“John and I met when I was 16 years old at a music festival known as Big Valley Jamboree. It wasn’t until my 18th birthday we decided to start dating. I knew on our wedding day we were already an infertile couple. John was born with Cystic Fibrosis; it was a 98% chance he did not have a vas deferens (the tube that allows the sperm out). We had already confirmed this with a urologist in 2013. My blood sample was submitted and we were awaiting results on if I was a carrier of the CF gene. If I was a carrier, we would use a sperm donor to conceive.
I was 23 years old and we were already making huge life choices. As much as I said yes to the sperm donor, I knew I wanted to see my husband’s beautiful blue eyes someday staring back at me in the eyes of our own children.
We got lucky and after testing for all known mutations, I was found to not be a carrier. Even knowing this, we had sperm donors still pushed on us. We were told by the doctor when we said we wanted to use John’s sperm, ‘Look where John’s DNA has gotten you guys, wouldn’t you want to try something else?’ John remembers this vividly to this day. But to be honest it also sounded SO much easier than IVF. I was now only 24 years old and John was 29. With encouragement from others and time on our side, we gathered the money ($10,000 and meds were about $1,000) and we took the leap of faith.
With myself not being a carrier of the CF gene, the chances of our children having it were 0.04% but they would be 100% carriers of the gene. We also had switched fertility clinics and were now using the Regional Fertility Clinic in Calgary. Before IVF was even a possibility, we had to see if they could extract sperm from John. They froze him up, inserted the needle, and I sat in the room across from him with a pit in my stomach and prayed they found some swimmers. The first extraction, nothing. The second, viable sperm.
Fast forward to November of 2015. We had just started our IVF cycle. I was put on what is called suprefact and I chose it in a nasal spray (later it became available as an injectable once a day). It had to be put up my nose four times a day at precise times. I started this at the beginning of November and this drug put me into a menopausal state. At the end of November, I started stims. These are injectable needles that helped my ovaries start producing more eggs for the medical team to extract. You also add in the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and antibiotics to make sure you have no infections. By the end of November, after 3 days of stimming, it was time to leave for Calgary to ensure we would be close to the clinic for monitoring of my ovaries and daily blood draws.
The night before the egg retrieval, I spent hours searching the internet looking for anyone who had done this, anything to help me feel less alone. I found it on Instagram and created at the time a secret handle. That IVF community on Instagram knew so much but it was a lot smaller back then and was kept a lot more secretive. I do think though also knowing so little and that naiveness helped a lot. I was scared but I had no idea what everything really meant or other outcomes. I just thought this would work and I did it.
I did the retrieval and we got 19 eggs, 17 mature, and 8 made it to embryos. On my 25th birthday, December 11, 2015, we transferred our first 5AA embryo. Remember that naivety? I thought because I was young, I was good to go this was our take-home baby. We were doing this because of male factor infertility, not mine. I took an at-home pregnancy test 9 days post transfer while on the phone with my best friend. It was negative. To say I was shocked is probably an understatement.
On December 23, my blood draw came back and it was all negative. No Christmas miracle for us. I was angry and I ripped down all the Christmas decorations. I traveled to my best friend’s wedding and I slapped a smile on my face for photos but inside I was dying. Good thing as a society we have learned how to cover up so well, be strong, push forward. So I did. We had to wait three periods before we could try again. I went back on the train immediately. Next time was a frozen transfer so back on the suprefact for a month, add in estrogen, progesterone, antibiotics, and an internal ultrasound to check if the lining was good enough for transfer. This time I had knowledge, I was armed and ready.
On April 25, 2016, we did another transfer. I was extremely aware in trying to do all the other things I had been told might help (these have zero proven fact to work). I wore warm socks, drank pomegranate juice, ate pineapple core, bed rest, McDonald’s fries, and only drank warm things. It was successful, I peed on a stick at 7 days past transfer right in time for Mother’s Day and those precious two pink lines appeared. We were so HAPPY, so excited. Family was told and although we dealt with crippling anxiety this baby would be taken from us the entire pregnancy, she arrived December 28, 2016, and she was our perfect little Briar-Rose Jacqueline Van Happen. We were finally parents!!
From the very start, we had said we just needed one child. We wouldn’t be ‘selfish.’ We thought one was going to be lucky for us. As if because we had issues, we weren’t deserving of more than one child. Or like we were asking the universe for too much. That was how we felt. We are of course deserving of more children! I know that now, but it has taken some serious self-growth to see that. I was happy, though. We had Briar, I had my career and infertility was in the background.
We were just paying the yearly fee to keep our other frozen embryos (6 left) in storage. Briar started to get a bit older and we started talking about a sibling. I was scared. I didn’t want to do it again. I didn’t want to feel the pain if the transfer didn’t work. I didn’t want to have another pregnancy full of anxiety or to be sitting on pins and needles waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was content with just Briar. However, it is not just me in this marriage. I asked John how he would feel if we didn’t have anymore. He of course didn’t want me to have to endure everything again, but I said, ‘Put that aside, if we don’t have more children will you regret that? Or will you resent me for that down the line?’ He said he wanted to try for another. So, we did.
Back on the rollercoaster, we sat. I thought, ‘Okay, I have had a successful pregnancy so my body clearly knows what to do. We will do this next transfer and come November 13, 2019 (John’s 34th birthday), we will be having another baby.’ I did the meds again this time while tending to a busy toddler. I worked full-time and scheduled ultrasounds and alarms to fit the new schedule. We did our transfer in February 2019 and I did it in secret. Work and our family didn’t know we kept it hush-hush. I wanted to surprise everyone with the news of our next baby. I wanted that normalcy of, ‘We’re pregnant and we conceived without anyone being in our bedroom.’
Let me tell you what a HUGE mistake this was. What we were undergoing was not normal, it didn’t feel normal and to think life could be normal around you while enduring this was again naive. I should have been using my support system around me, I should have told my coworkers and boss.
The transfer didn’t work. I blamed myself, I blamed work stress, I blamed my body, I blamed the clinic and my family doctor. I got mad and I held onto that anger to get me through the grief. I again slapped a smile on my face, kept showing up, and trying to do it all. Funny thing about that, when you don’t sit with grief and don’t acknowledge feelings, they have a way of manifesting and coming back. They did. This is the best way I can describe my mental break. I was juggling, all my plates were in the air and one or two might fall now and again but the rest keep juggling. I dropped all the plates. I was just left standing in the middle of the plates on the ground all around me and I had no idea what to do, what to pick back up, what was broken now, and how to even juggle, to begin with. I was left questioning everything about my entire life.
John booked us a last-minute family vacation because I needed time. I took yoga training and I got grounded with myself. We took a good break from trying to conceive again. The signs started pointing though this rollercoaster was done coasting and it was time to get to the big part of the ride again.
We now had five frozen embryos left but they were day 6 embryos. They were of ‘lesser’ quality. Again, big choices needed to be made. If we transferred only one, then our chances of the embryo taking were 35-40%. Transfers cost money, you undergo injections, invasive ultrasounds, and all the hormones. To go in without a 50% chance was discouraging. If we transferred two embryos, we had a 50-55% chance of it being successful but with a 35% chance of it being twins. For us, multiples were not something we wanted. I was terrified of a twin pregnancy, of having twins all of it. We talked and we talked and other people talked with us. We made a firm decision. This would be our LAST shot and we would go all in and transfer two embryos.
A lot of people have asked us, ‘Why is this your last shot when you have three embryos still in storage?’ I was done. From the very start, John and I had made hard lines about how far we would go in this journey. When we knew it was time to stop, we would be honest with each other and we would call it. We were calling it. It had been 7 years of this journey and I needed to know the roller coaster was coming to the end. Then came the hardest transfer yet, this last shot transfer.
I started injections on October 3, 2019. This transfer started off poorly. I went to the pharmacy to collect what I needed. They were out of needles. They informed me they needed to know the exact amount of the drug I needed because I was the only person in 20 years to have ever needed it. They also handed me another bill of $145. I sat in my car, I breathed deep and I cried, this was just my lunch break, so back to work I went. When the time finally came for my lining ultrasound, they found a polyp. Apparently, this polyp had been present in my lining ultrasound in February. They had failed to mention that, both the clinic and the tech, and it had also grown. I got this phone call at work, as many of the phone calls you receive during IVF cycles are. I left work, went home, and again slapped a smile on my face because we had a family supper at a restaurant to attend and there was no time to just wallow in self-pity. The clinic called back at the restaurant saying they don’t want me to stop the drugs. I would keep taking them until I got to Calgary and got another SGH to hopefully see this polyp, which was done by my fertility doctor.
That night, I laid in my bed crying uncontrollably. John came in and he placed his head on my chest and he said, ‘We can stop. I don’t want you to keep doing this. Let’s throw in the towel.’ This fired me up, NO, this was the all-in transfer and I would be damned if I was quitting. I kept taking the injections. I had my third SGH in the course of this journey, no polyp, never was one just a piece of scar tissue from my prior c-section. We went back home and kept the cycle going, added more drugs, and returned to Calgary on December 6, 2019, for the transfer. John and I sat in the parking lot with our hands sweating, so we went for a drive to ease our minds. We were nervous.
He said, ‘So, Tamara, are we really doing this? We could have twins.’ I said, ‘We are really doing this.’ We transferred, checked into a hotel and I slept. I firmly believe after doing four transfers, not traveling, and some small bed rest after the transfer is needed. On my 29th birthday, December 11, 2019, I got those amazing two faint lines. We held our breath for that heartbeat and possibly even two on our dating ultrasound. We heard one strong heartbeat. The pregnancy wasn’t anxious, I knew this take-home baby was ours. He was coming to us and even with a pandemic, this baby boy was completing our family. On August 10, 2020, Beckett-Lee John Van Happen joined us earth-side in perfect health.
I have spoken openly about our journey. I will never forget that night before egg retrieval of my younger self feeling so alone and lost. One of the friends I sat with and talked to about IVF and her pending journey, which was successful, wrote to me, ‘I never could have done it without you.’ Yes, you could have. As a family wanting to grow and a woman wanting motherhood, we will stop at just about nothing for it. The thing is, you do not have to do it alone and you shouldn’t do it alone. We still pay the storage fees for now on our three remaining embryos but we feel complete. While I close this chapter in our book, it’s still a chapter for us. It always will be and rather than ignore it, I embrace it. I talk about it and I will ALWAYS help others like the women who helped me. Those women helped me, pushed me, and encouraged me when I needed it the most. I have them to thank for the two beautiful children I have now. I want to be that woman too.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Tamara Van Happen of Cold Lake, Alberta. You can follow their journey on Instagram and their blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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‘I thought I just had a ‘strong’ pregnancy. ‘You don’t think it’s TWINS, do you?’ Sure enough, we saw two of the most beautiful heartbeats.’: Couple battling infertility welcome twins, ‘It’s a dream come true’
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