Our little Christmas miracle
New mum Aislinn Coyle-Little from Co Down, is counting her blessings after her life was saved by an anonymous organ donor. Ivan Little reports
The ecstatic new mum gently kisses her tiny son on his cheek as she reflects emotionally on the huge debt she owes to the unknown organ donor whose liver saved her life six years ago and has helped her give life to the little miracle cradled in her arms.
And, as Aislinn Coyle-Little counts her blessings for "the best Christmas present in the world", she talks about a year which started with a tragic miscarriage and ended with the arrival of a baby she feared she might never have been after she fell critically ill only days after her dream wedding in Florida.
All around Aislinn in the cosy Dundonald home she shares with husband Jonathan, the cards welcoming little Jericho Little into the world are vying for space with Christmas greetings as every so often the new-fangled parents lose themselves in wide-eyed marvelling at their new son.
It is all a world away from 2008, when even Aislinn's doctors were convinced she could die after her American nightmare and her mother Claire says she thought she would be burying her daughter in her wedding dress.
Aislinn, who's originally from Londonderry, had to cut short her honeymoon and fly back to England, where she was living at the time and where doctors raced against time, to find a liver to save her.
Which they did. Today Aislinn is a walking, talking advertisement for organ transplant and she says her new arrival was another embodiment of the need for more people to become donors.
Aislinn says: "He's a perfect little boy and I can't thank the family of the organ donor enough for keeping me alive and for my new son who's the best Christmas gift that anyone could ever have."
Aislinn has been trying to find relatives of the 35-year-old British woman whose liver she received, but even though she has written letters to them via an intermediary she hasn't had any reply.
But after Jericho's birth, she is going to try again.
Aislinn, who's a personnel manager with Tesco, adds: "I will now be getting in touch again to tell them how much I appreciate everything that their daughter's liver has done for me. And Jericho is in many ways a part of them. He wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for them.
"I think about the donor every day. And Jericho is a wonderful miracle who has been created from something horrible that happened to her.
"I would love it if her family got in touch with me, but I will respect their wishes if they want to maintain their privacy."
Aislinn and Jonathan were married in front of friends and family in a five-star resort in Orlando on Valentine's Day in 2008 in a wedding ceremony which they had planned in meticulous detail from start to finish.
Aislinn's health problems had started in her teens, when she was diagnosed with a rare liver condition together with gall bladder and pancreas problems.
The gall bladder was removed, but an auto-immune disease led to complications and, after she moved to live in London, she was referred to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, where medics eventually concluded that a transplant was the only solution.
Aislinn says that, in 3-D pictures, her liver resembled a cauliflower and the Royal Free staff set about finding a suitable liver for her, but that was not a simple task.
Doctors were concerned about Aislinn travelling thousands of miles away to get married, but relented and let her go to the States.
And, while in Florida Aislinn looked every inch the radiant bride, her family suspected that all wasn't well.
Aislinn says she knew things weren't right, but she never stopped smiling on her big day.
"All I wanted was to marry Jonathan just in case I died before a liver could be found," she adds, but eventually she couldn't keep up the act.
Just days after the reception, Aislinn became dangerously ill and, back in London, medics put an emergency plan in place.
Her consultant, James O'Beirne, said he knew the only chance Aislinn had was to get her back to Britain as quickly as possible.
The death of a young woman from a brain bleed provided an ideal organ for Aislinn, who was flown back to England and underwent transplant surgery in London, in spite of a series of major infections.
Doctors in England were amazed at her recovery. They declared the surgery a complete success and Mr O'Beirne said: "Aislinn has remarkable inner strength, courage and determination."
It wasn't the doctors' main concern, but Aislinn was told that the transplant didn't mean she couldn't have a baby.
She says: "That was a relief, because I had been warned there could have been problems.
The doctors hadn't been sure before I had the transplant whether they could perform it and whether it would be successful because of scar tissue from previous surgeries I'd had. One of the first questions the doctors asked us after the transplant was if we were thinking about starting a family. But we just wanted to have some quality time together to enjoy married life and for me to get better."
And it was only after the couple moved back to Northern Ireland to live and work that their thoughts turned to babies.
Aislinn and Jonathan had to consult with Aislinn's hepatologists, who cautioned them that they would have to balance the medication she was on with the risks that the drugs could pose to a baby.
The most crucial decision centred on one of her two drugs, called Mycophenolate, which was helping Aislinn's body to accommodate her new liver, but which can cause foetal abnormalities.
"The Mycophenalate was suppressing my immune system, so that my body didn't reject the liver. But the worry with it was about what it might do to a baby and whether I could get by with just one medication. And that's what has happened, and so far so good," says Aislinn, who sadly lost her first baby, a boy, at 21 weeks.
She and Jonathan sought reassurances that the tragedy had nothing to do with her liver transplant, or the medication.
"We got the post-mortem through and we were told by the pathologist that it could have happened to anyone," adds Aislinn, who spread the ashes on the beach at Whiterocks, close to the holiday home she and Jonathan own on the north coast.
"We were devastated," says Jonathan, who's a Tesco store manager. "But we were overjoyed when Aislinn became pregnant again in March." Aislinn adds: "The team at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast were absolutely fantastic."
One possible concern which resulted in Aislinn undergoing tests every two weeks was the presence of antibodies in her blood caused by the transplant, regular transfusions and other procedures in her youth, and which had the potential to create problems for the unborn baby.
But even though Aislinn's pregnancy was classed as high risk because of the antibodies, there were few problems - although towards the end it was decided she should have a caesarean section, because the baby was in a breech position.
"It really was the best pregnancy ever," says Aislinn, who added that looking back to her younger days, when her life was blighted by illness, she could never have imagined cradling a baby with a husband by her side.
"Absolutely not. All I thought about in those days was if I would recover.
"And if someone had told me about the baby, I wouldn't have believed them especially, as in 2008 it was touch and go whether I would even make it at all."
Aislinn and Jonathan have let the Royal Free team in London know all about their good news.
"We are so indebted to them and the Royal here.
"I know people knock the National Health Service, but we owe everything to them. Everything."
Aislinn and Jonathan have been strong backers of efforts to persuade more people in Northern Ireland to carry donor cards.
Aislinn adds: "I would appeal to everyone to support the recent campaign for people to talk to their family members to let them know what their wishes are in relation to being a donor after they die.
"It is dreadful to think how many people here die waiting for an organ.
"Jericho and I are testimonies to the importance of organ donation. One donor can save seven or eight lives.
"And it doesn't have to be all or nothing - you can say exactly what you want to donate or not."
The couple are also right behind calls from former GAA star Joe Brolly, who gave a kidney to his friend Shane Finnegan, and Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson, whose son Mark needed a kidney transplant, for the authorities to introduce an "opt-out" system for organ donation in Ireland, rather than the "opt-in" system which current prevails.
Several years ago, Aislinn was enlisted by health officials in London to be one of the faces in their drive to recruit badly needed organ donors.
At the time, Dianne Dobson, the Royal Free Hospital's liver transplant co-ordinator, said Aislinn was a great ambassador for the cause. "People can see what a difference the new liver has meant to Aislinn. She has not sat around feeling sorry for herself. We are hopeful her example will encourage others to carry donor cards," she said.
On a lighter note, Aislinn and Jonathan have admitted their decision to call their son Jericho has raised a few eyebrows.
"It has no Biblical connections whatsoever," says Jonathan. "Actually, the real reason could scarcely be further removed from the Bible.
"We were watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gabriel Byrne movie called End of Days and when we heard Arnie's character was called Jericho, Aislinn and I looked at each other. And we knew there and then it was the ideal name for our wee man."
Aislinn adds: "We weren't trying to be outlandish, or to do a Frank Zappa with a baby called Moon Unit, or whatever. It was just a nice, strong name."
However, the name has already caused an unforeseen difficulty.
Jonathan opened an email account for his son, so that his parents could send him pictures and records of his early life which he could look at in the future. That was no problem.
But when Jonathan tried to sign his son up to Facebook in the name of Jericho Little, administrators thought they were dealing with a film star - or a crank - and told the father he would have to set up a special celebrity fan page instead of an ordinary account.
Fighting to save lives ...
Exactly two years ago, Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson began lobbying for changes to the law on organ donation.
Ms Dobson tabled her Private Member's Bill at Stormont in December 2012, calling for new legislation to adopt a soft opt-out system.
The new law would mean that mean that all adults will be considered as eligible for organ donation unless they choose to opt out. Anyone's decision to opt out would also be kept confidential.
It was the birth of her youngest son Mark that led to her beginning her campaigning for a change to the law. Mark was just five weeks old when he was diagnosed with kidney failure. When he turned 13 his kidneys started to shut down, and in April 2008 he was placed on the transplant list. Ten months later he got the call to say a donor had been found. Two months ago, a campaign calling for UK-wide legislation to change the laws on organ donation was launched at Stormont.
Ms Dobson was joined by Member of Scottish Parliament Anne McTaggart and the Welsh Health Minister Mark Drakeford to call for David Cameron to introduce the soft opt-out option across the UK.
The calls were also backed by GAA pundit Joe Brolly, himself a kidney donor.