I mentioned that we tried hard to get pregnant but that doesn’t really describe our journey.
Sam and I knew we wanted kids and due to my advancing age ( 37 at the time) we knew there was no time to waste. We tried on our own for six months which was what we were told we should wait before seeking help. It is completely normal that it takes a year to get pregnant but once you hit 35, it is suggested that you reach out to someone after six months. Now for some people it might not be necessary but I’m a neurotic Nancy, and I made an appointment as soon as I could!
I should be clear, during that six months time, I was able to get pregnant but I had two chemical pregnancies. A chemical pregnancy is essentially an early miscarriage. Your body recognizes that the embryo is not viable and will end it. This is not uncommon and many women are unaware that they may be pregnant as it may feel like a bad menstrual cycle and may happen around the time that your period is expected or shortly after.
The first time it happened, I had taken a pregnancy test and it had shown that I was pregnant but about two days later I had a heavy flow. I prayed that it was just spotting even though I knew it wasn’t. I had only been about 4 weeks pregnant ( pregnancy is counted from the day of your last period, weird, I know). It was super upsetting and I think really messed with my hormones.
The second time I had a chemical pregnancy was heartbreaking. It had been six weeks so we allowed ourselves to get excited. We were heading out to Sam’s parents house on the farm, with my parents coming to join us. We knew it was still very early, but with all of the family surrounding us, we decided we would tell them the happy news. We were all set to go, and that morning I got up to use the bathroom. There it was. Blood. I cried like a baby while we drove in the car. The Obstetrician’s office wasn’t open yet. We left a message and drove for about an hour before the Dr. called us back. They wanted us to come in to the office. So we drove an hour back the way we came and did a sonogram. Nothing could be seen, we had lost the pregnancy. So insult to injury, after driving over two hours, we were right back where we started.
That trip was hard and I definitely felt fragile, but it felt good to be surrounded by loved ones where I eventually told them what had happened. They of course shared hugs and gave lots of solace.
After that, we began to see a fertility specialist. We found a great office called Texas Fertility Center that several friends recommended to me. We were placed with a wonderful experienced gentleman named Dr. Vaughn. Dr. Vaughn and his nurses sure know their stuff!
At first, we spent a lot of time doing testing. Lots and lots of testing! There were blood tests (FSH) (AMH) (TSH), genetics tests, x-rays (HSG), sonograms, semen analysis and more.
There was nothing that really stood out as wrong. In fact we had what is called “Unexplained Infertility.” As you can imagine, that diagnosis is extremely frustrating. It’s hard to find a solution when you don’t know what the problem is.
Our first step was to try IUI. It stands for Intrauterine Insemination. Essentially the clinical version of the turkey baster! Of course there were medications to take and the semen was washed and a tube was used, not a baster, but you get the idea.
Once again we had a chemical pregnancy. Ugh.
We decided to have a conference with the doctor. We told him it was a third chemical pregnancy. He explained that my eggs were getting older, and that was the reason that the embryos were being rejected by my body. We could continue trying IUIs, but our chances were low so the next best step was IVF.
IVF. In Vitro Fertilization. Many people have many thoughts on the process. Some don’t like it because they feel it is unnatural due to the medications used or because of religious beliefs. Others don’t like it because it is a long process and/or expensive. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. For us, it was the right move.
Before we began the process, we decided to take two months off to get our heads in the right place and our bodies in shape. I would like to say I lost weight, but I didn’t 😞 during this time. It was a goal, but we did go on many long walks in the park and do a lot of talking. It allowed a little time to relax and not be so stressed out. Having had three chemical pregnancies, a canceled wedding and a canceled honeymoon due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, you can imagine the sense of frustration and fear we were feeling.
After those two months, we went back to Dr. Vaughn and got the ball rolling. And by that I mean do nothing while I take birth control for six weeks. This helps the eggs to develop at the same time and retrieve more follicles. Once we finished with birth control, we began doing home ovulation tests to figure out the best times and days to begin taking medications. Every day, twice a day, there were multiple shots that had to be taken. Some, my husband gave to me, others I had to give to myself. Watch the instruction video, unwrap the needles, keep the medications organized, gently mix, don’t shake the drugs that needed to combined, get the bubbles out, clean the arm, leg or stomach, and then slowly release the medication in to the body part. Press the area with a sterile bandage to stop the bleeding, put the used needle in to a box and voila! Do the whole thing over again later in the day or in the morning.
This continued for about 12 days until it was time for surgery. Ready for implantation? Just kidding! You did all those drugs so you could create follicles. Follicles are what your body produces each month for your period. The shots help to induce more follicles to come out at once. On the day of surgery, your doctor will basically go in with a tiny vacuum and suck up all the follicles.
My sister had warned me that it was basically the Hunger Games after the surgery. By this I mean a process of attrition. The doctor was able to retrieve 17 follicles, which sounded great. But from those 17, they were only able to get 12 eggs. Ok, 12 isn’t bad! The eggs are transferred directly from surgery to a lab. They also collected semen from the hubby. Once at the lab, things continued to decline. When mixed with sperm, only 5 eggs combined to create embryos. Although some doctors and labs will agree to freeze the embryos after three days of growth, it was agreed to give the embryos five days in order to choose the ones with the best chances of survival. After 5 days, we had 2 viable embryos. Wow.
For those of you wondering, is it good? Is it bad? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Do I have friends who have come away with more viable embryos? Yes. But do I also know people who have had less? Also yes. Two isn’t a big number, but it is all we need. There are lots of people who aren’t successful on the first round of IVF, who struggle emotionally, physically and monetarily going through multiple rounds or who give up and start looking for alternative options. So I feel pretty blessed that it worked for us on the first round.
So that was the egg harvesting process. It doesn’t end there however. I think the absolutely worst part of IVF was the recuperation from the egg retrieval. Because they removed so many follicles, it was particularly painful. Your body works hard to mend itself after such an event. Your stomach is crazy bloated, you feel exhausted, nauseous, have cramps, and need to have a liquid diet for a few days. I would say it was a solid week before I felt better.
Before our embryos were frozen, small sample were sent off to be tested for genetics. They were checked for things like common diseases and an extra chromosome ( which would indicate certain types of Down Syndrome which is more prevalent in “ advanced maternal age”). The results came back, everything looked healthy! Not only that, but we also found out the sex! Maybe I’ll share that in another post 😉.
At the beginning of the next month, we began doing shots all over again. Twice a day for about 10 days, still checking my ovulation levels. When visiting the doctor, he advised us to do an ERA. An ERA stands for Endometrial Receptivity Array. It is basically a trial run for the implantation process. We take all the drugs at the estimated time that will create an optimal implantation but instead of implanting an embryo, they take a sample of the lining of the uterus. It will test to make sure that the timing is correct. We were disappointed of course, because it meant putting off implantation by another month, but since we had limited embryos, he didn’t want to take any chances. And he was so right! It turned out that we had to change the timing by about 12 hours.
So the month went by and then we started the process again at the beginning of the next one. More drugs! I have to say, it definitely played with my hormones and possibly my emotions ( my husband claims, no. Smart man). It was an exhausting and stressful process, always worried you might mess something up, but the fertility clinic team ( the doctor, the nurses, the on-call nurse) were so supportive and helpful all the way through.
At last! The day had arrived! We got to the surgical center around 5am. I changed in to my gown, the footies socks, and a hair net, it was a beautiful sight, haha. I got in to a bed and several people came in to walk me through the process and explain next steps. Around 7 am, they rolled me in to surgical room. Sam, my husband was there with me. They put me in to a chair similar to what you lay in for a Pap smear. Except I was surrounded by nurses and there was a giant tv screen in front of me.
We had an FET or Frozen Embryo Transfer done, so on the tv monitor, in another room, we watched as a tube was removed and we had to verify it had our information on it. Then it was brought in to our room where it was verified again. Then we watched on a monitor as a tiny air bubble was transferred to my uterus. The embryo is actually so small that even magnified it is invisible to the naked eye so an air bubble is intentionally placed near it in order to tell where it is . Crazy!
Some studies showed that after an implantation procedure walking back to the patient room yielded better success rates, so with the doctor waking behind me holding my gown closed, I walked back to my room! Then came the BIG WAIT. Nine days of waiting on pins and needles. On the ninth day I went and did a blood test and waited for a call from the doctor.
We’re pregnant!!!!! Now of course because it was so early, we tried not to get too excited. We had been down this road before only to get disappointed. We were cautiously optimistic. I continued to take medications for my metabolism, my hormones, and progesterone while going in to check my HCG levels every few day. Everything continued to be positive and I have slowly weened off of most of the medications that were used to support my pregnancy in the beginning.
Having made it half way through the second trimester we are over the moon!
If you’re asking yourself why I have explained all this, it is for all women out there who struggle to get pregnant to understand my experience as well as for those who currently are going through the same thing. Fertility struggles are so common and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. We need to normalize them by talking about it. We can take away the shame and stigma of pregnancy struggles if we talk about them and share our stories.