Starting the menopause at 16 means Kirstie's only hope of having a baby is IVF. She was overjoyed to become pregnant, but tragically had a miscarriage. Now she and fiance Chris are asking you to help raise £10,000 for another chance to become parents
Kirstie Downey and Chris Hanson from Co Tyrone tell Stephanie Bell how they've come through heartache, but still haven't given up hope of having a child
A young couple facing a traumatic battle to have a baby has now turned in desperation to the public to plead for help in realising their dream of becoming parents.
It is just three weeks since Kirstie Downey and fiance Chris Hanson, both 26, were told the heartbreaking news that the baby they had come through so much to finally be expecting had died in Kirstie's womb.
Still emotionally raw from the loss of their first child, but more determined than ever to keep trying, they have faced extraordinary circumstances after Kirstie was told at 16 that she had started going through the menopause.
As well as the emotional stress of three courses of IVF and the loss of her first baby, Kirstie has had to deal with a myriad of menopause symptoms which usually hit women in their 50s.
A rare condition that affects one in 1,000 females between 15 and 29 years old, she was barely a woman when she was told she would never be able to have a child of her own.
Now after going into debt, selling their car and travelling twice to a fertility clinic in Greece, Kirstie and Chris have launched a gofundme appeal to try and raise the money for another course of IVF.
"It has taken immense courage for us to reach out for help," says Kirstie. "Launching the appeal has been so hard as well as a bit embarrassing and we struggled with the idea for a long time, but it is our only hope of becoming parents.
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"Within hours of launching it we had a message from a woman who had been through IVF telling us we were doing the right thing and encouraging us to keep going. That meant the world to us."
Kirstie works in the baby room of a local nursery, a job she loved but which has become increasingly harder as she struggles to become a mum. Chris is a manager in Tesco.
The couple, who live in Newmills in Co Tyrone, have been together for seven years and started their fertility journey in 2016 knowing that, because of Kirstie's early menopause, a difficult road lay ahead.
Kirstie explains: "When I was 16 years old I had still not had my first period. After numerous tests and surgery, I was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure (early menopause).
"My ovaries never developed for unknown reasons. I was told I would never have a child of my own and my only hope of ever having a child would be through egg donation. I was so young I did not understand.
"I started experiencing menopause symptoms at 16 and it got so bad that I had to be put on hormone replacement therapy, which I have been told I will be on every day for the rest of my life.
"I have to attend multiple appointments during the year and my symptoms range from hot flushes and extreme fatigue to mood swings. Recently I have been told that I also have brittle bones because of it.
"Mentally and physically, I feel far older than what I am. I get hot flushes every day, sometimes every couple of hours. I feel my face burning and people ask 'Why are you so embarrassed?' or 'Why is your face going red?'."
Because she knew she would have problems getting pregnant, both Kirstie and Chris took the decision to start trying for a baby in 2016.
They had their first IVF treatment, which is free on the NHS, in August 2016 and were devastated when it failed. Kirstie says: "IVF is itself very stressful. It takes a toll financially, physically and emotionally. Each cycle I have to endure months of hormone tablets, procedures, blood tests, stress, scans - the list is endless.
"We were so young and naive the first time because we were convinced it would work and we just couldn't believe it when it didn't. After that we were just left wondering how we were ever going to get pregnant because we couldn't afford the treatment.
"We knew age was on our side but we just didn't have the money."
The couple subscribe to a national magazine called Fertility Monthly, which runs an annual competition offering two couples the chance to have the procedure done free of charge at a respected fertility clinic in Greece.
Kirstie and Chris entered and were thrilled to be chosen from over 100 couples.
While the procedure was being paid for, the couple had to find £4,000 to cover the cost of flights and other medical tests and scans. They took out a loan and flew to Greece full of hope in September 2018. Kirstie recalls: "We were in Greece for two weeks and I had lots of tests done the first week and the second week they did the transfer. After it, I wasn't allowed in the bath, a swimming pool or in the sun so we had to spend a week in our hotel room.
"The clinic has had such success rates that we were so hopeful and I had done everything in my power to make it work, including changing my diet and taking time off work.
"When we got home and discovered I wasn't pregnant we were just distraught again. We felt so bad. We cut ourselves off from friends and family and just didn't know where to turn."
The couple still had two frozen fertilised eggs at the clinic in Greece but, already in debt, they didn't know how they would be able to raise the money to go back.
Finally they decided to sell their car to raise the funds and booked the first flight to Crete, leaving from Dublin, in April.
This time they returned home and were overjoyed to be told that Kirstie was pregnant.
"I can't describe in words how it felt to be told I was carrying our baby," says Kirstie. "I just thought third time lucky and this was finally our time.
"The day we found out was the happiest day of our lives.
"At the same time we were scared so we went for scans every week.
"We had an early scan at seven weeks where we saw our baby's heartbeat fluttering on the screen. We cried with joy and it actually become real that we were having a baby.
"We saw the baby's heart beat twice but on my third scan they were worried it wasn't growing as it should have been and they couldn't find a heartbeat.
"I started to panic because we had been through so much to get here and we had seen its heartbeat and I couldn't believe it."
A second scan a day later confirmed their worst fears and Kirstie was told she had suffered a silent miscarriage. She was advised to come into hospital to have the baby removed from her womb. She had carried her child for nine weeks and two days.
That was just three weeks ago and, as she talks about it today, her grief is almost palpable. Unable to hold back the tears, she says: "When the nurse said she couldn't find the heartbeat it broke our hearts and shattered all our dreams.
"We had built up so many ideas in our heads of what it would be like to finally have our baby.
"We had even picked names and were convinced we were going to have a son. I was keeping a baby diary for the baby and it is just terrible.
"We have cried about a lot of things in our relationship. Going through IVF is the toughest thing a couple can ever experience.
"I think no one understands unless you have been through it. But we've never cried this hard or felt so empty. We are still devastated but we refuse to lose hope and give up. And there is one positive and that is that now at least I know I can get pregnant."
The couple set up their online appeal this week with a target of £10,000 to cover the costs of another IVF.
Within just a couple of hours £600 had been donated, mostly from strangers, giving them immense hope for another chance at being parents.
Kirstie adds: "I can't stop trying. I'm never going to give up. We have so much love to give a child and we are ready to give it another try but we have nothing left financially.
"The cost of another cycle all in will be around £10,000.
"We are both hardworking people with full-time jobs but we just don't have this sort of money.
"We know people don't have a lot of money and we don't expect huge donations - even the smallest donation will help us to realise our dream of having a child. We promise to post endless baby pictures for everyone to see when our day finally comes."
Chris, who has been just as emotionally devastated as Kirstie by their journey, is full of admiration for his fiancee and her determination to become a mum.
He says: "There are a lot of very unfortunate couples out there who are coming through the same journey, but I think Kirstie being told at 16 she will never have a baby and going through the menopause at her age - which is so rare - makes our case unique.
"She is just unbelievable. I don't know how she does it. If we have a child at least I know it is mine and she doesn't even have that and I don't know how she copes, she is amazing."
If you would like to help this young couple to get the baby they both want so much you can donate at https://www.gofundme.com/ivf-egg-donation-help-make-our-dream-come-true