‘We want to donate 2 embryos to you!’ They became family. They gave us another chance.’: Couple trying to conceive for 7 years try donor embryos

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Disclaimer: This story mentions infertility and may be triggering to some.

“Have you ever stepped back and taken a look at where you’re at in life? What you’ve gone through thus far? Is it what you expected? Is it what you had hoped for? I find myself doing this often, now that my husband and I are entering our seventh year of trying to conceive. I’m 32, almost 33, and childless. Would I have ever thought that this is how my story would unfold? Never in a million years.

I was born to be a mom. From the moment that I could carry a baby doll, my mother said that I would never put them down. Always wanting to ‘play house’. I am the youngest of three children, so I never had the experience of having a baby sister or brother. But you better believe when I visited my friend’s homes with baby siblings, that was the first thing I wanted to do when I got there: hold the baby!

Fast forward thirty-some years later, and I’m still longing for that baby to hold. My husband, Tom, and I grew up together in a small-town south of Detroit, Michigan. We went to all of the same schools. Played in the same little league teams. We’re friends with the same people. There was always some sort of connection between the two of us. We went on a date the summer of 2010 and the rest was history. We moved in together by the summer of 2011, and were engaged by the fall. He was the calm to my storm. The chill to my pill. He gave me butterflies (and still does). I knew he was the one.

man and women smiling
Courtesy of Michelle Pawelski

After getting married and moving to Houston together, we had started bringing up the idea of trying to conceive. We were ready for a baby! However, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) in my late teens, so I knew this may not happen easily for us. I didn’t even get my first period until I was 14, and would only get them four or five times a year at the most. Even before the diagnosis, I just had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that becoming a mom was going to be a hard task. So, trying to track my periods and when I was ovulating was a dissatisfying task. No matter when I used the ovulation tests, I always tested positive. We would try, and shortly after experience the heartache of a negative pregnancy test: a heartache we have learned to deal with too frequently.

After a year had passed and we still weren’t pregnant, we knew that we may need some guidance and help. I saw my new OB/GYN who ordered blood tests and ultrasounds for us, thus starting the beginning of our journey to parenthood through guided science. It was around this time that we realized that we were not happy living in Houston, and that we missed Michigan. We packed up our apartment and headed back to the great North. Doctors were put on the back burner as we tried to organize our new life and jobs. Things were looking up for me when I accepted a job at the University of Michigan in their emergency department as a nurse. It was this job that allowed us to even have the chance at IVF.

Our previous doctor suggested Tom have a semen analysis done. I can remember the disappointment in his face when we learned that his sperm count was abnormally low. With this new information, it was as if he was taking all of the blame for our struggle. I quickly reminded him that we were in this together. It’s not his fault. It’s not my fault. We were given an unfortunate combination of diagnoses, but we were not going to let it stop us! We will have a family together, no matter what.

We had to see a urologist to try to get answers as to why his count was so low. After his physical exam, they were able to tell us that he had bilateral varicoceles (a collection of blood vessels in his testicles) that could potentially be the cause of the low count. We scheduled a date for surgery in an attempt to fix them. I remember feeling so helpless and selfish asking him to have to undergo such an invasive surgery. I went back and forth on the idea of whether or not this was the right thing to do. In an instant before I could even express my concern or doubt, he immediately agreed to it. ‘If this is what we have to do to have our family, then this is what we will do.’ We were in it together, 100%.

Tom had his surgery and, well, nothing changed. We were devastated. It was then that the urologist and OB/GYN told us that if we wanted to conceive between the two of us, our only option was IVF. Insert dollar signs, fear, shock, uncertainty, and did I mention fear? IVF? What even is IVF? Do we know anyone whose gone through it? No one talks about this. Where do we go from here? It felt like we were the only people standing in the middle of a huge crowd, naked… and everyone staring at us. We were embarrassed. We were ashamed. But we shouldn’t have felt that way! Little did we know there was an entire community out there going through the same thing that we were about to endure.

So, we dove right in. Blood draws. Ultrasounds. Consults. Semen analysis. Blood draws. Ultrasounds. Consults. Semen analysis. And then insert the medications. Man, we did not know what to expect going into our first round of stimulation! I searched Facebook and group chats online to try and get a better idea of what was going to happen, but, in all honesty, I don’t think anything can prepare you for IVF. Maybe for the physical part of it all, but the mental game? No way. I think the best way to explain it is to picture yourself on a rollercoaster. A series of high high’s and the lowest of lows at the slowest yet fastest speed.

Thousands of dollars later, we had our first retrieval. They had ‘gone easy’ on my medications in fear of stimulating my polycystic ovaries too much and putting me into Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome. Well, they went a little too easy because they only were able to retrieve three eggs. We were upset but optimistic, seeing that this was our first rodeo. After retrieval, you wait five days or so and get updates regarding how the sperm/eggs are doing, how many are forming, and if they are on the right path to becoming an embryo, etc. Insert our first call from the clinic with heartbreaking news… ‘None of them made it. We are so sorry.’ We cried. We hugged. But we were readier then ever to go again. Couples rarely get pregnant their first round, right?! That’s what everyone told us. Onto stimulation round two. Ding Ding.

Round two was a bit luckier. We were able to get over ten eggs retrieved and quickly learned three of them made it all the way to day five and were of good quality! We did it! We made it to the transfer phase. A transfer is when the doctor inserts the embryo into your uterus to make you ‘pregnant until proven otherwise’! I remember going into our first transfer, both of us donned in the surgical gear with our hair nets on, taking pictures in the waiting room before they walked us back. We held hands while I laid there in the stirrups. They asked what kind of music we wanted to listen to during it, and my husband of course requested The Beatles. He is a die-hard fan. Although it wasn’t your typical ‘perfect conception’ that most couples dream about, it was perfect for our story.

Courtesy of Michelle Pawelski

We endured the 2 week wait before getting my blood drawn to see if we were pregnant or not. Our lives continued on normally, but the anticipation was growing. I can recall thinking about what both of us would do when we got the good news that we were expecting. How we would tell our families and friends. What our baby shower would look like. The colors we would choose for the nursery. Our list of baby names continued to grow.

Transfer number two was a failure altogether. No increase in my beta. No pregnancy. The anger started to outweigh the sadness that I would feel at the continuation of bad news. Why wasn’t this working? Why are we so alone? Everyone else is getting pregnant. Another invitation to a baby shower? How can I go to a baby shower and act happy for them when it feels like a knife is being stabbed in my heart and I’m trying to hold back tears the entire time? Transfer number three was a light at the end of the tunnel, or so we thought.

My mom drove me to the appointment, and I remember just being angry. I had no hope left in me. If I go in with no expectations, the heartache won’t hurt as bad if we’re given bad news again, right? We went on with our lives. I hadn’t taken any pregnancy tests at home, but felt the urge to the day before the blood draw. It was a busy shift at work that day, and I just wasn’t feeling great. I figured I was coming down with a cold, so I stopped at Walgreens on my way home to get some medicine. On my drive home, I realized that I could be pregnant and probably shouldn’t take the cough medicine if I was. I went inside, and did what any possible pregnant woman would do: started warming up a bean burrito. I went and peed on the stick, walked back out to the kitchen, and forgot about the test. Later that day, I went back into the bathroom, and oh my gosh, it was positive. There was a plus sign!!! Plain as day. I had never seen that before! I went out and showed it to Tom who was on the phone. He immediately started crying and had to hang up. We hugged. We smiled. We were speechless. Was this real?!

Courtesy of Michelle Pawelski

Our first ultrasound was on Christmas eve. The ultrasound tech started making small talk a couple of minutes into the exam. Shortly after, we were told there was no heartbeat. Why couldn’t we hear the heartbeat? The only response we got was that, ‘the doctor will be in shortly.’ My heart sank into my stomach. Tom’s eyes started to water. They told us that it looked like I had a blighted ovum: there’s a gestational sac, but no fetus in it. My beta levels continued to rise because of the sac, and we would have to wait a week and come back to confirm the blighted ovum. Christmas was not joyful for us that year. We had no hope left. We both knew that we were going to receive the worst news. New Year’s Eve confirmed that there was no fetus. I chose to have a d & c. I wanted this to be over with. I couldn’t handle it anymore. The physical aspect, the mental aspect. I was at my limit. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. No one understood. How could anyone possibly understand what I was feeling? I started calling off of work. I stopped talking to my family and friends. I had never felt more alone in my life.

Courtesy of Michelle Pawelski

Tom and I both decided that we couldn’t do anymore IVF. Financially we couldn’t afford it, and mentally we were done. Nothing seemed to bring us joy anymore, and what kind of life is that? We knew we needed to do something. It was then that we decided to quit our jobs, sell our house, pack up our cars and puppies and start life on the road: travel nursing!! We went to Dallas first and then headed out to the West Coast to San Diego and up to San Francisco. It was just me, Tom, and our two dogs. No one else. Nothing else. We gave ourselves a year to heal. Focused on what made us happy in the moment. Spent time together talking about something other than IVF. We let ourselves experience joy again. Our hearts started to heal.

Courtesy of Michelle Pawelski

COVID hit in 2020 and put a quicker halt on our traveling than we expected. We ended up moving back to Houston to be near my family again, and both found permanent jobs in the area. We wanted to re-evaluate what we wanted to do and where we wanted to be. A couple of months after being around my nieces and nephews in Houston, my heart started to yearn for a baby again. Were we ready and willing to do this to ourselves? Could we handle the potential heartache?

Tom and I both decided it was a chance that we were willing to take. We researched physicians and clinics in the area and quickly started all of the testing again. Unfortunately, Tom’s sperm count had dropped even lower and was almost nonexistent. Our doctor told us to not worry, that there is still hope. They retrieved 23 eggs from me after the first stimulation round! Holy cow, I was bloated and uncomfortable, but it was so worth it. After receiving the good news about the eggs, they told us Tom’s numbers were too low and that they would have to do a surgical biopsy to retrieve them to have for our transfer. Tom underwent surgery number two like the selfless champ he is, giving his all. We felt a straight punch to the gut when we listened to our doctor tell us that there was a lot of sperm, but none of it was moving. Seriously? Were we on the road of bad news again? He said they could still use them and potentially have success in forming embryos, but our chances were lowered in these circumstances. We decided to use half of my eggs with his sperm. No success.

Our next option was to use donor sperm. Tom had a difficult time with this decision, but we ended up going forward with it. I searched and chose the sperm donor via sperm banks with Tom’s blessing. It was too hard for him to see the person who it would come from but told me he trusted my choice. We used the remainder of my eggs with the donor sperm, yet still didn’t get any embryos to form. It all felt too common. It was right around Christmas when we learned the news. The devastation was so familiar. As was the hopelessness. And anger.

I started sharing our story on social media when we started IVF again in Houston. I wanted to share our story to potentially help someone else and make them feel not as alone. Fast forward to one night in January, my parents and I are watching a football game on television, and I get a text from someone I knew from where I grew up. She had also reached out to me via Instagram about my IVF story, and she texted, ‘Hey! I have something I want to tell you, but I don’t really know how to do it or where to start so I’m just going to say it.’ I replied, ‘Go for it sister!’ From that point on, she changed our lives forever.

She and her husband had gone through IVF as well and were able to have two healthy, beautiful babies. They had multiple embryos frozen and had only planned to try for one more child. They wanted to donate two of their embryos to us. I can’t even explain how overwhelmingly joyous that moment was. I will never forget that feeling. They are our angels. I immediately told Tom, who instantly said, ‘What?! Oh my god. Yes!’ We began to research embryo donation because it was an entirely new concept to us. We had no idea there was such a thing!

Flash forward to today, and now we’re in the process of moving the embryos from Michigan to our clinic in Houston in the next couple of weeks. From there, we will prepare to have another transfer hopefully in the next month or two. Whether or not this transfer works, we are forever indebted and grateful to our embryo donors. We have a connection now that cannot be broken. They are family. They gave us another chance.

Courtesy of Michelle Pawelski

I may not have a child to hold in my arms or someone who calls me mom, but I feel like a mother. A part of me died with every transfer that didn’t make it. Those were my children. I guess the point of my story is that if you are going down a similar path as ours, know that you are not alone. Reach out for help, whether it’s to a friend, a co-worker, someone you found in a group online, a therapist… anyone. Talking about how you are feeling and what you are experiencing helps you process all of those emotions that are building up inside of you. I’m here for you and always willing to listen. I wish that every couple experiencing the heartache that we felt for so long is touched by an angel like we were.”

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Michelle Pawelski of The Woodlands, Texas. You can follow her journey on Instagram here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and our Youtube for our best videos. 

Read more powerful stories like this:

‘Did it work?’ I didn’t say anything. I just put my head down, knowing our dream was over.’: Couple battling infertility pursue embryo adoption, ‘We’re so grateful for this journey’

‘What do we do with the remaining embryos?’ We signed away the parental rights. I was in for one more shock: TWINS!’: Couple donates extra embryos to family  battling infertility, ‘They were put in our path for a reason!’

‘Month after month, we gambled with our emotions, our finances and my body.’: Family’s journey through infertility, two adoptions, two pregnancies 

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