From Welwyn Garden City to Colorado: The long-distance fiancées fundraising for a UK visa

Selfie of two smiling girlfriends one with blonde hair and one with ginger hair tied back.

"Every time we have to depart it gets harder." - Credit: Megan Burkholder

"Just because someone's disabled doesn't mean that they don’t deserve to be with their partner," Fern Mackay says. 

Fern, 22, has rheumatoid arthritis and hypermobility syndrome - chronic, disabling conditions that mean she is in pain every day and is unable to work full-time. She is studying 2D animation at The University of Hertfordshire.

Fern was born and raised in Welwyn Garden City, but her soulmate Megan Burkholder, also 22, lives more than 4,700 miles away, surrounded by mountains in the "middle of nowhere" in Colorado, USA. 

Fern and Megan met online when they were 16. Both artists with blogs, Megan sent a message to Fern saying that she loved her art. Texting led to Skyping and "the rest is history".

"We haven't stopped talking on Facebook for six years. I think we should get some sort of award."

"We haven't stopped talking on Facebook for six years. I think we should get some sort of award." - Credit: Megan Burkholder

After two years of virtual dating, they finally met each other in person. Fern was working at Waterstones and she saved up enough money to buy Megan a plane ticket. After a four hour drive to the airport and a ten-hour direct flight to London, Megan came to Welwyn Garen City for two weeks.  

They are experienced in the long-distance relationship, but the goodbyes never get any easier. 

Fern explains: "Every time we have to depart it gets harder.

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"It's awful having to leave your partner at the airport alone. Going back on the plane when you've been together for a month and then having to say goodbye again. Not knowing when you're going to see each other.

"We get really upset and cry. It's hard. It's heartbreaking. So that's why we're at that point where we want to live together."

Megan decided she wanted to move to Welwyn Garden City, as Fern is still studying and it would be difficult for her to live in the States with her illnesses.

Fern proposed to Megan in Hampstead Heath, north London. "I found a nice little clearing and it was all green and lovely. I gave her the ring and she cried," Fern recalls.

Fern proposed to Megan in Hampstead Heath over the summer.

Fern proposed to Megan in Hampstead Heath over the summer. - Credit: Megan Burkholder

They hope to get Megan a marriage visa so she can come to the UK and become a citizen in five years' time. 

"But visas are very expensive. It wouldn't have been a problem if both of us were working full-time," Fern says.

It costs £1,500 to apply for a spouse visa and they need to have an annual income of £18,300 in total. Megan works as a special needs assistant in a school but her salary doesn't meet the threshold. 

Because of Fern's arthritis, she is unable to work. The condition is misunderstood by most people, Fern explains. 

Rheumatoid arthritis affects every single joint in the body. Fern's immune system attacks her joints thinking they are foreign objects. They become red, swollen and achy. If not controlled, she will need joint replacements.

Some days Fern has to use a walking stick to move around. Other days, she can't get out of bed.

She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was nine. To get it as a child can be debilitating as it stunts your growth. Fern's hands, knees and fingers are deformed and don't work properly. 

On top of this, her hypermobility syndrome means that her joints dislocate easily. The sides of her jaw have been "out of place" for two years. "I can't yawn as it hurts too much," Fern says.

"It's hard not knowing what will happen in the future. Whether I'm going to be in a wheelchair or have a knee replacement at 30. It's really hard to accept and talk about sometimes."

Putting money on the table is difficult when you can't use your body. So Fern and Megan set up a GoFundMe to fundraise for their visa and wedding. With marriage fees, visas costs and travel expenses, including the transportation of Megan's chihuahua, they are hoping to raise £22,500. 

At the moment, Fern's rheumatoid arthritis is getting worse. "I've gotten to the point where I've just accepted that I'll be in pain every day. But it means I have to get things done now, before it's too late."

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