My story is not a short one, but in honor of October being National Miscarriage and Infant Loss awareness month I thought I would share the whole thing. If one woman reading this feels less alone in her journey, it will be worth it.
I always knew in the back of my mind that I would need help getting pregnant. When I was 21 I was diagnosed with Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) which, at the time, was a pretty rare condition. It is now getting more and more awareness by patients and doctors, so more and more women are at least being told what is wrong with them. There really isn’t too much that can be done at this point, but just knowing there is a reason for all of the horrible side effects that come along with this condition is a start.
My first indication that I had anything abnormal was a single black hair that started growing on my chin when I was in college. I started tweezing it, which was easy enough but slowly the hairs multiplied. And then my period would occasionally skip a month…or two…when I missed six I knew it was time to talk to the doctor. I had several doctors tell me that they just didn’t know. A dermatologist told me that the hair growth was because I was just “unlucky”.
Eventually I did find a gynecologist who immediately recognized the symptoms and gave me a diagnosis that explained the hair growth, missed periods and weight gain I had recently been experiencing. Other side effects of PCOS including hair loss and infertility would remain to be seen if they developed in me, but were very common in PCOS patients.
My cycles were put back on schedule with birth control pills and I started taking metformin, a diabetes drug, for the weight gain and to help with staying regular. Turns out PCOS patients also have insulin resistance issues (which also is a factor in the weight gain). Things were OK for a long time.
After a great first year of marriage we started talking about babies. I figured that it would be a struggle for us because the odds were stacked against us to begin with from PCOS. We started trying, rather we stopped preventing, in April 2008. I set out to find a reproductive endocrinologist, or fertility specialist, in my insurance plan and made an appointment. Usually doctors say to try for at least 6 months to a year before getting concerned, but again, I just knew that we would need assistance so I figured I would skip the middleman.
The day of our first meeting with the doctor in late June 2008 I started getting bad cramps and I figured my period was coming. Over the next week the pain in my lower abdomen grew more and more intense; it felt like there was a giant gas bubble in my lower left section- and nothing helped it. There were times I could barely walk, but I figured it was my period coming because there was some blood. At a follow up ultrasound appointment with the fertility doctor a week later I mentioned it and she took some blood to test for pregnancy just in case. A few hours later I got the call that I was indeed pregnant… but the pain and her ultrasound results from that day lead to a not-so-great conclusion. She did not see an embryo during the ultrasound, which meant that it must be a tubal or ectopic pregnancy. I was told I had to get to the hospital for emergency surgery to remove it. The silver lining in it all was that this meant I had gotten pregnant, on my own, in May 2008 after only trying for 1 month.
My husband took me to the hospital where the doctor brought me into surgery and a few hours later I was home. It was a tough recovery, with a lot of pain and requiring a lot of rest. I was just so grateful that I had only found out I was pregnant that day, at the same time I found out that it would be removed. I never had a chance to get excited or attached to the idea, so it wasn’t as big of a loss as it could have been. Also, the doctor was able to repair the tube it was in, so my chances of getting pregnant in the future were not diminished at all. She said had the tube been damaged beyond repair, my chances would only decrease by a few percent anyway. Apparently, the body adjusts.
We were instructed to take the next month off of trying for recovery and we decided to get right back at it in August. In September 2008, I became pregnant again, and because I was monitoring it very closely and I knew immediately, I was able to work with the doctors and nine (or so!) months later we had a beautiful, healthy baby girl.
Fast forward… we decided 2 years was a good space and in November 2010 we started not preventing pregnancy again. I figured I would start keeping track of ovulation and everything in the new year, which I did. I have never really trusted the ovulation predictor kits; because of my skewed hormone levels from the PCOS I can never count on them 100% to be accurate. In mid-January, I had what seemed to be a relatively normal period… but, on February 18, 2011, I was once again awoken by an intense pain in my lower left abdomen.
I knew right away exactly what it was, or at least what I had a horrible feeling what it was. I tried to go back to sleep but the pain was just so intense that I finally got back up and knew what I had to do – the lines on the pregnancy test showed up almost immediately and my worst fears were confirmed.
Somehow I got Anna to my parents and got myself to my doctors and ended up in emergency surgery for 6 hours. I spent 5 days in the hospital after that. I was told that my left tube (where this pregnancy had been, again) was not able to be saved this time, and emergency repairs were made to my right tube, which was discovered mid-surgery to be disconnected for unknown reasons. But I still had hope I would still be able to conceive naturally.
Three months of recovery later, I had a test done to see if that right tube was indeed repaired and it was not. It was blocked by scar tissue. I could not believe it. I had always had a positive attitude about the entire situation because I figured it would all work out OK, it had to…why wouldn’t it? Haven’t I been through enough already? This left IVF as our only option.
After a brief time of letting this all sink in, I set out to find a doctor who we wanted to work with on the IVF procedure. Infertility is one of those things that once you start talking about it out loud, people just come out of the woodwork with their similar stories. It turned out that my close friend, my mom’s best friend’s daughter, and a new friend I had just met had all gone to the same doctor for IVF with success. I made the appointment and he told me right off that there is only one path I would be taking in his office. A lot of women who come in with unexplained infertility go through several rounds of less invasive treatments before resolving to IVF, but I had no options.
Simply put, IVF is quite a process; there are a lot of different medicines (mostly injectable – yikes!) and timing is pretty critical. We got everything scheduled and coordinated and it was December when our opportunity arrived. I first had to go through a retrieval surgery where my eggs were harvested. I had been on medication that made my ovaries develop extra follicles to mature extra eggs for that cycle. The doctor was able to go in and grab all the follicles that looked good and hopefully had good eggs growing inside of them. Then they would be fertilized and the ones that make it past that stage would be allowed to start developing. If everything went according to plan, about 5 days later, they would be put back inside of me.
Well, they were able to retrieve 14 eggs and they set them overnight to fertilize. We found out later that they actually put 50,000 sperm with each egg when in the human body the ratio is more like 1,000:1! But despite those more than “ideal” conditions we found out the next morning that none of our eggs had fertilized… NONE! I never ever expected to hear that. We were not going through this process because we have any actual issue with fertility, just the physical act of the egg getting where it needs to be. All three times I was pregnant it was on the first try – we shouldn’t have an issue here and I never thought we would in a million years. But, we did. In fact, the doctor later told us usually there are hundreds of sperm all over all of the eggs and we had zero. Epic fail.
The Doctor said the sperm looked great, were fantastic quality and the eggs were all really strong, too. He had no idea why this happened and said it is very rare even for people with fertility problems that none attach at all. Well, that was pretty devastating, I had always been extremely positive and was confident everything would go well on our first try. I was more worried about it going TOO well and ending up octomom or something (OK, maybe not that worried).
They decided to go ahead with a procedure called “Second Day ICSI” where they will pick out the best looking sperm and actually inject them right into the eggs to kind of ‘force’ fertilization. Usually when ICSI is done, the couple is expecting to have an issue and it is done right away, waiting until the second day to do is pretty rare and, unfortunately, pretty unsuccessful. I was honestly expecting them to call the next day and say that it didn’t work.
They did call the next day, but they had better news than I anticipated. Of the 10 eggs they did the procedure on, 3 of them had developed into embryos. Because there were only 3 they wanted to implant them right away instead of waiting to see how many make it to the blastocyst (5-day development) stage. They set our implant up for the next morning. As I’m sure you have noticed, the numbers were not on our side, we went from 14 eggs, to 13, to 10, to 3 and by the time we got to the surgical center Friday morning there were 2 good embryos left to put in. So, we put them both in!
I spent a few days on bed rest after that but I never really got my hopes up. Not long later, it was confirmed after a blood draw – it didn’t work. I wasn’t pregnant. It was sad, but I never once thought it was over. I knew I was going to be pregnant again, we would just have to give it another try.
We did start the process again about 5 months later and this time after the egg retrieval we found out that they had gotten 32 eggs! That was a huge jump from the 14 of the first round. 16 of those were mature and 10 of those successfully fertilized. They used the ISCI procedure to manually fertilize the eggs right away after what happened last time. Two of the embryos that made it to the 5-day mark were implanted and I couldn’t be more happy to report that one of them stuck. I had a great pregnancy and at 37 weeks from that day, we welcomed our perfectly healthy son into the world.
I know not everyone has a happy ending to their infertility story, but I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and in the time that is was meant to. Unfortunately, infertility and miscarriage is still a very taboo topic in our culture and many women who have problems feel alone and even worse, blame themselves. I want to get my story out to let those women know you are not alone, you did nothing wrong, there is no reason not to talk about what you have been through and most importantly, there is hope.