20 September 2022

*Story contains a photo of twins that have died*

I set off on a one-way flight to Porto in June 2022 with an ambition to walk the Portuguese route of the Camino de Santiago. It's something I’d thought about doing over the years, but never seemed to find the motivation for the challenge. But ever since my identical twin boys, Ruaidhrí and Tadhg, passed away last year, thoughts of the Camino niggled like a stone in my shoe.

I conceived my sons via IVF as I am single. It was a huge shock to hear two heartbeats at the 6-week scan, as I discovered my one and only embryo had split. And so, my pregnancy continued with a mixture of excitement and fear as I grappled with the idea of being a single mother of twin boys! Joining Twins Trust was an eye-opening experience as I learned about the risks of my MCDA pregnancy. It was thanks to their maternity checklist that I had the confidence to challenge my maternity care and get put onto the correct treatment pathway – finally triggering bi-weekly scans.

It was at one of these regular scans at 20 weeks that I started showing symptoms of TTTS. It escalated very quickly and both boys were at imminent risk of death. I had the laser surgery, which was successful, and was sent home for the long wait ‘til the next scan. Tragically, I ended up back in hospital the following day in excruciating pain – only to discover my bowel had accidentally been perforated during the laser surgery. I was told that the boys were unlikely to survive the emergency surgery to repair my bowel, but that I would certainly die if they didn’t proceed. I honestly thought we were all going to die that night.

Miraculously we all survived – the boys were kicking the heads of each other as usual, and despite the tubes and bags from every orifice, my bowel had been repaired, mercifully without being left with a colostomy bag. After a few days in intensive care, I was due to be transferred to the surgical ward when the fetal medicine consultant discovered my cervix had shortened. I was scheduled for a cerclage the following morning but sadly, my waters broke that night. I was left with another impossible decision – trying to keep the boys in as long as possible but risk sepsis which could kill us all, or induce them knowing they would not intervene medically at 21 weeks. Now as I sit here in my full physical health, knowing now what I know about viability at 22 weeks, I’d have taken that chance of a few extra days. But then, I was so sick and scared – I took the doctors' guidance and started the process. It’s a decision that will plague me forever.

My beautiful warrior sons were born 17 minutes apart on the 25th August – both alive despite having been told that they would be born sleeping. Ruaidhrí was first out, squirming and trying to cry with tiny noises, while Tadhg made his presence known by arriving bum first and peeing on the midwife. I think he was protesting his older brother’s eagerness to meet me! They spent about 90 minutes together on my chest before Tadhg took his last breath, followed by his older brother shortly after. It was the best and the worst time of my life – to finally become a mother but have to say goodbye so soon.  

Photos of Ruaidhrí and Tadhg

The path to physical recovery took about four months….but the emotional, psychological and spiritual journey still feels relentless. There are so many conflicting emotions – gratitude for still being alive and feeling eternally grateful for the people and charities who’ve helped me along the way, but at the same time feeling so completely lost, hopeless and without purpose every day.

And so, a bit like Forrest Gump, I decided one day it was time to take a walk. I was completely unfit and unprepared, having decided a week before boarding my one-way flight to Porto, with brand new hiking shoes and a backpack full of stuff from some random packing list I found online. I had zero confidence that I would last more than three days, and I didn’t really tell many people for fear of failure. My hope was to do a bit of it and hopefully collect a couple hundred quid. I surprised myself and everyone that knew me!

Fifteen days of walking later (with an additional three rest days when I got a bad cold), I arrived in Santiago de Compostela just in time for the midday pilgrim mass. I’d walked 265km mapped from hostel door to door (a total daily step count of 290km) from Porto in Portugal along the coast, inland along the Minho River and crossing the boarder into Spain at Tui. I even added extra days by taking the longer Spiritual Variant to avoid the crowds of the busy last 100km into Santiago. I slept mostly in hostel dorms, swapping intel on the day ahead and discussing each other’s planned routes as we tended to our blisters. Each day began earlier than the last as the July heatwave took hold across Spain. I fell into an easy routine which was comforting in its simplicity – all I had to do each morning was to get up, pull on my hiking gear and go follow the yellow arrows north. I walked alone for many days, but also walked with other ‘Peregrinos’ – some days walking with someone I’d met the night before in the hostel, others I stumbled across along the way. I met people from all walks of life, cultures and creeds – each conversation invariably beginning with the question, "So….what brings you to walk the Camino?"

Claire Horgan

Everyone I met had their reason for being there, and it was the first place outside my baby loss groups where I felt a sense of belonging and easy companionship. I could talk as much or as little as I wanted about the boys – and some days I talked for hours to complete strangers who listened harder than any therapist. I heard stories of abuse, addictions and struggle. But I also heard messages of hope, faith and human resilience - and experienced so much kindness. Every day I’d hear people using the phrase ‘the Camino provides’ and I’d hope my pain would miraculously disappear. It didn’t, but the Camino provided plenty of things I didn’t know I needed. I’d lost so much confidence in my ability to do anything and I was anxious all the time. I had the attention span of a flea and the memory of Dora from Finding Nemo. The Camino gave me some of ‘me’ back; just putting one foot in front of the other stilled the constant stress response I found myself in since life fell apart. As each kilometre  passed, I gained a bit of self-belief that maybe I could finish something. I found crumbs of joy with the simple pleasures of sharing a meal with my Camino family or the sigh of relief in taking my blistered feet out of my hiking shoes at the end of the day.

Names in the sand

It gave me a purpose. I walked to honour my warrior sons – for all the steps they would never take in this life, they motivated me to walk a little more, speak their names and to share their story. I walked in memory of all the other angel babies in my Twins Trust BSG – I carried their names on my shirt so pilgrims from all over the world would ask about them and pray for them as we walked. I walked to give thanks because, even before the Camino provided, the universe sent me the kindness of strangers and the help of charities I never knew I needed. It fills me with great pride to say I raised over £5200 from walking the ancient way of St. James, with all monies raised going to Twins Trust, Remember my Baby and 4Louis. I just wish this next part of my journey had some yellow arrows so I knew where to go next, but I know that Ruaidhrí and Tadhg will be nudging me in the right direction.

Claire Horgan's t-shirt

Read more about Claire's Camino story and make a donation here.