would finally be theirs to love and hold. And, on 9th December, 2014, Hugh Joseph Doherty was delivered by c-section and placed in his parents’ arms, weighing just 5lbs 9oz.
Leona says, “It was the most amazing, unbelievable feeling. I still can’t believe he’s mine, even now. For 14 years we tried to have our own children and we never gave up hope. He’s our miracle.
“I never thought my dad would get to see my children but on Saturday we christened Hugh and the priest who baptised him was the same priest who married my parents 37 years ago.”
Finally, Leona reflects, “Always have faith and hope. Despite everything I honestly believe that there’s always something good at the end of it. Of course, I had my fights with God; I struggled with prayer but I never gave up hope.”
Throughout their journey to have Hugh, Leona and Gary had great support from their family and friends but they would like to especially thank Father Frank O’Hagan, Terry White, Kevin Toland and Leona’s parents Hugh and Bernie Toland. A special thank you also goes to Leona’s obstetrician Dr Prendergast and her liver specialist Dr Morrison.