I started mentally writing this post three years ago. At that point I imagined we’d be sharing happy news in the very near future. I had no idea that it would take us so long to get here, or that the next three years would bring us so much heartache. But I think it’s important to talk about what we’ve been through. Stories about infertility and loss too often go unspoken, yet 1 in 8 couples struggle with infertility. Infertility can happen to anyone. It happened to us…
In early 2015 when we were both 27, Matt and I decided to start a family. He would be graduating with his PhD that summer, and we felt the time was right. After coming off the pill, I noticed that my body never seemed to get back on track, so I started acupuncture. When that failed to kick start my body, I went to my doctor. Shortly after my 28th birthday, it was recommended that we seek treatment for infertility.
Matt and my mom reassured me that it wasn’t the end of the world; we would probably just need a little bit of help. We got an appointment fairly quickly with a local RE, or reproductive endocrinologist. Tests and bloodwork showed that nothing was wrong with Matt, but that I had PCOS and was, as a result, anovulatory. Our prognosis was very good – I just needed to pop a few pills to force my body to ovulate and nature would take care of the rest. We went through a roller coaster of emotions every month for 4 months on Clomid. Each month without success, our morale became a bit lower, as did our checking account; insurance covers no part of infertility treatment in our state. I was ovulating, but not getting pregnant. My doctor didn’t seem to know why it wasn’t working. We switched to a different drug, Letrozole. Although made to treat breast cancer, it has an off-market use for infertility. We tried that for a few more months. I started to doubt that mother nature knew what she was doing, so we also moved forward with three rounds of IUI (intrauterine insemination). No luck.
I was devastated by the fact that we had exhausted all of the “noninvasive” (ha!) options. The next step was IVF, and I wasn’t ready for it. We decided to take a few months off to think everything through. I also wanted to know if we might be one of those couples who magically gets pregnant as soon as they stop trying. We weren't that lucky. But I did get clarity about our next steps. I wanted to move forward with IVF, but I needed a different RE. The clinic in Atlanta wasn’t the right fit, and other clinics in the Atlanta area seemed to have a similar feel: huge and impersonal.
After doing research, Matt and I had a consultation with an RE in Greenville, SC. It seemed a little crazy to think that we would drive 5 hours roundtrip for every appointment, but we figured it couldn’t hurt to check out their practice. Immediately after our first visit, I told Matt I wanted to move forward right away with IVF in Greenville. The reality, though, was that we needed to find a way to pay the exorbitant cost of the procedure and the drugs upfront with no insurance coverage whatsoever. Already having depleted our savings over the last year of treatment in Atlanta, we decided to open a new credit card to finance the endeavor.
By my 29th birthday, we were well into the stimulation phase of our first round of IVF. Huge boxes of mail-ordered vials, syringes, injectable pens, sharps containers, gauze, and alcohol wipes had been delivered and organized in our kitchen. Despite his phobia of needles, Matt administered multiple injections a day without passing out. My stomach was covered with dozens of tiny bruises, and my lower belly stuck out like a beer gut, but the good news was that my eggs were growing! After about 2 weeks, I was ready for the next step in the process: retrieval. I was put under for the procedure, the description of which sounded pretty horrific. But I made it out of surgery just fine. My ovaries felt achy and hollow, but we were just a few days away from transferring an embryo! The transfer itself was fairly uneventful, but the two weeks after stretched on for an eternity. Then we finally got the news: it had worked. Our very first round of IVF had worked! We were ecstatic. We shared the news with Matt’s parents over the phone as we drove to see my parents. I filmed our “reveal” as we watched my mom open the wrapped box which contained a message that they would be grandparents.
Just a few days later, we got the call that my HCG levels were going down rather than going up. A third blood test confirmed that it was over just as quickly as it had started. The most likely reason for the loss was a chromosomal abnormality of the embryo. Devastated by the news, I insisted we thaw all of our remaining embryos and pay the extra money to PGS test them, which would allow us to find out which ones were normal and which were not. Even with that information, there are no guarantees.
When those test results came back, we were ready to move forward with another transfer using one of our genetically normal embryos. In September of 2016, we transferred a single PGS tested female embryo. Two weeks later, we were again told that we were pregnant. Matt’s parents were in town a few days after that, and of course we planned another reveal. Everyone was thrilled. When my HCG numbers went up fairly normally, I was relieved to have made it further than last time. I thought we were past the biggest hurdle. We scheduled our first ultrasound where we would be able to hear our little girl’s heartbeat from inside my uterus.
The problem, though, was that the baby was not in my uterus. Our pregnancy was ectopic. I was told that I was too far along for a methotrexate shot and I would have to go into emergency surgery that day in Greenville. We were both in shock. I was terrified to go into surgery, to have the baby taken away from me, to have my tube removed. I wasn’t mentally prepared for any of it. When surgery time rolled around, it was almost a relief. At least I got to be unconscious and could stop thinking about it all temporarily.
The next few months would be the hardest of my life. After the chemical pregnancy I was crushed, but I understood that I would eventually be ok. This time I felt, for the very first time, that I would never be happy again. It’s a scary thought to have. I had extreme physical pain for first few days as the meds wore off, which at least distracted me partially from the emotional damage. As I started to heal physically, all that was left was the excruciating emptiness and depression. I went on for a while, silently thinking that I would never really experience happiness again. One day Matt showed me a ridiculous YouTube video of a pig. I surprised both of us when I laughed out loud. I watched it again and laughed so hard that I cried. I must have watched that video a thousand times. Bit by bit, I slowly started to regain the ability to feel happy. I felt a little more like myself.
Matt and I decided to pursue another retrieval, rather than just using the one embryo we had remaining. I figured we should store up a few more embryos to ensure that we could be successful in the future, having already seen firsthand that not every transfer leads to a baby. We decided that the best time for another retrieval was now, while I was as young as possible. In an attempt to get more eggs, we upped my dosage of the meds, which of course increased the cost of medication. We went through the same grueling stimulation process again: twice a day Matt would have to grab a fold of skin on my bruised, swollen belly and administer my shots while I held a vibrating children's ice pack shaped like a bumble bee against my skin. We were hopeful that our results would be even better than the first time, because of our increased dosage. Our gamble didn’t pay off.
We went back and forth constantly about what our next step should be. Around this time, one of my best friends called. She was pregnant. She broke the news in the gentlest way possible. She knew what we’d been through and knew how I would feel. When we hung up, I sobbed so much and so hard that I was gasping for air. It was the closest I’ve ever come to having a panic attack. I was so terribly resentful of her happiness that on top of the already awful things I was feeling, I was also completely disgusted with myself.
Coming off of our unsuccessful retrieval, we took a few months to regroup and started to prep for our third retrieval that summer. We opened another new credit card to cover the cost. Over the past few years, I’d done extensive and obsessive research and after consulting with my doctor, we decided to make some changes to the protocol. I started taking DHEA to help my body produce hormones more effectively. We splurged on a $1,000 vial of Human Growth Hormone to see if it might help with my response to the other meds. In addition to our regular meds, we also added in a new medication made from the urine of postmenopausal women. Yup, you read right. It burned like crazy with every injection.
After the retrieval, our embryos were again biopsied and frozen. The biopsy samples were mailed off to California. Meanwhile in Atlanta, I was starting to have some bad reactions. My stomach became so swollen I looked about 6 months pregnant. Someone actually asked me if I was pregnant. Standing up straight was painful, so I had to hunch over. After a day or two, I agreed to let Matt drive me to Greenville. I was diagnosed with OHSS, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a potential side effect of IVF. My case was apparently mild to moderate and it was determined that there wasn’t quite enough free fluid floating around in my abdominal cavity to drain it. I was in so much pain that I was actually disappointed that my doctor wouldn’t stick a needle into my stomach to drain the fluid. I was given some serious pain meds and an IV to rehydrate the rest of my body.
The OHSS was worth it when we got our PGS results back and finally had some good news. The apparent next step was to move forward with our third transfer. But I couldn’t take the risk of having another false start. Matt and I decided that we would go through the expensive and timely process of an ERA (endometrial receptivity array) test. I went through a mock cycle, taking all the medications necessary to perform a transfer. On the typical day of transfer, instead of having an embryo deposited, I was put under anesthesia so that a little chunk of my uterine lining could be cut out. The sample was sent away for testing that would tell us if my window of implantation was within the normal range.
When the results came back, they showed that I was “early receptive.” I might benefit from an extra 12 hours of progesterone supplementation prior to transfer. With this information, we were ready for our 3rd transfer. But after having to share so much bad news over the last number of years, I told Matt I wanted to keep this next step to ourselves. So we lied to our closest friends and family, telling them that there wasn't enough time to start a new cycle with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays coming up and that we would start back up with treatment in the new year. In reality, I started prepping for the transfer right away. About a month in advance I cut out all sugar, carbs, and dairy to reduce internal inflammation. I picked back up with acupuncture. I stopped working out entirely so that my body wouldn’t be under stress. I started going to sleep as early as possible. We also made some changes to our transfer protocol. I had a mock transfer so that my doctor could better map out the path for the catheter, which would help prevent unnecessary contractions. I requested to double my dose of Valium on transfer day. I listened to guided fertility meditations. Per my acupuncturist's recommendation, I ate only warming foods to increase my "yang." And of course I took the extra 12 hours of progesterone. We transferred 1 embryo on November 14, 2017. And then we waited. I followed the old wives' tale and ate 1/5 of a pineapple every day for 5 days after transfer. We found out until the Monday after Thanksgiving that I was pregnant, and finally shared the news with our parents over Christmas. I’m now 16 weeks along.
Every step of this painful journey has made us that much more thankful for where we are now. We know we wouldn’t be here without the amazing doctors, nurses, and admins at Piedmont Reproductive Endocrinology Group in Greenville, SC. We couldn’t have made it through the last 3 years without our incredible support system of family and friends all over the country. Thank you for listening when we needed to vent, helping us stay positive when it seemed impossible, for loving us even when we were at our lowest points, for knowing when to call and when to give us space, for sending prayers, thoughts, and good vibes for every procedure, and for cheering us along every single step of the way. This process has reminded us how loved we are and how loved this child will be. We could not be more excited to meet Baby Lindale in August!
Photo by Brooke Whitney Photography: http://www.brookewhitneyphotography.com