A Derry-born doctor, who has spent most of her 30s trying for a baby through IVF, has shared the story of the birth of her twins through a surrogate in the Ukraine.
Aisling Grogan (nee Hillick), who is originally from Cashelmore Park in the city and her husband, Rick, are the proud parents of Art and Cadhla, who were born in the Ukraine in December 2017.
The former Thornhill College student said she hopes that sharing her journey can help to highlight that surrogacy is an option for couples suffering from infertility and point people in the right direction.
Aisling moved to Belfast in 1998 to study Medicine at Queen’s University and while enjoying the normal student life aged 20, an ovarian cyst caused her womb to twist.
“It (the cyst) was so big, it covered the size of the womb and everything was twisted. I had to have the left ovary and tube removed,” declared Aisling.
“At the time they told me they couldn’t see a right tube, so it may be that I would need IVF in future. I thought it was really interesting because I was studying Medicine and it was so far away,” she added.
Doctors kept a close eye on Aisling, and she had her ovaries scanned every year.
Once she qualified as a doctor, she worked in various hospitals across the North, and met future husband Rick.
They were engaged in 2010 and during her routine scan, Aisling quizzed doctors on how long she should try and conceive naturally.
Specialists started investigations and found that Aisling didn’t have a right Fallopian Tube and her womb was ‘a funny shape.’
“They told us we would need to get started and we started the IVF process.
“By the time we got married we had done two rounds of IVF.
“We did the first in August; one in October and got married in December 2011. That was the start of it. Then it was just years of IVF. Because of the shape of the womb I could only have one embryo put back each time.
“So some people get two or three, so it was decreasing chances,” noted Aisling.
The couple had investigations carried out as to why Aisling wasn’t getting pregnant.
She said that although as a doctor she is very evidence-based, she “did every diet going” and “if there was something that might increase my chances of getting pregnant I tried it.”
Aisling became pregnant from IVF four times, but each time she miscarried at around six or seven weeks.
Further investigations, tests, biopsies and other treatments were carried out, but ‘none of them worked.’
“We had 12 rounds of IVF in total. In the meantime, we got married, I qualified as a GP and started work.
“I teach Irish dancing so that was a great outlet. You have the kids and you keep going,” she added.
Aisling heaped praise on her consultant in Galway, Dr. Una Conway who, she said, prepared herself and Rick for “another option” each step of the way through IVF.
“I think that’s how you cope with IVF or infertility - it’s having another plan.
By the time Aisling was coming to the end of the IVF journey and having the last embryo implanted, husband Rick attended a local surrogacy conference.
Aisling said she told him to “batter on” himself as she had every belief she would be pregnant on the last attempt and had no intention of going down the surrogacy route.
“I think if I was getting pregnant naturally, I wouldn’t have stopped after four miscarriages, we would have investigated further.
“I had the miscarriage in October, 2016 and when I was in surgery Dr. Conway told Rick she thought we needed to start looking at surrogacy. Rick told her we had already started looking and that he had attended the local conference.
Aisling added that there was very little information available for couples who are hoping to go down the surrogacy route.
“The conference Rick attended was local. He went along to try and get some information about clinics, because there’s no website, doctor, or anyone really to tell you where to go if that’s the route you want to go down.
“One group - Families Through Surrogacy - was formed because there was no information out there to tell you what to do.”
Aisling added that the couple were “very proactive” throughout their infertility journey, as they had to initiate a lot of the investigations, and plan ahead through their own research.
“When I told people about the twins being born by surrogacy, so many said they never thought of it.
“If we can give people hope, or tell them there are other options out there, we want to tell them the story.
“I grieve, I grieve for the loss with each miscarriage, but I’m the type of personality that I have to cope.
“I have to have a plan and I have to move on.
“That’s the way I coped the whole time,” added Aisling.
Travelling to Ukraine
The Grogans made the decision to travel to the Ukraine late in 2016 to find out more about the options for surrogacy.
Aisling said that although USA and Canada are also two of the most popular places for surrogacy, costs can escalate as you pay for your surrogate’s healthcare. Whereas in the Ukraine the surrogacy was at a fixed price.
“The USA and Canada was twice that price. However, at the end of the day it is big money.
“We had already paid for so many years of IVF, infertility investigations and miscarriage investigations,” recalled Aisling.
The couple travelled to the Ukraine in December 2016, and Aisling admits that she let her husband Rick do most of the research ahead of the trip - so she wasn’t entirely up to speed on what would happen when they arrived.
The hotel they stayed in was owned by the clinic and transportation to and from the clinic was also pre-arranged.
Aisling said that if she hadn’t done some research online before her first day in the clinic, because otherwise she would have been “out the door,” as there’s “no confidentiality.”
She went on: “It was like a train station. There was just so many people, so many nationalities.
“People coming and going, you were just a number. We thought when we spoke to the doctor she’d be nice and make an effort, considering the significant cost, but she just spoke through the translator.’’
Despite the initial experience at the clinic, the Grogans signed the surrogacy contract on December 6, 2016, and the twins were born on December 6, 2017.
Within a number of weeks, Aisling received an email simply stating: “Congratulations, you are pregnant.”
After numerous frantic emails, Aisling received a response, but it she didn’t find out any more concrete information until around six weeks later.
She said that information was scarce at the beginning of the pregnancy, but she decided to do her own research and tried to find other women who were on the same journey.
After a quick Google search, she was able to find two blogs of women who were using the same clinic, including an English girl who was 10 weeks ahead of them.
“The lady from England added me onto a ‘Whatsapp’ group with a number of people on it and through that I found an Irish girl who I was able to contact about some legal stuff,” she said.
Around the six-weeks mark, Aisling received another email showing the scan report.
“I read it and it said number one, and number one again, so I thought I think that’s twins.
“But it just said number one again. I read the scan and realised it was twins because of the different measurements.
“Multiple embryos were implanted and the two stuck. I always knew there was a possibility of twins. They ask you if you want twins, so I said I’d love to,” she added.
Pregancy through a surrogate
Aisling met her surrogate via Skype every month and they built up a relationship.
“It was a bit awkward to start with, but every month the relationship got better.
“She’s got two girls herself and this was her second time doing surrogacy. She was 39, she was lovely and gave me lots of information.
“She told me things like the boy is lying on this side and the girl is on that side, she starts kicking at 8.00 pm and kicks all night and wakes him up, so I will always have that information about the pregnancy,” she said.
The surrogate lived around 450 kms from the Kiev and was scanned every month. She was then moved to Kiev at the 30-weeks mark.
“After the first six weeks, I received a video and a separate report. It was tough not having the control and it was so hard having to step back.
“But it was probably good that I didn’t have direct contact with her because I would have wrecked her head.”
The Grogans were told that the surrogate was being let to go the full term and the twins were due on January 5, 2018.
During one Skype call,the surrogate told Aisling she thought the babies would be born mid-December, so she booked time off from December 8 just to be on the safe side.
“Work was absolutely fine, but I’m not entitled to maternity leave and I’m not entitled to maternity benefits. In the UK you can get adoptive leave but you get nothing in Ireland.
“It’s only unpaid time off, and your employer doesn’t have to give you the time off,” she explained.
The Grogans surrogate’s care was handed over to the National Maternity Hospital in the Ukraine by the middle of December, but Aisling said she was anxious to speak with her ahead of the arrival of the twins.
“We pushed for Skype calls and eventually they said December 1.
“She said she had news for us and said the section was next week.
“Other girls would tell you that they were in work and they’d get an email saying the surrogate had given birth,” she added.
Aisling and Rick had provisionally booked flights for December 14, but the surrogate told them the section was scheduled for the following Wednesday or Thursday,
We had provisionally booked flexi flights for December 14. She said Wednesday or Thursday, December 6 or 7.
Aisling spoke to her colleagues and decided to finish up work that Friday for six months and the couple decided to travel out the following Wednesday to Kiev.
“We flew to Paris first. Ryanair now split you up on flights and I got an email from the clinic telling us that our surrogate was having her section that day.
“I had to try and pass the phone up the plane to Rick to read the email. I was hardly going to shout our babies are going to be born today!
“The colour just drained from his face.
“There was no reason given as to why she was having them early and as we got to the gate in Paris we got another email saying - ‘Congratulations, you are the parents!’
“We eventually got photos, what both babies weighed and then we flew to Kiev.”
After a long delay at the hospital, the twins were eventually brought to them.
“We had them for half an hour and the translator sat with us. That was it,” said Aisling.
Over the next few days the twins were taken for a number of different tests, including a scan of the heart, but Aisling said she struggled to get much information.
She eventually received a copy of the report, and deciphered it herself through Google translate.
On the sixth day, Aisling sent an email to the clinic asking for more time with her children, as they had only spent four hours with them since they were born.
After lengthy discussion, they were able to have the time increased to three hours, and then five hours.
“Our surrogate, Oxana, came in and sat with us. ‘She didn’t hold them until the day we were leaving as she hadn’t been strong enough, but we got lots of photos with her.
“I exchanged numbers with her and asked if she wanted photographs.
“We sent her pictures recently and she was happy to receive them.”
Aisling said little Art and Cadhla were “amazing” when they came out of hospital, as they were in routine for around two weeks after.
“On the flight home, the aircraft staff couldn’t have been better. We got into the cockpit with the twins!
“When we arrived into Shannon, all of my Irish dancers came down to meet us. When we arrived at our home in Galway neighbours and family were outside with banners.
“We stayed in Galway that night, and then came up the road to Derry for two weeks after that.
“My family in Derry placed a big banner out on the street for us when we got up, they had a big celebration for us!
“They are the most travelled babies in the world and they’re very good,” she smiled.
Art and Cadhla are now almost four months old and Aisling said they were ‘flying.’
“I’ve had them checked out in the hospital in Galway and they got their BCG in the hospital in the the Ukraine, because you can’t get it in Ireland.
“They’re very good and they’re thriving and their personalities are very different from day one,” she noted.
Aisling added that having two new borns isn’t that daunting as she “doesn’t know any different”
“I’m used to having two. This is just normal.”
Aisling said finding women who were going through the same journey was a “saving grace.”
In the Irish based Whatsapp group five women were expecting through surrogacy from October to January.
“Everyone was doing it for different reasons. Some always knew it was the only option they had.
“It was brilliant, and we kept each other right.”
Aisling added that it also helped with other issues such as paperwork, as there is no solid information available.
“Because people don’t really know about surrogacy, the paperwork was haphazard as well. It’s all vague.
“We had to get things apostilled, and DNA sent to prove there is a genetic link.
“It was really good to have the girls in both groups, because I needed some UK and some Irish stuff,” she said.
Reflecting on the experience of surrogacy in the Ukraine, Aisling said she couldn’t fault the medical care.
“My surrogate seemed very happy.
“It’s just that there is a grey area, and it’s tough to get to the point where you want to go down the surrogacy route.
“There’s not much information out there - where to go, what clinics, and then there is the language barrier,” she added.
Overall, Aisling said she would recommend surrogacy in the Ukraine, but advised that anyone looking to go down that route goes in “with your eyes wide open.”
“It’s something that works, it’s out there, and it’s expensive.
“Be prepared that no one will hold your hand, no one will feel sorry for you.
“It’s a business throughout the world, and you have to harden up for it.
“Definitely do it, but be prepared, and try to speak to other people who have been through it,” said Aisling.