‘Why don’t you just do IVF?’
If only it were that simple. Before beginning our journey to start a family, I had a very limited understanding of IVF and what it actually entails; it’s possible I could have said the same to myself… or, awfully, maybe even to someone else.
I’m not going to write a long list of the national live birth IVF statistics, for one main reason: some of those reading this may be about to embark upon IVF themselves and the worst thing you can do is look these up. I did, when we had our first round, and, when it didn’t work, I kept beating myself over the head with the fact that I was in the percentage that fails. The second time round, I stayed well and truly clear of all statistics and believed completely that we were not, in fact, a number – we were a couple whose case was being tailored individually…finally.
Heartbreakingly, IVF isn’t an instant solution to infertility issues. If only you could just walk in to a clinic, collect your embryo and ‘pooof’, a few weeks later, you are ‘with child’. Sadly, there are countless delicate factors to contend with.
You are walking along a razor-sharp knife edge – one slip and it can all be over.
They don’t call it a miracle lightly.
After several failed attempts to even begin IUI (intrauterine insemination) due to exceedingly inconvenient cysts that would appear just at the wrong moment and mock me on the scan, just as we’d prepared ourselves to start, we finally got to a month where all was clear. I was allowed to start the injections.
On 23rd October 2016, Craig administered my very first injection…this was the first of many to come! We went to Sally’s (my acupuncturist) and she helped him; he was brilliant – took his time, was exceptionally careful not to hurt me too much and, over the course of the next two years, he became a professional!
It shows what you are willing to put yourself through when you really want something. Nowadays, no one would ever guess that I was that child who would meticulously plan out how to be ‘ill’ on the day when there were school immunisations because of my ‘fear’ of needles. Needless to say, I had to get over that one pretty sharpish (no pun intended)!
With IUI, there are less injections than for IVF because the aim is to stimulate a few follicles but not too many as this can risk a multiple pregnancy. Typically, on 29th October 2016, we went for a follicle scan and, even though I had a low dose of drugs, I had produced 9 fat follicles (which is too many) and therefore I was told that they were not willing to proceed.
I was devastated and so frustrated.
My body had done what it had been asked and now it had responded too well.
An understanding nurse sat us down and looked me in my swollen, red eyes. She said, ‘do you want me to be straight with you?’ In-between sniffs, I nodded. ‘Don’t waste your time on this; you’re likely to over-stimulate again. Stop and go straight to IVF.’
I didn’t know what to do. I knew I wanted to have a baby with every fibre of my being but I was very apprehensive and frightened.
Part of me never really believed that we would need to have IVF.
To me, it made everything we were going through become all too real…and very serious.
Previous options had still relied on my body facilitating fertilisation. IVF meant that my body wouldn’t be able to do this; even when it did, it ended in miscarriage. I became so distressed that Craig and I experienced the first bit of real tension between us since it had all began. Up to that point, we had been in agreement about everything. I felt like giving up and so I sat at home and adamantly told him that I wasn’t going to do it. I wouldn’t do IVF.
I was giving up. I was tired. Throwing in the towel was the easy option. I was preparing myself never to be a mother.
Of course, it was a cry for help because, underneath, I knew there was no way I could truly give up on having our family.
He sat me down and firmly told me that we could do it and that we would do it… together… one… step… at… a… time.
The next day, we filled out the barrage of paper work to get the process started.
In January 2017, we were all set to do IVF.
I must add at this point that in-between all this, we had some separate tests to see why I had experienced recurrent miscarriages. They didn’t want me to get pregnant through IVF just to miscarry again. I had a test to measure my levels of Natural Killer (NK) Cells. Everyone has NK cells as part of their immune system however there is research to suggest that women with higher levels of these cells are more prone to recurrent miscarriage and IVF failure. Anything below 5 is deemed to be normal. After a very painful test, where cells from the uterus are taken for testing, my results came back as 19.8…extremely high. This provided me with some explanation as to why I had been getting pregnant and then miscarrying – my body was literally seeing the pregnancy as a foreign body and attacking it – just as it would fight anything else. I was told that steroids can help dampen down the levels of NK cells and therefore I took them during our first IVF round. Later on, this was one of the main reasons that led me to meeting Dr George Ndukwe at the Zita West Clinic – he is an expert in NK cells but I will save that for a future blog.
So, in January 2017, I was feeling fairly positive – positive enough, in actual fact, that I asked my Dad to come with me to a routine scan, to check IVF could go ahead, so that Craig didn’t have to miss more work. I was allowing myself to relax a bit, thinking that the doctors were taking over and that it would be ok.
I fell off the tight rope again.
My scan revealed two large cysts for that month and therefore IVF was postponed yet again. I just couldn’t take it any more.
I couldn’t even succeed in starting IVF – again, something I never knew was a possibility. I felt utterly useless.
Naively, I had assumed that everyone could just have IVF, if they needed it.
Repeatedly, I would pick myself up after bad news, only to be machine-gunned down again with something else.
Finally, at the end of February 2017, there were no cysts and we were allowed to start the IVF drugs. Even then, there were shaky moments when they thought they might cancel. Are there enough follicles? Are they the right size? Are they too big? Are they too small? There was one day when they were fairly sure it would be abandoned however two days later they were happy again and we were booked in for egg collection.
For those who have been through IVF, or are going through it, they will know exactly what I mean here. It’s so complicated! You literally have to give your entire life over to it as you are at the hospital most days – meetings with nurses to show you how to administer injections and lessons on how to store drugs, blood tests galore, many, many vaginal scans, paperwork, decisions on what will happen to eggs, sperm, embryos afterwards etc, etc, etc and… it… is… exhausting.
On top of this, you’ve got your own plethora of emotions to deal with.
Your emotions can be as high as a kite one minute and then, abruptly, you can have the strings pitilessly snapped the next – and you never know when it might happen.
During this IVF round, I was struggling mentally in all areas of my life. Depression for the circumstances we had found ourselves in was gradually weaving its tight vines around me and I was finding functioning on a day to day basis almost impossible. The only place where I felt I could just about manage was at home and even that was a struggle.
I was hopeless.
I would say to myself, ‘just get out of bed and brush your teeth, just make dinner, just read a chapter of your book, just get dressed, just take a walk.’ My life was full of ‘justs’ and, quite frankly, it was just miserable.
A decision was made that I ought to have some time away from work. At the time, I thought this would help support the IVF to work because I could be at home, relax and keep calm. In actual fact, it made the time go much slower, I was trapped in amongst my own thoughts, wholly about IVF, and I felt incredibly lonely. I was in my own company, day in, day out, and slowly I was falling deeper and deeper into a black hole. At the time, we were living in a small country cottage which, although quaint, had very little light. This highlighted the darkness I was already feeling. The aged stone walls were steadily closing in on me and, when I think back to those days, I feel bitterly sad. Sad that I ever reached such a low point in my life – gradually, little by little, becoming a shadow of my former self – surrounded by darkness, inside and out.
Despite this, I was trying to remain hopeful about our IVF round and, when I woke up from my egg collection operation to be told that they had retrieved twenty five eggs, I was delighted – as well as encountering an enormous high from the anaesthetic! The next day, they phoned to tell us that nine had fertilised; this made the insufferable pain I was experiencing much easier to bear. As they had collected so many eggs, I was at high risk of getting ovarian hyper stimulation syndrome. I had to be careful otherwise transfer would be abandoned. My tummy had ballooned and I was extremely uncomfortable but I coped – we had nine embryos magnificently growing so I was ecstatic.
Another thing I had to learn quickly was that numbers drop rapidly during the IVF process; the goal is to get one healthy embryo – which seems crazy when they can collect so many eggs. It just goes to show why things can take time even when people fall pregnant naturally.
Five days later, we had four good quality embryos that had reached blastocyst stage – one was to be put back and the other three frozen. As this was an NHS round of IVF, due to my age, we did not have the choice to put more than one embryo back.
Transfer is a much more pleasant procedure, being relatively quick and painless. We didn’t get to see a picture of our embryo with this round which I was quite sad about. Craig came in with me and I lay back and listened to a hypnotherapy track I had been using to try and keep me calm. Holding my hand, Craig and I just drank in the moment. Even though we were surrounded by medical equipment and the cold, sanitary hospital walls, I didn’t notice. It was just the two of us. It was perfect.
We drove home knowing that our little ’embaby’ was with us. It was surreal and I was going to do anything I could to protect it.
The two week wait began…which for anyone who has encountered this knows that it is the longest two weeks ever invented.
28th March 2017. Ten days after our embryo transfer. I woke up.
Tomorrow was the day we tested.
We were nearly there.
As I started to wake fully, I began to get a sense that something wasn’t quite right. Craig wasn’t in bed – he had left for work. I knew I needed the loo. I slowly got out of bed and, before I got to the bedroom door, I knew what was happening. I looked down and saw blood which had been silently lying in wait, ready to snatch all my hopes and dreams cruelly away from me, just when I least expected it.
My heart stopped beating.
This wasn’t right. I couldn’t digest what was happening.
We were due to go to hospital the next day to have a pregnancy test – we had been given the choice of doing one at home or going there – we had decided we would rather they did it. Deep in my gut, I knew it was all over however I couldn’t accept it until I had hard facts. I lay in bed, bleeding all day, clinging onto any shred of hope I could think of (or google) that it might actually be a false alarm.
By the time we got to the hospital the next morning, the bleeding had become much worse – far heavier than any period I had ever had – and I knew that it was my body rejecting whatever had tried to happen within the confines of my womb.
Looking out of the bleary car window, I sobbed all the way there. My heart was aching so much that I wanted to reach in and violently rip it out of my chest.
I felt weak and could barely stand.
Through blurry eyes, we followed a nurse and I handed her a small pot of blood-tinged urine and she calmly walked off to test it. Craig and I sat in silence.
All I could hear was the clock ticking on the wall but, to me, it sounded like barbaric thumps boxing each ear drum, one at a time, back and forth, back and forth.
The door knocked and I physically shook. The nurse walked in. She didn’t need to say anything. It was final. Trying to remain positive – bearing multiple injections a day – telling myself that this was our time – braving invasive hospital procedures – reassuring myself that I would be a mum – was over.
Our one and only round of IVF through the NHS was gone. Done. No more help.
A few years ago, my sister bought me a 5 year diary where you write just a couple of lines each day. When I started writing this particular blog, I looked back through it to the very day when our IVF failed to see what I wrote.
‘We are heartbroken. I can’t describe how I feel apart from a massive failure. What have we done to deserve to be put through this living hell?’
Trying to describe how you feel when IVF fails is near impossible. It’s a unique feeling that I have never experienced before. Different to how I felt when I miscarried. Perhaps, this is because you know that there is definitely an embryo inside you way before you would if you had conceived naturally. There’s no ‘maybe it didn’t happen this month.’
It’s final. It’s inconceivable.
You are relying on your body to do its job and willing your precious embryo to implant. I became obsessed with what I may or may not have done to make it fail. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at Craig as I knew he had done so much for me, had been there every step of the way and I couldn’t even do this right.
I loathed myself and despised my body for letting him down.
Of course, I know now that I wasn’t letting him down – IVF is such a fragile process – but, at the time, I felt that the least I could do was punish myself ruthlessly for being so completely useless.
Emptiness, desperation, sorrow and desolation consume you when IVF fails, along with a prevailing fear about what on earth you’re going to do next. We had no idea where to go. To others, we were putting on a brave face. Inside, we were dying of heartache.
We needed some time. Telling people that we had failed was agonising and, naturally, many of them had no idea what to say; what could they do except be there?
Six days later our niece was born followed by our nephew a few weeks after that. We had so much to process and decisions to make. At that time, however, we just had to stop. And be us.
Just the two of us.
We became insular and joined at the hip – keeping the other from collapsing. Only we could understand each other and that had to be ok. We’d got this far and we had to delve deep for further strength to continue our fight to have our family.