Pregnant mum with terminal cancer makes heartbreaking plea: 'Help me live to see my unborn child smile'
Exclusive: Dying mum in plea for therapy that would grant her precious time with her newborn
A young pregnant mother with terminal cancer has made an emotional plea for help to survive so she can see her unborn baby grow up.
Belfast woman Margaretlee Hilton (33) has been told by doctors here that the best she can hope for is to have her baby by caesarean section at 28 weeks then go home to die.
But her family believe that alternative treatment in Mexico could prolong her life, and they are appealing to the public to help fund the treatment they say could allow her to spend those vital first few years with her child.
Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph, Margaretlee - who is undergoing chemotherapy and is on a morphine driver - said: "I had a wee baby stillborn 18 months ago and I want more than anything to see this pregnancy through.
"I have a wonderful partner and family, and I know that, if I'm not here, they'll bring my baby up. But, more than anything else, every baby needs its mother.
"I don't just want to give birth - I want to be there to see my baby's first smile, to see it crawl, take its first steps, say its first words and maybe even be there for its first day at school. That would mean the world to me. It's all I'm asking for."
Margaretlee is four months pregnant. She was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer shortly after finding out she was pregnant in February. Her family say that life expectancy for patients with her stage four cancer is three to six months, and at most 12 months if chemotherapy is successful. But they believe that a ground-breaking treatment in Mexico could prolong her life by five years.
The Hiltons, from Lenadoon in west Belfast, are desperately trying to raise the £40,000 needed to send her to the cancer clinic in Baja California that pioneers the treatment. They have already raised almost £16,000 in just the past fortnight.
Margaretlee is on low-dose chemotherapy so she doesn't harm her unborn baby. She has a nine-year-old daughter, Amy.
She was first diagnosed with gallstones after suffering severe stomach and back pain. It was only during surgery to remove her gallbladder that doctors discovered she had advanced cancer.
Her older brother, David, said: "My sister is the bravest person I've ever met. Every day, I'm astounded by her courage. She is such a young woman, yet she hasn't uttered a word of self-pity.
"I haven't once seen her cry or look down or depressed. I haven't heard her say, 'Why me?' or 'This is so unfair'. But it is massively unfair that Margaretlee might bring a new life into the world and then lose her own. She is a brilliant mother to Amy and we want her to be there to bring up this baby."
Margaretlee's mother Elizabeth said: "I'm 69, I've had my life. It should be me with terminal cancer, not my beautiful young daughter. I'd do anything to take it away from her.
"The rest of the family might not see it, but in those private mother-daughter moments, I can see the effect this is all having on Margaretlee. She said to me, 'Mummy, I don't want to die'.And I said to her, 'Don't you worry. We're a strong family and we'll fight this together. You get all those bad thoughts out of your head because we're going to win this one'."
David said the most poignant moment was when the family were recently leaving the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital with his sister.
"The doctor had told Margaretlee that he hoped to get her and the baby to 28 weeks of the pregnancy, and, after that, the baby would be delivered by caesarean, but the only option for her would be palliative care.
"As we were walking to the car park, Margaretlee thought she felt the baby move. She got all excited and she was putting our hands on her stomach. It seemed so wrong that there's a wee baby jumping with life inside her when her own life could be ending so soon."
The Hiltons are very critical of the cancer treatment available on the NHS, saying it lags far behind other countries. They want to send Margaretlee to the Hope4Cancer Institute in Baja California to undergo a technique called blood perfusion hyperthermia.
David said: "The patient is linked to a dialysis-type machine that extracts the blood from the body, superheats it and then passes it through a series of ultraviolet lights to kill off viruses. The blood is then super-oxygenated because oxygen kills cancer cells. Margaretlee would be on the machine about eight hours a day for three weeks. If our fundraising campaign is successful, we'll get her to Mexico as soon as possible after the baby is born."
Since she was 18, Margaretlee has worked in Our Lady's Home in Beechmount, caring for elderly people and those with Alzheimer's. Residents and staff there have raised almost £4,000 for her treatment.
David said: "People who themselves have little money have been so generous. That's been the same right across the sectarian divide. Belfast is a very fractured city, but on life-and-death issues like this, people rise above all that and their kindness and compassion comes shining through."
Elizabeth said Margaretlee had desperately wanted a baby, and especially so that her nine-year-old daughter, Amy, would have a sibling. Margaretlee had a miscarriage last year and a stillbirth in November 2013.
Elizabeth said: "She was in bed and she felt a gush of fluid. In the dark, she thought her waters had broken and at first didn't realise it was blood. She was rushed to hospital for an emergency caesarean.
"Her wee baby girl was born dead and we nearly lost Margaretlee that night too. She had already picked a name for the baby, Sophia. The first thing Margaretlee said to me when she opened her eyes in hospital was, 'Mummy, don't let them take Sophia away'.
"Sophia was in a cot by her bed, wrapped in a cooling blanket. And Margaretlee kept her by her side, or in her arms, for seven days. She was lovely. She didn't look like she was dead, just like she was sleeping. It was heart-breaking. Until now, that was the hardest thing we as a family have been through."
David recalled how the day before Sophia was stillborn, a midwife had visited Margaretlee at home and the whole family had listened as the baby's heartbeat pulsed through the monitor that was placed on her mother's belly.
"There was so much joy in our house that day," he said. "I was on the floor putting a pram together for the baby, but within hours it all went so horribly wrong."
A photo of baby Sophia lying in the hospital cot in a pink and white dress saying 'Little Sister, Big Cuddles', that her mother and big sister Amy had bought before her birth sits in the Hiltons' living room. Despite her sister's death, Amy still wore with pride the matching 'Big Sister' top that she had ready. Sophia's tiny coffin was filled with letters and cards that Amy had written to her, which broke her mother's heart.
Recently, staff from the Northern Ireland Hospice visited Margaretlee and her partner, David Brennan, to advise them on how to break the news about her illness to Amy.
"They brought Amy upstairs after she came in from school and told her," Elizabeth said. "That night in here was dreadful. Amy was shaking like she'd taken an epileptic fit and the tears were streaming down her face.
"We've tried to keep life as normal as possible for her - going to school, the Girl Guides, and the wee disco round the corner in the community centre. She seems to be more back to herself now.
"But she sleeps with me and I know she's worried about her mummy and her unborn brother or sister. At night, she'll say to me, 'Nanny, are you sure what happened to Sophia won't happen to this baby?'"
Everything Margaretlee had bought for baby Sophia was lovingly packed away in the attic. "There's a Moses basket, cot, Babygros, and lovely outfits - all you could think of - up there waiting for this baby," says Elizabeth.
"I'm just praying that things go well this time and the baby is okay. And I'm praying we can get Margaretlee to Mexico for treatment so she isn't denied the time with her wee family that she so very much deserves."
- To help Margaretlee visit her donation page