“In 2017 my husband and I began trying start our family. After a few months of very long and irregular cycles I decided to see my doctor. She confirmed what I had already feared, I had polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS. My doctor reassured me many women still get pregnant naturally with PCOS and there were medications to help with ovulation. She cautioned about using medication for our cycles until my husband was tested, just to be safe. I left feeling hopeful and gave the semen analysis order to my husband.
I shrugged it off as just another box we’d have to check and then we could jump back into our journey of trying to start a family. What I did not expect was the poor results of that analysis would mean we had barely scratched the surface of our infertility journey.
Our journey was put on a short pause as we established a new life in Kansas City after moving from Chicago. I established care with an OBGYN as quickly as I could. My husband was asked to receive another semen analysis. I’ll never forget hearing the results as my doctor said, ‘You will not be able to get pregnant naturally.’ We researched ways to improve sperm count and made a grocery run to stock up on foods the internet promised would boost his count. He cut caffeine and alcohol and stayed away from his laptop. Meanwhile, we called reproductive endocrinologists and set up our first consult.
It was June of 2018. Our consult took about 3 hours as there were many blood draws for both of us, an ultrasound, and the meeting with the doctor. I had never felt so hopeless in my life as we left that day. The doctor told us there was no way we could do IVF. In my husband’s last analysis, he had a total of 12 sperm, 2 of which were motile. A normal sperm count is anywhere above 40 million. Upon reviewing my husband’s first analysis, where the count was 300,000, she ordered one more to see if the second had been a fluke. He was referred to another urologist, the second he had seen, who confirmed there was no diagnosable cause for his condition. No hormonal issues and no structural blockages, just an untreatable problem.
As we left the clinic that day, my head was swimming with grief and pain. Even when we got the news we wouldn’t be able to conceive naturally I had always said, ‘We’ll just do IVF and it will be fine.’ It never crossed my mind we may not even have the opportunity to try IVF. I have always wanted to be a mom and had known it from a very young age. I wanted kids, lots of them, and now that seemed like an impossible reality. What was my future if I couldn’t be a mom? I felt so alone. Everywhere I looked I saw children. No one could say the right thing. Everything stung and felt insensitive. My husband continued to hug me and apologize. It was heartbreaking to hear him apologize for something he could not control. I was so sad for him, for us. I didn’t want him to feel any blame because this was happening to us, not just him. But I did feel so broken-hearted for our future.
My husband’s final analysis came back with good news, 1 million sperm this time. Not enough for a natural pregnancy or an IUI (intrauterine insemination), but enough to move forward with IVF. We would start stimulating injections in late July and shoot for an egg retrieval in August. We received our very expensive box of medications and marveled at the needle lengths. We took an injection class where they had fake bellies and butt cheeks to practice on. Our injections were set to start when my husband had to be out of town and I was extremely anxious about administering the shots.
The night of the first shot, I was totally on my own. I hovered over my pinched abdomen with a needle for a solid five minutes before finally forcing myself to inject the medication. There were a total of three shots to inject each evening, each with unique instructions for mixing and administering. I made myself bleed on the first night but was proud I had given myself the shots.
Over the next two weeks I would go into the clinic every few days for blood draws to monitor my hormone levels and ultrasounds to count and measure the follicles in my ovaries. The first few days were fine but then I started to feel miserable. I could thank my polycystic ovaries for the multitude of growing follicles causing my pain. My ovaries were ‘kissing’ because they were so large and full of follicles. It was determined my follicles were ready for retrieval and a date was set for my surgery. The date just so happened to be my 30th birthday. I was a little bummed but just kept imagining a baby would be the best birthday present I could imagine.
By the day of my surgery I was very uncomfortable. I was ready to have the follicles removed. I needed some relief from the bloating and pain. Not to mention, the HCG trigger shot had left me feeling horribly nauseated. I was getting all the side effects and symptoms of a pregnancy without getting to be pregnant. Before I was wheeled back to surgery, our doctor visited us. She sat down on the hospital bed and grabbed my hand. She told me happy birthday, and then told us, ‘We’re going to have to freeze eggs today. There were no sperm in your husband’s sample this morning, and the frozen back-up vial did not have any surviving sperm in the thaw.’ I looked at her in disbelief, my eyes welling up with tears. My husband put his head in his hands. I don’t remember anything she said after that, I just remember crying. Tears continued to roll down my face as I was wheeled into the OR and put under anesthesia. This was not the birthday present I had hoped for.
When I woke up from surgery, I was told they had retrieved a total of 45 eggs and 37 of them were mature enough to be frozen. They warned me I would not feel well and was at a high risk of Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome or OHSS. I ended up with OHSS and felt miserable for the next 5 days, looking 5 months pregnant overnight from the bloating and swelling in my enlarged ovaries. We scheduled a follow-up consult with our doctor where we made a plan for my husband to provide a sample again and only thaw eggs if there were viable sperm that day. Unfortunately, when you make these decisions they can’t just be done the next day. We were only one couple out of hundreds of others trying to start a family, so we had to wait for an opening in the IVF lab’s calendar to put us on the schedule.
In late September, my doctor called early on the morning of my husband’s collection and said she was so excited to report there were sperm that day! We would receive a call the next day with our fertilization report. This was the closest we had ever been to being pregnant and I was ecstatic. The next day, the embryologist reported 9 out of 10 of our eggs made it out of the thaw and 9 of 9 had fertilized normally. We were so excited with the results. Now we just had to wait to see how many of them made it to day 5 embryos. On day 5 I anxiously awaited the call, only to be met with bad news. ‘I’m sorry but none of your embryos continued to develop past day 3.’ I could not understand why this was happening to us. Why did we get our hopes up just to have them shattered?
We made a plan to try again in November and I started injections to prep for an embryo transfer just in case. Each ultrasound, blood draw, and phone call from the lab I braced myself for more bad news. But somehow, we had made it to embryo stage this time with 3 healthy embryos.
The embryo transfer felt like a blur. It was so surreal. I spent so much time feeling anxious about what could go wrong I never let myself be present in that moment. I was stressed about upcoming travel plans for the holidays and what that might mean for the success of our embryo transfer. I was so stressed I don’t think I ever totally let myself relax. My husband and I walked out of the transfer hand in hand, giddy about the fact we were finally going to be parents. This was going to work, it had to. We had removed all the barriers for the sperm meeting the egg and had implanted a healthy embryo, so now all we had to do was wait for the good news, right?
On December 20th, 5 days before Christmas, I woke up early and went to the lab to have my HCG blood draw. I anxiously awaited the phone call from the clinic. ‘Katie, is now an okay time to talk?’ It was our IVF coordinator. ‘Unfortunately I don’t have very good news. Your HCG level was a 3 and anything under a 5 is considered negative.’ I choked back tears as I asked clarifying questions and thanked her before hanging up the phone and calling my husband. I sobbed as he picked up and he knew immediately it was a no. We had made plans of all the ways I would ‘surprise’ him with a pregnancy announcement. This phone call was not part of our plan.
Christmas was really hard. What was meant to be such a joyful celebration with family was a constant sting of what could have been. My heart ached as I watched my nieces and nephews rip open presents, fresh waves of tears constantly springing to my eyes. I had to excuse myself and sobbed in my childhood bedroom and asked myself if it would ever get any easier.
It didn’t get easier but we kept going. We had two frozen embryos left and we had to try. On February 19th we had our second embryo transfer. The night before the transfer I stood in the shower and put my hands on my belly and gave my uterus a pep talk. I told my body how grateful I was for all it had done for me and I couldn’t wait to see all it was capable of. I told my body how proud I was of it for getting me this far. The next day during our transfer I tried to be as positive and hopeful as possible. I enjoyed Netflix and napping for the next several days as I tried to be relaxed for our little embryos. Then 8 days later I took the day off of work and awaited the phone call. ‘Katie?’ It was our IVF coordinator again. ‘You’re pregnant!’
Since then, things have been an uphill battle, but we’re still gladly moving forward. My anxiety about the pregnancy is constant. We’ve had a few scares in the pregnancy but the important thing is this baby is healthy and growing. As I sit typing this at 22 weeks pregnant, I am so grateful we’ve gotten this far. I am still terrified all the time but I try to counter that by starting every day with being grateful for another day this baby has decided to stick around. I’m grateful for my husband to have been my partner through this and can’t wait to see him as a father.
In June of 2019 it had been one year since we started our IVF path and now a year later we’re waiting for our bundle of joy. Infertility and IVF are not for the faint of heart. The pain of infertility is undeniably the most devastating ache I have ever experienced. It is by far the hardest thing I have ever had to go through, but I am so thankful IVF exists because this beautiful little baby wouldn’t be here without it. This wasn’t a path I ever imagined having to take, but I’m so glad we got the opportunity to take it. For anyone else who is out there on this infertility journey, I see you and sit with you in the roller coaster of emotions. I hope soon you will also have your day where you get to write your own success story.”
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