After four difficult years enduring fertility treatments, how one NI mum's determination to have a baby is now inspiring couples all over the world
Victoria McClelland, from Sion Mills, fell in love and married Canadian Stephen. Their desire for a child brought heartache... and eventually joy
At just eight weeks old, Eliana Grace McClelland is inspiring mums and dads around the world. Born against the odds on February 3, the moving story of what parents Victoria and Stephen came through to get their little bundle of joy has captured thousands of hearts since it was posted online just a couple of weeks ago.
Nearly 11,000 people have viewed the inspiring footage and there have been countless shares of the video, which details the truly horrific fertility journey endured by the couple over a four-year period.
The couple credit their Christian faith - and sheer determination to be parents - for their eventual happy ending. Following months of trauma and despair, they celebrated the birth of their little girl two months ago.
Victoria, who is from Sion Mills but now lives in Canada, was delighted to bring her baby home to meet the wider family circle and friends in Northern Ireland for the first time this week.
Even getting on a plane with her daughter, knowing she would soon be able to introduce her to her family, was a dream come true for the 29-year-old, who has come through so much to be a mum.
Victoria initially recorded her battle to have a baby in a video as a keepsake and then decided to post it online to share with friends who had no idea of the full extent of the fertility battle.
She has been astonished by the response from couples all around the world who have contacted her to say how much her story has given them hope and encouragement as they too face the invasive and uncertain medical journey to try and become parents.
She says: "Our story was very personal and initially I put it together just for ourselves and then decided to post it. We also wanted to share our faith and what we believe God has done for us and to hopefully help other couples.
"I looked up videos on the internet of other couples going through infertility when we were going through it, and they gave us hope when we were feeling down.
"It is something that virtually no one talks about and yet so many couples are going through it. We were so shocked to receive so many emails and private messages telling us how the video had encouraged and gave hope. It was emotional to read of other couples' struggles as we deeply feel their pain, but it also made us feel better about sharing our story because of the positive response. It has opened our eyes to how many couples do have trouble becoming parents."
And it is to encourage others that Victoria shares her story today.
How this young woman from Northern Ireland met and married the man of her dreams is a classic love story.
Stephen (30), a Canadian businessman, grew up close to Victoria's cousin.
The couple were introduced when Victoria went to visit her relatives for a holiday in October 2010.
They kept in touch through Skype and Victoria, who ran her own hairdressing business in Sion Mills, decided to take a year out in Canada and gave up everything to go there in January 2011. Stephen proposed one year to the day after they first met on October 10, 2011. They married in August 2012.
It was shortly after their wedding that they decided they wanted to try for a family but at that point the young couple could never have guessed at the painful road that lay ahead.
Victoria says: "I always wanted to be a mummy; even from I was a little girl. We decided to try for a family a couple of months after getting married and we were trying for some time and nothing was happening. We went to the doctor who ran tests which took quite a long time, and they all came back clear."
Still unaware of the tough road ahead, they embarked on fertility treatment first with IUI (intra-uterine insemination) and then IVF (in-vitro fertilisation).
Over the next four years they endured an emotional rollercoaster as they experienced the joy of being told three times Victoria was pregnant, only to be devastated when she miscarried.
And in what was an extraordinary blunder by the hospital, the couple spent six weeks believing Victoria was carrying their baby only to be told that the hospital had mixed up blood tests and she was never pregnant.
She recalls: "After waiting so long and going through so many tests and injections I was so excited to be told I was finally expecting a baby. It was the best feeling in the world, I cried with joy.
"I couldn't wait until Stephen got home from work to tell him the wonderful news. I can't find words to explain the happiness we both felt. We had taken a pregnancy test and it came up negative, but the hospital told us not to worry, that the blood test was more reliable. We didn't tell our families as we wanted to get to 12 weeks first. After six weeks I started to bleed and was taken to the hospital for an ultrasound.
"We sat waiting for an hour and every minute seemed like forever as we knew it wasn't good.
"We went in to see the doctor and he told us that the blood tests had got mixed up and it had never happened before, but that I was never pregnant. We had been on top of the world and our world just shattered.
"I just wanted a baby so badly that we had to keep going."
At one point Victoria underwent a treatment known as LIT - lymphocyte immune therapy - which involved white blood cells taken from Stephen being injected into her skin in what is a radical procedure to try and prevent miscarriage.
There was another incredible high point followed by the worst news imaginable when, while waiting for their second round of IVF treatment, Victoria was thrilled to discover in December 2015 she had got pregnant naturally.
Tragically, it was an ectopic pregnancy and Victoria had to undergo surgery to remove one of her fallopian tubes, and was then told that her other tube was blocked beyond repair, meaning she would never conceive naturally again.
"We had always hoped in our hearts that I would get pregnant naturally and to be told there was virtually no chance of that ever happening left us just lost," she says. "I can't even explain the pain and wondering why we had to go through so much. We hoped and prayed I would get pregnant naturally and I was just devastated to be told it would never happen.
"My surgery meant our next IVF was put back from January until March and that period of waiting was one of the hardest things for us.
"Each day just seemed like forever and we were trying not to wish our lives away, but we couldn't think about anything but starting our second IVF to have another chance."
The extreme emotional highs and lows of fertility are known to put a huge strain on even the most solid marriages, yet even though Victoria and Stephen were newlyweds, she says their experience brought them closer together.
"It was very hard on us and sometimes I didn't want to go out of the house because everywhere I looked there were babies or pregnant women," says Victoria. "When I got pregnant we were so excited, but our hearts and world were shattered in pieces when I miscarried. I really can't explain the pain we felt, we were totally heartbroken. We encouraged each other, and if one of us was down the other one brought them back up again.
"We are both Christians and our faith played a big part; if we hadn't had that I don't know how we would have kept going. It just felt that God was going to give us this little baby. Through our faith and Bible reading we believe that we got promises and messages which kept us going.
"I wanted to be a mum so much and Stephen felt the same about becoming a dad. We imagined and dreamt about what it would be like to have our own wee family, the fun things we would do with our kids. I prayed that God would take the feelings of being a mum away as it wasn't meant to be, but those feelings never went away, if anything they only got stronger, so I believed we would be parents one day whether we would have our own baby or maybe a baby through adoption."
The long-awaited IVF in March unfortunately wasn't successful. Then in May they had what would be their final IVF - and their very last chance to have a baby. That resulted in an outcome so unusual that doctors said they had never come across it before.
Victoria explains what she and the medical team believe was the miracle behind little Eliana's birth.
"I had two embryos transferred, leaving one embryo left. The pregnancy took and we were excited but extremely nervous. After six weeks I started bleeding and had to go to the emergency department," she says.
"The doctor told me he was really sorry but I had another miscarriage. I asked was there any chance the other embryo was still there and he said it was very unlikely. We drove home from the hospital in tears, absolutely shattered as this was our final chance, after trying every last option of medication and procedure that the doctor could offer us.
"We started to look at our options and we thought of adoption and surrogacy, which didn't feel right.
"I had to get another blood test done and it showed that my HCG levels were still high indicating pregnancy, and they asked me to come back two days later for one last blood test.
"When I went back they gave me an ultrasound and told me there was a heartbeat, a very strong heartbeat.
"Stephen was in the waiting room and I started to cry tears of happiness. I couldn't believe what I was being told. He came in and thought at first that I had got more bad news but when I told him there was a very strong heartbeat he was also in tears. The doctor was as shocked as us and said he had never seen this happen before."
While elated, the couple were also understandably nervous and decided to take their pregnancy one day at a time.
The 16-week scan showed that Victoria's placenta was lying low and she was ordered to take great care and was told if it didn't move she might need a C-section. Thankfully, her 20-week scan showed it had shifted back into place.
"I was so excited to be pregnant and wanted to enjoy it as much as I could, but we couldn't help worrying about making it to the end," she says.
"We did feel this was our miracle and that God was going to let us have this one. Eliana, which means 'God has answered us', came on her due date on February 3.
"Bringing her home from hospital was a day we had dreamt of for so long. It was such a wonderful and amazing feeling driving home with our little girl in the car. My sister, mum and Stephen's parents had surprised us by decorating our house to welcome Eliana home.
"We walked into the living room with her and both broke into tears, seeing the baby girl decorations, we had dreamt of this day for the last four years. Our dream had finally come true.
"Stephen just dotes on her and I love being a mum, it is the best thing in the world. We have so much love for Eliana.
"Sometimes we sit and stare at her and can't believe she is really ours. We are both so happy and absolutely love wakening up to her little face each day.
"I always dreamt of flying home with my wee baby and this time it was for real. I am home for a month and Stephen arrives next week. We are thankful to God we had a happy ending.
"I just hope our story encourages others not to give up hope."