Belfast mum who survived multiple brain operations and lost baby daughter now leads team of 2,000 women
Desperately ill in hospital and mourning the loss of her child, Stephanie McKittrick made a promise to herself to make something of her life. She tells Leona O'Neill how she defied the odds to build a successful career
Belfast mum Stephanie McKittrick knows life's challenges better than most. She's been through nine brain surgeries and has just come through her 10th one. She also lost her precious baby girl just hours after birth, yet has struggled through crushing grief and soul-destroying poverty to become a successful businesswoman, despite debilitating health issues.
The 33-year-old says her goal in life is to make her daughters - Lexie (7) and little Layla, who was born and died in April 2013, proud of their mummy.
But it's been a tough road for the east Belfast woman. "Like many people, I met a boy, fell in love, fell pregnant with my first child and was enjoying motherhood," she says.
"I fell pregnant with my second child approximately nine months later. Then one day I woke up and it was like my whole world had caved in. So severe was the pain in my head that I could not stand up, my balance was completely off, I was vomiting non-stop. The pain was horrendous.
"After several visits to A&E I was originally diagnosed with a brain tumour. They said it wasn't looking very good. It was utter shock. I was totally gobsmacked.
"While trying to absorb the shock of that diagnosis, I had my 20 week scan on my baby. I received the news that she had a condition called Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia (CDH) and had a 30% chance of survival.
"She had a hole in her diaphragm on the right side which meant all her organs were travelling up into the space where her heart and lungs would be.
"That meant there was less room for them to grow.
"So even though on the outside she looked perfectly normal, on the inside her organs were not formed. She had one lung and only a quarter of a heart. Everything was a lot smaller than it should have been.
"I was left there in the hospital ward on my own for five days, thinking I was dying and that my baby was going to die. I had myself dead and buried many times over.
"But during these days I decided that no matter what, I was getting both of us out of it alive and I would do whatever it took. A week later a consultant came down and told me it wasn't a tumour, but Hydrocephalus, a serious brain condition that causes fluid on the brain.
"I was very ill. Each day I was so very sick and I was in extreme pain. I had to walk holding onto the walls. At one point they suggested me being flown to England for a medical termination to my pregnancy. That, however, would never be an option for me. I made the decision I was in this until the end, whatever that end looked like."
Stephanie endured extreme sickness and excruciating pain connected to her brain condition, but she carried on so as to give her baby a chance of life.
"Every day I was in extreme pain, I was vomiting non-stop," she says. "I could not eat and any kind of movement or light or sound pierced through me like a dagger.
"At one time with only paracetamol for pain relief, they drilled three holes into my head while I was awake and inserted probes into my brain. This was one of the worst experiences of my life.
"I did whatever it took to get my baby to full-term and my beautiful daughter Layla was born. But she was very, very ill.
"They came to me and said that I had a choice. That I could switch off her life support and enjoy whatever time we had or else keep her on life support, but that she did not have the organs that they could operate on. They told me there wasn't going to be an outcome. She was too ill to survive.
"So I made the choice to turn off life support. And I just sat with her and loved her as much as I could in those hours. Every time I kissed her, her little eyes opened. While she was here, she knew she was so loved. Then she died in my arms.
"I had 25 hours with my beautiful Layla and can honestly say, I would go through it all again for another 25 hours. Layla is not a tragedy or a trauma, she is my beautiful daughter that shaped who I am today and I'm very proud of her."
Six weeks after her beloved daughter passed away, Stephanie found herself in the hospital again for the first of her many major brain surgeries. They removed part of her brain, yet her symptoms continued for a further 18 months, which drove the young mother into serious financial hardship.
"During that 18 months, bills were piling up and I needed to do something to make money," she says.
"The day that Layla died, I was sitting in the room where they take mothers whose babies have died and I said to myself, 'I have not just gone through all that for nothing'.
"I spoke to God, I told Him that I do not believe that my daughter died for nothing. I vowed that I was going to do something to make both of my girls really, really proud of me.
"So I enrolled in college. I completed a two year course in forensic science in one year, achieving the highest possible marks. I completed some of my practicals while holding onto the desk and being sick into a bin."
With dreams of being a barrister, Stephanie enrolled in a law and politics degree at Queen's University and had further surgery to put a shunt in her brain. However, the damage to her memory was so great at this stage that she had to drop out after a year. Once again, she felt she had come to an impasse. She was desperate to honour the pledge she had made to herself in the hospital, but she just couldn't see a way forward.
However, a new opportunity was about to open up unexpectedly.
"A lady I knew had asked me would I be interested in doing some network marketing," she says. "I thought no way, I couldn't do that, I couldn't be one of those people who sells stuff.
"But one day I was walking to the shop with Lexie and I had only £5 to my name. I had promised her a magazine. On the way in there were some really beautiful floral arrangements that would have been suitable for a child's grave. I couldn't afford a magazine for my living daughter and a floral arrangement for my little girl in the graveyard. I had a mini-meltdown there in the garage over what my life had become. I went home and called the lady and started my network marketing career.
"I worked on my business from my hospital bed. I worked on it at home while being sick. I worked on it on really bad days that I couldn't get out of bed. Network marketing has a huge stigma around it. However, it kept me and my daughter out of poverty.
"I work for Isagenix, a company which specialises in nutritional cleansing systems to help all health goals," she says. "I can work from home, selling products, and it means I don't need to pay for childcare, which is perfect for me. It works for me because I could not possibly hold down a full-time job. I am doing really well and enjoy my work.
"There is a huge stigma around network marketing, especially in Northern Ireland," she says. "The reality is it is a legitimate business model with uncapped earning potential. The difference between those who succeed and those who do not is the effort they put in.
"I have reached the top of two companies. You need to be passionate about your product, have a servant heart and make that unshakeable decision that you are going to succeed no matter what!
"If I can do it through ten brain surgeries, anyone can."
Stephanie worked her way up the ranks of the network marketing business, leading a team of 2,000 women in nine different countries and turning over around £2m in sales per year.
And she has these words of advice for anyone navigating dark, tough times at present.
"Everyone has a reason to live and everyone has the power inside them to push on through," she says.
"Just because your path has taken a twist, it does not need to be a dead end. Sit down and know your why. Think of the blessings in your life, then set yourself goals.
"Whether they are health or business or financial, just start putting one foot in front of the other.
"I've had many setbacks but each one was a setup for a comeback."