A Derry couple who welcomed their ‘miracle’ babies the same week that IVF turns 40 said they are delighted their twins get to share such a special birthday week.
Jacob and Layla Mullan, who were conceived through In Vitro Fertilisation, were born on Monday night.
Their ecstatic parents, Karen and Declan, said it was ‘fitting’ their children were born the same week IVF turns 40.
“For us it marks two major milestones - IVF’s journey and our journey intertwined. We are just overwhelmed with love and happiness and are delighted our twins get to share such a special birthday week,” Karen told the ‘Journal’.
The first baby to be born through IVF treatment, Louise Brown, celebrated her 40th birthday on July 25.
In the last 40 years, 300,000 babies have been born from IVF treatment in the UK.
Success rates for the groundbreaking treatment have improved over the last 40 years, but still remains low at around 29 per cent.
From the moment Karen and Declan got married in 2015, starting a family was at the forefront of their minds.
With both of them over 30, the couple felt that time was of the essence.
“I always wanted children and there wasn’t really any question about it. I babysat every single child I could when I was younger and it had always been an obsession. Starting a family was something that was always on the cards for us as a couple”, Karen said.
However, after a year of trying to get pregnant the couple became concerned.
“Declan had developed epilepsy as a result of brain surgery he had when he was 19 or 20. He was on quite a high dose of medication and started to question whether that was a cause.”
It was confirmed the medication would not prevent them getting pregnant and the couple began to go through tests.
“They couldn’t find anything wrong but I was sure I had endometriosis and it had never been diagnosed. I was referred to a consultant and a laparoscopy showed I had endometriosis, but I was told it had nothing to do with why I couldn’t get pregnant.
Karen had further tests and more than a year later doctors could not find any reason for the fertility problems.
The couple were referred to the Regional Fertility Centre, based at the Royal Victoria Hospital for IVF treatment.
Currently one free cycle of IVF funded by the NHS is offered to patients, in comparison to three full cycles in other parts of the UK.
The funding covers one episode of ovarian stimulation and the transfer of one fresh and one frozen embryo.
Karen and Declan underwent an initial assessment to determine whether they were suitable for IVF.
“After that we were placed on the waiting list and it was around ten months before the treatment actually started.
“The waiting is the worst part, it’s a killer and so, so frustrating. It’s the not knowing and feeling like you are in limbo. All the while we were still trying to have a baby and secretly hoping.”
Karen began taking a combination of tablets, gels and injections to suppress her menstrual cycle and boost fertility hormones.
“The treatment itself is all consuming because you have to be very careful and make sure you are taking the right thing at the right time and on the right day.
“Everything you do, everything you talk about and think about revolves around IVF.”
As Karen was going through her journey on IVF she found that everyone around her was getting pregnant.
“At the start it didn’t really get to me because I am so excited about babies anyway but eventually it did start to grate a bit. You still want to be happy for everybody who gets pregnant because you don’t want to see anyone else going through this journey.”
Karen responded well to the IVF drugs, but admits it was difficult.
“It sends you crazy and you begin to push people away. People are trying to help and say things without thinking. All you want to tell them is don’t say anything, just give me a hug and go away.”
The next stage in the process for Karen and Declan was egg collection.
“We were told the egg collection had been really successful, that this was going to work and we were prime candidates.”
After the eggs were collected and fertilised the couple had to wait a number of days before they could be transferred back into Karen.
It was then that disaster struck for the couple.
“I started to feel really unwell and my stomach swelled up, making me look like I was heavily pregnant. It felt like I had a really bad kidney infection and went to out of hours.
“They didn’t really know what was going on because IVF is such a specialised treatment. I had a felling that I was over-stimulated but was determined that the transfer would go ahead.
“We got the call from the centre to say it was time for the eggs to be transferred and we were so excited. We thought this is it we are going to be pregnant. But the minute I walked into the room the doctor noticed I was sore and did a scan of my ovaries.”
Karen had been over-stimulated as a result of too much hormone medication, causing ovaries to become swollen and painful.
It was decided it was unsafe to go any further at that time and the embryos were frozen.
“We were devastated. It was awful and felt like a loss. I remember walking out of the room and trying to hold it together but I was in bits.”
Six of the embryos which had been fertilised were frozen and Karen and Declan had to wait a number of months before they could begin the process again.
Karen had to take all the hormone medication again before an embryo could be transferred.
She was able to call on friends and other women she had met through the Fairness (IN) fertility group for support during this time.
“Throughout the IVF journey if you don’t know the right questions to ask, or don’t ask them then you don’t get told. It is very overwhelming. I was able to call on a friend who had had treatment herself and she kept me on the straight and narrow.
“Talking to the people I met through Fairness (IN) Fertility also helped. There was a girl who was going through something similar to me and we messaged each other every day.”
Once the embryo was finally transferred into Karen, the couple had a two week wait to find out if they were pregnant. Sadly, the process failed.
“We were so convinced it was going to work we had been told it was going to work. It took us a year to come around from it.”
The couple knew they still had the option of going through the treatment again on the NHS, but the waiting was ‘killing’ Karen.
“It was the most stressful part of the whole process. I could deal with the drugs and mentally prepare for everything else. It was the waiting that I struggled with most.”
A friend had suggested that the couple go to a private fertility clinic, but going private costs thousands of pounds.
“The day we got confirmation that the treatment had failed my friend phoned to tell me I was booked into the GCRM in Belfast. She told me everything was taken care of and paid for. I couldn’t believe it.”
Within weeks, Karen and Declan had an appointment and they felt they finally had some control over the process.
“The whole process was completely different and we felt like we had a say over how things were done. I asked to be put on Clexane, a blood thinner which is apparently linked to successful IVF. It isn’t regularly used here, as it’s not proven. It is something they usually consider in cases of multiple failed IVF. I just thought if there is something that could potentially help why isn’t it be offered to everyone. Why not give everyone the best opportunity they could possibly have?”
“I needed to feel like I was doing something different to increase my chances of it being successful.”
Karen said she felt she had no control over the process on the NHS.
“I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to get it done on the NHS, but it would be great if they gave us three goes. I was a prime candidate for IVF, everyone told us it was going to work and it still failed. People definitely need more than one go.”
The couple had to move their embryos from the Regional Fertility Centre to the GCRM and drove them across Belfast by themselves.
“It was so surreal and funny, we were joking about taking the wains for a drive.”
Karen requested that two embryos be transferred to double their chances of success.
The couple then had an anxious two week wait to find out if they were pregnant.
“I didn’t want to get excited this time and was convinced it wasn’t going to work because I had become accustomed to things not working out as planned.
“My friend who had paid for the treatment was here from Dubai and I decided to do a test myself before the two weeks were up because she was due to return there. I wanted to know before she went back whether it had worked or not.”
Karen said that when she saw the feint line on the pregnancy test indicating it was positive she was in ‘total shock’.
It took two further tests before she was convinced the result was right.
“I couldn’t believe it, it was the best news ever and my friend was able to go back to Dubai knowing that she had caused this miracle for us.”
Karen said she felt like shouting her news from the roof tops because she had waited for so long. However, she said she was mindful of other people who were still going through the IVF journey and their feelings.
Early in her pregnancy, Karen had a scare and was referred to the foetal assessment unit.
“I was preparing myself for the worst. I had to wait four days for the appointment and it was four days of waiting and crying, convinced the baby was gone.”
The feelings of devastation turned to ecstasy when a scan confirmed Karen was carrying not just one baby, but two.
“From the moment you wake up, even in your dreams, having a baby was all we thought about. To be expecting two was a dream come true.
“I really don’t think we could have been any luckier and if I had got pregnant without this journey I don’t think I would have appreciated it half as much.”
During the first 16 weeks of her pregnancy, Karen suffered from severe morning sickness but said she didn’t care as long as her babies were healthy.
Declan booked a gender reveal scan for Karen as a mother’s day present and they got the amazing news they were expecting a boy and a girl.
“It was too much, we were over the moon.”
Jacob and Layla were born earlier this week, just before the 40th anniversary of the IVF. each of them weighing over a healthy 5lbs.
As for the future, Karen and Declan still have frozen embryos and a remaining chance for egg transfer on the NHS. The frozen embryos last ten years and will remain in storage at the private fertility clinic.
Karen said: “If I had one baby I would definitely do IVF again to try and get a sibling. I don’t want to think about it yet, let’s see how I get on with these two first!”