‘I considered a termination with Jane, but not having one turned out to be right for me’
Martine experienced two fatal foetal abnormalities – and made a different choice for each
'In early October, I cried tears of joy when I saw my little baby wriggling about on the ultrasound screen.'
As we finish the interview in her big, bright family home in Co Kildare, Martine Hurley O’Dwyer offers some photographs, among them a throat-catching, sidelong image of a younger, obviously pregnant Martine, long hair obscuring her face, sitting on the side of a hospital bed. Others include a tiny foetus and handprints.
She has also given a hand-written summary of the story she wants to tell.
“I am a mum who has had two babies diagnosed with different fatal foetal abnormalities on two different pregnancies”, she writes. “One of my babies had anencephaly and another had Edwards syndrome.”
“Another of my babies, Robin, died as a result of an infection he acquired in hospital. He was premature and lived for 11 weeks. I have also had five miscarriages. I have five living children”.
Thirteen pregnancies in total. Five living children, the first born when Martine was 24, the last when she was 46. She is now 49. Her life has been a sequence of tragedies and trauma.
With an eye firmly on the upcoming referendum and her rare status as a woman forced to confront two diagnoses of fatal foetal abnormality, she wants to talk about the choices she made in each case.
Looking at the scan I felt it was trying to feel its head because its head was sore
Following the births of three, healthy, now very successful boys, Martine became pregnant with Robin in 2005 and suddenly her life took a terrible turn.
Robin was delivered by emergency caesarean section at 29 weeks, when Martine developed pre-eclampsia. He held his own for nine or 10 days until he acquired a pseudomonas infection and died 11 weeks after birth. “It was utterly harrowing. The way he suffered, the way he died was horrifying. I was destroyed, traumatised for years and years after his death.”
People find different ways of dealing with grief. Martine became desperate to “replace Robin”. “I was completely obsessed about getting pregnant again. It didn’t matter that I already had three. It was all I could think of,” she says.
Though she was a “brilliant teacher”, contributing a much-needed income to the family budget, the obsession “to be a mum” subsumed all. Finding the staffroom chatter about babies too painful, she gave up work.
Even the joyful birth of Juliette in 2009 failed to quell her hunger.
In 2010, she conceived again. In her written summary, she describes him or her (the sex was never identified) as “my baby with anencephaly”, whom she now calls Robert Sophia. Following a diagnosis of the fatal foetal abnormality Martine became convinced that Robert Sophia was in pain.
“They told me [in the hospital] that it wouldn’t feel pain but looking at the scan I felt it was trying to feel its head because its head was sore. That was all I could think about: ‘my poor baby’s in pain’.”
So with their year-old daughter, Juliette, she and her husband took the boat and train to Liverpool to terminate the 14-week pregnancy. “We went into this beautiful hospital where everyone was really lovely. It seemed so right. There were little toys for Juliette to play with and tags on them saying they had been cleaned the previous day. The place was sparkling.”
In the end, no procedure was necessary; Robert Sophia had died in the womb.
Martine returned to Holles Street to have the remains removed from her womb and took them home in a box to bury in the garden.
The following year, aged 42, she conceived again, with a baby she called Jane. At 14 weeks she heard the devastating news that there was a one in five chance that Jane had either Edwards or Patau’s syndrome. An amniocentesis at 20 weeks confirmed it was Edwards syndrome.
She considered a termination but “ended up doing nothing because I was so confused and upset”.
I have two boxes of ashes by my bed, and I feel they’re still with me
“I never looked on [Jane] as having any syndrome. She was incredibly active, always moving. I just told people she wasn’t going to survive, that’s all. I really felt I needed to protect her.”
Martine’s recall of those days verges on blissful. “I feel she had a really happy life inside me. I’d feel she was listening to the boys playing the piano ... I utterly adored Jane.”
When a 31-week scan showed that Jane had died, Martine was glad that she had to wait a few days to be induced in the National Maternity Hospital. It allowed more time with Jane.
After the delivery, Jane “didn’t look dead”. She looked absolutely beautiful and happy. I did the skin contact and kept her with me. She did deteriorate very quickly, which was heartbreaking.
“I carried her out of the hospital in a blanket and walked around Merrion Square and everyone was probably thinking ‘she’s taking home her new baby’.”
After a family ceremony, Jane was cremated in Mount Jerome.
Preserve her memory
Martine cannot emphasise enough her devotion to Jane and her desire to preserve her memory. “Unlike Robin’s life, I feel that Jane did not suffer. She experienced nothing but utter love from me. I am just so happy and proud to be her mother.”
Asked why she is so anxious to talk publicly about this, Martine replies: “Every day, women hear their babies are dying or are going to die, and it’s just so they know despite everything, you can get to the other side.”
But getting there was far from simple. Immediately after Jane’s death, she “had a total breakdown” which she believes was a postnatal psychosis. “I cannot describe how bad I was. Everything was like a dream – my house wasn’t my house, the shopping centre wasn’t the shopping centre. I couldn’t eat. I know everything there is to know about mental health now but I knew nothing then.”
Her difficulties had begun with the untreated trauma of Robin’s death back in 2005. When she sought help after Jane, she found the system wanting. She had another miscarriage.
Finally, she got a referral to a consultant psychiatrist with Kildare Mental Health Services. “She just saved me. Her kindness and humanity changed my life literally from the moment I walked into her office.”
Martine’s last child was born in 2014. “Carla is three now, the joy of my life, the most amazing little girl. I had her when I was 46.”
“Despite so many of my babies dying and the trauma my babies and I have endured, I have been so blessed and I truly cherish every day. I have two boxes of ashes by my bed, and I feel they’re still with me. I have come out the other side.”
When asked whether women should have a choice to terminate in situations like those she experienced, she replies immediately: “Absolutely. Every woman is different. Every couple has to make their own choice about what’s right for them. I’m not trying to impose my views on anyone else.
“I did consider a termination with Jane, and the reason I ended up doing nothing was because I was so confused and upset. And just by chance, it turned out to be right – but that wouldn’t necessarily be right for other people.”
And yes, she believes these choices should be available in Ireland. “If you’re broke and can’t afford to travel, you should have that choice here.”