MARRIAGE, a Haitian rescue mission, cancer and a baby – one Sheffield couple have had a lifetime’s worth of drama in the last few years. Sheena Hastings reports.
CARMEN Michalska was the smallest member of one of the international rescue teams which travelled to Haiti early last year to help bring survivors out of the rubble which parts of the island had been reduced to after the earthquake that is estimated to have killed more than 200,000.
She was included in the mission as a security expert, helping to navigate the team through crowds of gun-toting rioters. Although shorter than her male colleagues, the former gym instructor and soldier was very fit and strong.
This meant that when a faint voice was heard from deep within a ruined hotel building 11 days after the tragedy, long after all hope had evaporated that anyone would be pulled out alive, 5ft 5ins Carmen was able to climb through a tiny gap, wriggle along a narrow 13ft tunnel in the wreckage and find Wismond Exantus alive before helping with the eight-hour dig-out.
The 24-year-old man had survived beneath the rubble of Port-au-Prince’s Napoli Hotel because he had been working in the hotel’s shop. He had dived under a desk when the quake struck, and then found himself trapped in an air pocket surrounded by food and drink fallen from the shelves. The search had been called off, but Wismond’s brother kept returning to the site and heard weakening calls for help.
Carmen, a 37-year-old from Kirkcaldy in Fife, who lives in Sheffield with her wife Jodie, had volunteered for the mission to Haiti after her boss, a wealthy Greek businesswoman, donated money to fund a Hellenic rescue team.
Carmen’s day-to-day job is as bodyguard to the woman and her family, who are based in Monaco. She came back from the Caribbean having been dubbed “The angel of Haiti”, and more determined than ever to start her own family with Jodie, a professional footballer with Lincoln Ladies.
They had already suffered one failed attempt at IVF treatment.
“Jodie and I had been together since meeting in the gym where I’d been working in Sheffield six years before,” says Carmen.
“We got married in summer 2008, and had wanted to have children for a few years but waited until we were settled in a proper family home. We started researching how to do it in early 2009, and found there were various options.
“You can buy sperm from the internet and self-inseminate but that didn’t seem a very safe option to us. There were a few clinics around that could help, and the CARE clinic in Sheffield suggested IVF, with donor sperm being injected into the egg.
“They also suggested us sharing eggs – fertility drugs are taken for four weeks to produce more eggs, then half of the eggs you produce are donated to other people to help them with their fertility problems and part-fund your treatment.”
At the first attempt, both Carmen and Jodie had been injected with the drugs and donated eggs. The plan was that Jodie would be implanted with an embryo created using Carmen’s egg. But, although Carmen produced 12 healthy eggs, none of them became fertilised. When it was suggested that Carmen went to Haiti, Jodie was naturally fearful that she might not return. Also, Carmen had only just had the all-clear after the removal of a large malignant mole on the back of her arm. But Carmen was determined to go and help in any way she could.
Returning to Yorkshire from the devastated earthquake zone, she valued her personal happiness even more than before. She says she felt “so grateful for the contented life I have with Jodie” and optimistic that the next attempt to start a family would be successful.
“I thought that perhaps, in return for helping to save a life, I might be rewarded with a baby. I know that sounds a bit corny, but it was a very strong feeling.”
They tried again, this time using 23-year-old Jodie’s eggs. Five eggs became fertilised, two were put into Jodie’s uterus and a seven-week scan showed that the embryo that would become baby Faye was still safely there. At 19 weeks the excited couple found out they were expecting a girl, the pregnancy proceeded very calmly, and on December 16, 2010 she was born at Jessop Wing in Sheffield.
“Carmen was the first one to be skin-to-skin with the baby and she was so emotional,” says Jodie. “Faye was so perfect, and we felt so lucky and overjoyed. We also felt glad that we had what we’d wanted so much and had also given a chance to other couples to have a family.”
The couple say that before the pregnancy and since Faye’s arrival, they have not experienced any raised eyebrows about their relationship. “There was one hiccup at the hospital, where there was a rule about ‘birthing partners only’ being allowed to be there. “I went to get something, returned to the ward and was told at first I couldn’t come in,” says Carmen. “We were a different kind of couple to what they were used to.
“In general, people these days are curious and intrigued, rather than hostile.
“Society has changed, and mostly people like to talk to us, hear about the baby, and treat us as they would any other couple. A few older people are difficult about it, and perhaps they don’t want to understand.
“We have two very supportive families behind us. Neil, Jodie’s dad, sees Faye every day if he can, and you couldn’t keep him away.
“She also sees a lot of Jodie’s grandma. My mum is in Scotland, but she comes to visit, and we have brothers as well as Neil as male figures in her life.
“Like any parents we just want Faye to be happy, healthy and fit. We’ll give her a good stable family home, and opportunities we didn’t have. We’re lucky that although my work takes me away for periods, living in Monaco and sometimes travelling with my boss, Jodie is so well supported here. I guess we’re just like any couple where one partner’s work takes them away from home.
“But since Faye was born, it kills me to go away. I do it for now to save and build up a nest egg for the family’s future, but eventually I will work in the UK again.”
Little Faye is clearly surrounded by lots of love. Carmen says she was unprepared for the strength of feelings motherhood would bring, and she and Jodie are looking forward to trying to conceive a brother or sister for Faye before too long.
“You just want to do everything for them, they steal your heart. Jodie and I are able to do everything for her, except that I could not breastfeed her. I found that very difficult. I would like to carry the baby myself next time, and we’d like to donate eggs to others again, as we want people who are having problems in starting a family to feel as happy as we do.”
What will Faye know about her genetic father? “We only have a sheet of information such as his height, hair and eye colour and build,” says Jodie. “You don’t know who the donor is, and they won’t come knocking on your door.” From April 2005 any child born from donated sperm or eggs may, at age 18, request identifying information about their donor.
Looking back on her experience in Haiti, Carmen says she would not hold back her daughter if she wanted to go on a similar adventure at some point in the future. “I’d like to think we’d both support her completely, and I’m sure we’d be very proud of her if she gave to other people in that way. I didn’t actually go to Haiti to become a heroine, but simply to help keep people safe. In hindsight, I wish I’d been able to do more and feel very sad that the country is still in such a mess, and it’s not clear how much of the aid money and donations have got through to those who need them most.”
This approach provides a solution to two problems:
Firstly, there is a shortage of donor eggs, which affects those who need to use donated eggs for their fertility treatment.
Secondly, with relatively limited NHS funding for IVF available nationally, many couples with fertility problems have not been able to afford the treatment that they need.
Egg Sharing provides subsidised IVF treatment for infertile couples who are prepared to share some of the eggs collected at their egg collection and provides donor eggs to those couples who need them.