AS the nurse ran the ultrasound wand over the same spot on her belly for what felt like the millionth time, Millie Cann knew something was wrong with her babies.
Three weeks earlier, the first-time mum – who had always dreamt of having a huge family – was delighted to find out she was expecting identical twins.
As fertility problems run in her family, Millie, 28, and her partner Lewis, 29, feared they wouldn't be able to conceive naturally – but after less than six months of trying, Millie was pregnant.
When she was 10 weeks along in December 2015, Millie, from Surbiton, South West London, attended her first NHS scan with her mum at her local hospital in Kingston.
"My mum and I were chatting and the nurse went really silent," Millie told Fabulous. "She was scanning over the same part again and again. She kept the screen facing her and going over and over it."
Moments later, the nurse left the room to get a second opinion – and Millie's heart dropped.
"I've never felt pure fear like that before," she said. "I had no idea what was going on but I instantly assumed something had happened to both of them."
Confirming one of Millie's worst fears, the nurse then returned with a doctor who told her they suspected one of the twins had anencephaly – a condition where the baby’s brain and spinal cord do not develop properly.
"It’s classed as not compatible with life," Millie said. "I was total in shock. It didn't feel real. My mum was devastated."
The following day, Millie and Lewis had an appointment with a specialist at St George's Hospital in Tooting, South West London who confirmed the sad news and talked them through their options.
The heartbroken couple were told that terminating the baby with anencephaly would put the other twin at huge risk as they shared the same amniotic sac.
"The conversation went no further," the mum recalled. "It wasn’t even discussed, there was no doubt that we would put the other baby at risk. Ever."
From that moment on, Millie says she became almost "robotic" to cope with the tragic news – only ever breaking down in front of Lewis and her closest family.
What should have been one of the happiest times of her life suddenly had a "huge shadow" cast over it – and Millie found it difficult having to explain the heartbreaking situation she found herself in.
She recalled: "I used to say the same thing to every person, ‘I’ve got some news, you need to let me finish everything I’m saying before you say anything.’
"So that they wouldn’t jump in and say ‘oh my god, it’s twins. congratulations!’ I couldn’t bear everyone getting excited about twins.
"Quite a few people said, ‘at least you’ve still got one who is going to survive’ which was the the worst thing you can say to a mum in my situation."
Trying to keep busy, Millie threw herself into her work managing a sales team and began the process of donating the baby's organs.
It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Nothing will compare.
"I didn’t see a lot of people during my pregnancy, I avoided social occasions. I didn’t want to be asked about the babies," she said. "I was the size of a house while I was pregnant and every person I saw would ask, ‘are you sure you’re not carrying twins?’"
Explaining how "robotic" she became, Millie said: "I was just getting by every day. I had my standard answer I would say and I stuck to it.
"I didn’t really divert off into how I was feeling or how I was going to cope. I never went into that. It was always, ‘yeah I’m fine.’"
When she was 20 weeks pregnant, Lewis and Millie decided to name their girls Callie and Syke.
"It was hugely important to still name her Skye. She was born, she survived and she’s grown a legacy now," Mille said. "Callie’s middle name is Rose which is my middle name and Lily is Skye’s which is my best friend’s name. From when we were children, we’d always promised each other that we would name our children after each other. That had been decided from when I was about five."
For five months, Millie lived in fear of the birth – knowing that meeting Callie for the first time would mean saying goodbye to Skye.
Describing how pregnancy was a "bit of a blur", Millie said: "I refused to do any Googling about the condition but the first time I saw her on a scan was a real shock.
"In hindsight, I wish I had joined support groups and found other families like ours to talk to and get experiences from."
On April 29 2015, Millie – who was 30 weeks pregnant at the time – went into labour while she was attending a dinner party with friends.
"I thought I'd wet myself," she said. "But then the contractions started."
What is anencephaly?
Anencephaly is a life-limiting condition in which the brain and spinal cord do not develop properly and large parts of the brain or skull are missing.
It can usually be detected from 11 weeks, but is screened for in the mid-pregnancy scan around 20-weeks. It is found in 0.05% of pregnancies.
There is no treatment for anencephaly and most babies diagnosed with it are stillborn or only live a few days.
Source: NHS and Public Health England
Lewis rushed Millie to nearby Kingston Hospital where she had an emergency C-section – and at 3.58am the following day, they became parents to Callie and Skye.
Although doctors had prepared Lewis and Millie that Skye might only live a matter of minutes, she spent three hours in her parents' arms.
"I would give anything to go back to that day and hold Skye when I've not had a serious operation and hadn't had any sleep for 24 hours," she recalled. "I wish I could have been there, wide awake and fully with it.
"She was 2lb 3oz. She felt small but it didn’t seem strange at the time. It just seemed normal. I never wanted to let her go."
Skye felt small but it didn’t seem strange at the time. It just seemed normal. I never wanted to let her go.
After three hours, Lewis and Millie allowed the midwives to take Skye away -as they decided beforehand they wanted her to be at peace and not kept in the cold cot for days on end.
"It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done," Millie said. "Nothing will ever compare. And nothing is scary to me anymore."
Sadly, Millie and Lewis couldn't donate Skye's organs as she was born too prematurely.
The following day, Lewis took turns between visiting Callie in the ICU while Millie rested – and her parents took a 6am flight home from Portugal to meet their granddaughter.
"I didn't meet Callie until 1am on the 1st May," Millie said. "I remember them wheeling me in to the intensive care unit and looking at all the babies and wondering which was mine.
"I felt very connected to her the first time I held her. She was the cutest thing. She was 2lb 8oz. She was tiny, like the size of my palm."
But not only did Millie have to get to grips with having a baby in intensive care, but she also found herself surrounded by twins and triplets on the ward.
"I wanted everyone to know what had happened but I didn’t want to tell anyone," she said. "The day of Skye’s funeral, we went to see Callie at 7am in suits. And all the other mums were starring at me, I felt like I was being judged because I wouldn’t be sitting with Callie all day."
Despite her best efforts to put on a brave face on the ward, Millie broke down a few days later when a mum-of-twins said she was "lucky" to only have one baby.
"All of the babies on the ward were crying apart from Callie," she recalled. "This mum turned to me and said, ‘it’s so noisy in here – you’re so lucky you don’t have twins.'
"I smiled nicely, put Callie back down in her cot and thought, 'you have absolutely no idea.'
"It was the first time in that neonatal ward that I’d cried. I hadn’t shown any emotion, it was all about keeping strong. I’m not an emotional type person in public, ever.
"But I totally broke down. I couldn’t hold it together. I was an absolute mess. I called my dad and got him to come and pick me up."
When she got home, Millie printed out some purple butterflies and a poster explaining that if the cot had a sticker on it, it meant a baby had lost their sibling.
After putting the sticker on Callie's cot the following day, Millie said the mum who made the comment "looked like she wanted the ground to swallow her up".
She added: "I regret it now on the way I handled that. I don’t think I thought through how they would feel when I did that."
However, she doesn't regret sharing her purple butterfly stickers on Facebook – where itstruck a chord with hundreds of thousands of other people.
In the days that followed, the new mum was inundated with messages from families around the world – which prompted her to set up The Skye High Foundation when Callie came out of intensive care.
Almost five years later, Mille said: "To this day, we still get contacted from families around the world.
"This isn’t going to go away but our butterflies have reached more people than I could ever imagine. They have them in hospitals in Hawaii, California, New York, Texas, Australia, New Zealand as well as the UK."
Every year, Millie and Lewis – who married in 2017 – celebrate Skye Day on 11 May with Callie and their three-year-old son Luca to remember their daughter.
She said: "We always do something special so that Callie’s birthday isn’t thought of as a sad day. I want Callie to enjoy her birthday and that was the day that Skye died. I don’t want that to be brought on Callie so we have separated the two dates.
"We’ve talked about the fact that they were twins, they would have looked exactly the same and that Skye was poorly and she went to heaven. Callie is the nicest, sweetest, funniest little girl."
Now the Skye High foundation is a UK-registered charity, Lewis and Millie and their team of Trustees have big plans for 2021.
Find out more about the Skye High Foundation here.
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