We went from joy to terror and back: Chef Neven Maguire's wife nearly
died after giving birth to twins. Now the couple talk frankly about
their emotional rollercoaster
00:43 GMT, 11 March 2012
It was the sort of indescribable euphoria known only to first-time parents – but multiplied by two. Amelda Maguire had just presented her husband, Neven, with beautiful and healthy twins.
The television chef was so overcome that he had cried in his mother's arms even before going into the delivery room at Sligo Hospital to hold Amelda's hand as first Connor and then, a minute later, Lucia were born.
After all, it was the same hospital in which Neven's father had died 13 years previously. And as he watched his own children being born, he was torn between absolute elation and ineffable regret that his father had not lived to see his grandchildren.
Relief: Neven and Amelda are glad to be home with the babies
The birth had been as mercifully straightforward as it was life-changing. Amelda was exhausted after the planned caesarean section but as they cuddled and held their new babies, both she and Neven felt blessed with the perfect, ready-made family that cemented their deep love for each other.
The ecstatic couple chatted, made plans, talked about Neven returning to his work at the acclaimed MacNean House restaurant in Blacklion, Co. Cavan. But most of all they just stared in wonder at the miracle of the two tiny people who from now on would be at the epicentre of their lives.
Then their perfect world caved in.
First, Lucia was taken to the neonatal unit for special care as she was having trouble feeding.
Then Amelda began to suffer excruciating pain in her chest. Within 48 hours she was fighting desperately for breath.
Worried doctors carried out a raft of tests: Amelda's heart was functioning at only 5 per cent-15 per cent and she was transferred to the cardiac ward for immediate emergency care.
She had cardiomyopathy – a condition in which the heart becomes enlarged and cannot pump blood as normal. Affecting less than one in 400, cardiomyopathy is life-threatening, often fatal.
'I was terrified and couldn't stop thinking about my babies – what would happen to them if anything happened to me' says Amelda.
Sweet dreams: Lucia, left,and Connor sleep blissfully unaware of their mother's trauma
For Neven, 'terrified' doesn't go close. But he couldn't let on.
'I was never so shocked or so low in my life. I had to be strong for my wife and not let her see how worried I was,' he says.
'We had gone from the huge excitement of our beautiful babies being born, to their mother being moved to the coronary care unit. It was a rollercoaster of emotions. And I know she was terrified but she never complained about anything. All she was worried about was how the babies would be cared for.
'I was devastated and totally freaked out when I heard what was wrong,' he adds.
'But I had to be focused and upbeat when I was with her because I couldn't let her worry about me as well as everything else. Although I don't normally cry very easily, I found myself crying when I left the room. I hated her having to go through so much.
'She was such an inspiration to me. She took everything in her stride, although she was really weak and missed the babies terribly. I was up and down to the baby unit all day long changing, feeding and bathing. The midwives told me they were very impressed, and I'm telling myself they don't just say that to everyone.'
Vows: Amelda and Neven Maguire on their wedding day in 2006
After two long and worrying weeks, the family were finally allowed to go home. Amelda looks amazingly radiant considering her ordeal but she is still resting and on medication.
'When I was discharged last week, my heart was functioning at 33%, which is more than double what it was so I am definitely on the mend,' she says. 'But I will be having regular check-ups and will be on medication for six months to a year. I have to take things very slowly.'
It has been a deeply traumatic start to what has been a long-cherished dream for the couple. Neven, 38, and 37-year-old Amelda met as far back as college in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, where Neven studied cookery and Amelda was on the business management course.
'Amelda and I have been together for over 10 years,' says Neven.
'I had seen her several times at college but I had never spoken to her. Then one night in 2001, I was in a nightclub in Galway with my brother and brother-in-law, having a lad's night out, when I spotted her. It was eight years after we'd left college and I couldn't believe it. Fate brought us together that night, and I took the opportunity to break the ice. We clicked right from the word go and started seeing each other immediately.
'She was working as a book-keeper in Gort. My job at MacNean House meant I was working weekends in Cavan but I had Monday and Tuesday off so I would go to Galway after work on Sunday night and stay with her for the two days. I would cook for her and we would spend time just hanging out and getting to know each other better. Our lives were very busy but we saw each other as much as possible.
'Four years after we started going out, we went for a weekend to Rome. I had it in my head that I would ask her to marry me. One lovely warm night we were down by the Trevi fountain and I bought a rose from a flower seller and presented it to Amelda with a box that had sweets inside saying “marry me”. She said yes straight away and we rang our mothers. There was great excitement over the phone. Mind you, I think they were probably all expecting it.'
A year later, on December 23, 2006, Neven and Amelda were married at the Nuremore Hotel in Co. Monaghan. 'We had a magical wedding there with 350 guests,' says Neven.
'I was thrilled to be married to Amelda but our lives were always so busy. We had always said that we wanted a family and although we work together (Amelda works front of house at MacNean House) and are in the same place a lot of the time, things always seemed to be hectic. So we decided a year or so ago that we would start trying for a baby. When we discovered she was pregnant, we were over the moon.'
And doubly delighted when they discovered it was twins. Neven attributes it to the Maguire genes – he has a twin brother, David.
New man: Neven got a crash course in baby care when Amelda was sick
'It was a bit of a shock to discover I was having twins,' says Amelda. 'We were both thrilled, particularly when we learned at the 20-week scan that we were having a boy and a girl. The pregnancy went fantastically. I didn't have any cravings, apart from ice-lollies for a week or two. I had no real feeling of sickness and only had swollen legs towards the last few weeks. There was nothing to indicate that my heart might have been struggling.
'My due date was Valentine's Day but when I went in for a routine check the week before, my blood pressure was up and it looked like I could develop pre-eclampsia. My doctor decided to keep me in and do a section on February 8. I was a bit nervous on the day but was anxious for our children to be born and couldn't wait to meet them.'
Neven, if anything, was even more emotional.
'I was bursting with excitement,' he says. 'I'm not ashamed to say that I cried in my mother's arms before going in for the delivery. I couldn't believe I would soon be a father. Amelda had her anaesthetic very early in the morning. I was kitted out in all the gear and then she was brought into the theatre. I stayed up the top and held her hand – neither of us could see what was going on and we were fine about that.
I had a very bad pain in my chest. The
doctors said I had pneumonia but would do another X-ray and take some
bloods to make sure there wasn't anything else wrong. They thought I had
a clot on my lung, which I was horrified about. They also said there
was a chance there could be a problem with my heart.
'It all happened really quickly. They began the procedure at 8am, Connor was born at 9.21am, weighing 6lb8oz, and Lucia arrived a minute later, weighing 5lbs10oz. It was a totally amazing experience and kind of surreal because my dad was taken to the same hospital after his car accident 13 years ago. I lost my wonderful father in this hospital but I also became a father here myself so it was happy and sad at the same time. I sent him a silent prayer of thanks when the babies arrived safely.'
Amelda takes up the story.
'The babies were born on Wednesday and Lucia was taken to the neo-natal care unit because she was slow to feed,' remembers Amelda. 'I was exhausted so I slept a lot of that night. The next evening, I couldn't lie back in the bed because I had a very bad cough that really rattled and hurt. I had to stay propped up all night. I could hear myself breathing really heavily.
'On the Friday, I had a chest X-ray and was given a diuretic because there was a build-up of fluid on my chest. I began to feel a bit better but was still really tired, which I assumed was normal.
'But by Sunday, I had a very bad pain in my chest. The doctors said I had pneumonia but would do another X-ray and take some bloods to make sure there wasn't anything else wrong. They thought I had a clot on my lung, which I was horrified about. They also said there was a chance that there could be a problem with my heart.
'I didn't for a minute think that could be possible but when I was wheeled up to the coronary unit for the heart scan, I began to get very scared. How could I have gone from the maternity ward to this in just a couple of days
At work: Neven Maguire is best known as a celebrity chef, but he is a father and a husband too
'Half an hour after the scan, they told me that my heart was only functioning at about 5 per cent-15 per cent of its capacity and I had developed a condition called cardiomyopathy. Although it doesn't happen often, it isn't unheard of during pregnancy when the heart has to work extra hard and becomes swollen.'
Despite her natural fear, the worst aspect for Amelda was being separated from the twins.
'I so wanted to hold them but I had to stay for a couple of days in the coronary care unit while I was given medication to get the situation under control,' she says.
For Neven, who had all the access he wanted to the twins, the terror of losing the love of his life was uppermost. He doesn't think he could have coped without the spontaneous tide of support that came rushing in.
'I have been forced to slow down and spend more time with my family. I
took a full week off work and the restaurant managed perfectly without
me. I also cancelled quite a few cookery demonstrations and everyone
was really understanding.
'Two-and-a-half weeks after Connor and Lucia were born, I was able to take my family home. I can tell you there was nothing more special than the moment we all arrived back. The house was packed with balloons, cards and presents. We have been overwhelmed by the amount of support everyone has given us,' he says.
'All the staff at MacNean House were really worried about Amelda and we have had good wishes come from all over the place. We even had a message from Mary McAleese, who is also the mother of twins. I have been congratulated so many times that I'm beginning to think I produced the babies myself – although I did have a hand in the ingredients,' he laughs.
But the shock of Amelda's illness has changed his outlook on life.
'We all live in a very busy world and are always caught up with silly, petty troubles,' he says.
'When I saw my wife sicker than she has ever been, I realised how precious life is and how important it is to spend time with the people we love the most.
'I have been forced to slow down and spend more time with my family.
'I took a full week off work and the restaurant managed perfectly without me. I also cancelled quite a few cookery demonstrations and everyone was really understanding about it.
'I am very lucky to live only five minutes down the road from the restaurant. That means I get to stay home all day with Amelda and the kids and head over to the kitchen to start work around 5pm.
'I still stay there until about midnight – get the service done and have a chat with the customers before heading back to my family.
'Amelda is very undemanding but she needs to be taken care of at the moment so I am making sure she is eating well – smoothies and porridge for breakfast and lots of meat, fish and vegetables to build up her strength.
'Both our mothers have been fantastic – my own mum, Vera has just recovered from lung cancer – and family and friends are being a great help.
'The babies wake up a lot in the night at the moment and that takes some getting used to, but we are beginning to settle them into a routine.
'For the past few nights they only woke every three hours so, fingers crossed, they will get into a good pattern soon,' he adds.
'No one can ever explain what it's like to be a new parent and although it is hard work, I'm loving every minute of it – particularly after what we have been through to get here.'
At just a month old, Connor and Lucia are already beginning to develop personalities.
'He is a typical laid-back little boy with spiky black hair which makes him look older than he is,' says Amelda.
'He watches his sister all the time as if he is taking care of her. She, on the other hand, will rule the roost.
'She is a little lady already, with long delicate hands and seems more determined than her brother. I am so excited to watch them grow.'
Now she regards the fact that she had twins almost as a miracle: her age and heart condition mean it is unlikely the couple will ever have more children, as Amelda's heart may not be able to cope with the strain of another pregnancy.
She says: 'We probably won't risk having any more children as it could be very dangerous for me to try again. Cardiomyopathy is a serious condition and my heart wouldn't be able to cope with a pregnancy again for quite some time. Time is against me.'
Yet Amelda is resolutely positive about her experiences. 'This is why it is so fantastic to have had twins,' she says. 'If I had only one child, I might be upset at the possibility of not having any more but we feel absolutely blessed with what we have.'
Neven agrees: 'Amelda is such a fabulous person and I am so lucky to have her. Now that we have Connor and Lucia, we are well and truly blessed.'
• Home Chef is broadcast on RT 1 on Thursdays at 8.30pm. Neven's latest recipe book, Neven's Country Living, is available now from shops. More details on www.nevenmaguire.com