By: Stacey Ellis
I never really thought about kids. I mean, of course I thought about them…all my friends have them and have had them for years now. But I was career-oriented and figured if I had them, great, and if not, then so be it. I was too focused on building a career, first as a television news reporter, then switching mid stream and becoming a lawyer. I figured I had plenty of time and had no desire to settle down yet. Then at 36, it hit me, hard. One day I was just ready, ready to get married and start a family. And then I was scared I waited too long and what if I didn’t find “him” before 40? I was running out of fertile years! Fortunately, one year and dozens, and I do mean dozens, of dates later, I found the perfect man for me…on Eharmony of all places (yes, the 29 dimensions of compatibility really are true!) We’ll call him Steve. We met, we dated, we fell in love and we decided we wanted two children. Right before our wedding, I stopped taking the pill and we were off to marital bliss and baby making.
I had been on the pill for a decade to alleviate horrific cramps. I’m not sure I ever thought about my menstrual cycle or reproductive system my entire life, until now. Now I was taking my temperature and peeing on an ovulation stick. It took 8 weeks to get my period and I was eternally exhausted. I don’t mean “my-wedding-took-a-lot-out-of-me” tired, I mean I was a zombie. My husband looked at me every day wondering if I was awake. I wasn’t. I used to work out at least once, sometimes twice, a day before I got married and now I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning if my life depended on it. I gained 16 lbs in six weeks. Naively, I really thought I was just coming down from the wedding festivities. Looking back now, I know better.
After being diagnosed as hypothyroid, I started Synthroid and felt almost back to normal. But I also had an FSH test and that test was the beginning of my education –okay, obsession -about my fertility. My doctor walked in the exam room and said, “We have a problem. Your FSH is 33.” I was like, “Okay, and?” He said he could “play around” with meds on me but since I was 39 now, I really needed a fertility specialist because I was most likely in complete ovulatory depletion. “Um, English please?” I asked. Then he said the words that would start the spiral: “You probably don’t have any eggs left and the ones you do have aren’t good.” It stabbed like a knife. What? No eggs? Every woman has eggs! I’m 39! I raced to find the right man for me because I knew I was running out of time but I thought I had til 40, 43, 45 to have children! There are celebrities having babies every week who are in their 40s! But unfortunately little did I know that a woman’s fertility drops off dramatically between 35 and 36, not 40 and 45 like I thought. Little did I know, many celebrities froze their eggs years ago or used egg donors. (Thank you Marcia Cross from coming out and saying that!) Little did I know that this was not something that could be fixed with losing or gaining weight or with some magic pill. I was simply stunned.
My first trip to a fertility doctor left me more confused. My estrogen was high. My FSH was high, but not 33. It was 13.9 (the first one wasn’t taken on the proper day-3 mark). I was thrilled! That came crashing down hours later when the doctor called to tell me 13.9 and 33 were pretty much the same. Anything over 10 is bad. He immediately put me on the pill to “quiet things down” and then off we went, onto fertility drugs…Clomid, Follistim, Menopur…four thousand dollars in fertility drugs and I was a zombie again. I figured okay, the doctor knows what he’s doing, this will work. It didn’t. My doctor saw just one follicle and told me there was little chance, but an IUI (artificial insemination) was only $300 more so we did it. Of course, it didn’t work.
We took a break and went on our delayed honeymoon. I also changed doctors because my insurance changed. Lesson #1: When you receive devastating news about your fertility, STOP AND BREATHE and ask questions and INTERVIEW the doctor you are referred to. Had I stopped and taken a breath, I would have said, “I don’t like this doctor. He’s not communicative. I had no idea we were even working toward an IUI until two days before! I asked for an HSG test when we first met (to make sure my fallopian tubes and uterus were clear) and he said I didn’t need one because that wasn’t my problem but deep in my gut I know I need this test.”
Now, taking that step back, I was going to interview doctors. I provided my file and every new doctor asked me, “Where’s your HSG test?” I was dumbfounded that everyone else (including my regular OBGYN who said I should have one) thought I needed this, but not the first fertility doctor. I picked my new doctor, Dr. Tourgeman with Huntington Reproductive Center in Encino, CA. I liked the way this doctor communicated and explained everything. I felt comfortable. He was blunt, mentioning the possible need for an egg donor, but yet he was my champion, saying he’d do everything possible to try to give me my dream. First things first: the HSG test.
During our next meeting with the “Dr. T” as we call him, we learned two things: 1. I had gotten pregnant on my honeymoon and was in process of miscarrying (blood work showed this) and 2. My HSG test showed I had a severe septate uterus, where the uterus looks like a “V” with an avascular piece of tissue- the septum- in the middle dividing it. Dr. T. explained the reason I miscarried was either a) it was a bad egg as we already believe or b) the egg attached to the septum so no blood could flow to the egg and it couldn’t grow. I absorbed it all, maybe too quickly. “So what you’re saying is, I spent $4,000 this past fall and went off the rails from all the drugs and gained another 15 pounds and did an IUI for NOTHING?” He wasn’t the doctor who put me through that but still looked at me and said, “I’m so sorry.” He said he would not ethically perform any further procedures like IVF unless I had surgery to remove the septum. After surgery, my uterus would function normally and I’d be able to carry, but whether I could produce an egg to fertilize was still questionable.
I went home that night and flipped channels aimlessly, landing on a concert with Carrie Underwood singing. In between the major stars’ performances, a host was talking about the Dave Thomas Foundation and I realized about ten minutes in that I was watching an adoption special. I was riveted. I hopped online. I clicked on the links leading me to adoption websites. I found hundreds of children who were up for adoption. Full profiles. My husband came in and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was looking at adoption.
We talked about adoption long before we got married. My sister married a man who was not open to adoption and when her chronic medical condition prevented her from having natural children, they never pursued other options. I know she regrets it and I didn’t want that to be us. We both agreed we were open to it…one way or another, we would build a family. Did we ever think we’d actually NEED to adopt? No. We didn’t have any particular experience with it nor did we know anyone who adopted or was adopted. But now I was sitting on my computer into the wee early morning hours searching for children. I found many healthy ones who were at grade level and were taken from their parents. Steve and I talked about how it would be hard to incorporate an older child into our lifestyle as we are both Jewish and really want to raise our kids Jewish and most kids who were on the sites were Christian. Still, I couldn’t stop looking at them, wanting to save them, or just one. Or maybe, I wanted to save myself from the surgery, the heartache, the constant disappointment.
I was off the drugs completely and yet I was still crying every day for the next month. Why the surgery? Wasn’t hypothyroidism, ovulatory depletion, and a failed IUI enough? I thought long and hard and cried to friends. My husband and I always said we’d do everything possible to try to have a “natural” family. But everything in my brain didn’t include uterine surgery! It just all seemed too much. Then I thought, how would I feel if it were my husband who needed the surgery and he wouldn’t do it? And how would I feel if Dr. T could get an egg out of me, but couldn’t implant the fertilized egg back in me?
I went through with the surgery in January 2010. The anticipation was worse than the actual surgery. Then we just went for it. Okay, not we, me. We all know that the woman does all the work when it comes to IVF. Ultrasounds, bloodwork, twice-a-week acupuncture, herbs, vitamins. As much as my husband was there for me every step of the way and he shot me up every morning with four –yes, four shots -he could never understand how I felt on the drugs and I couldn’t expect him to. I was INSANE. Truly INSANE. I thought I needed to be committed. I cried 8 hours a day at my desk at work and yet never fell behind in my work. Fifteen days in, the doctor looked for any sign of a follicle. “It’s not working.” I left devastated once again. Most people are done in fifteen days. He doubled the meds to the highest recommended dose. Twenty-nine days of drugs later, I had two follicles. Dr. T. said he thought based on my history, this was the best it was going to get so I had to decide whether to abort the try or move forward with two follicles which could mean two mature eggs or fewer. We moved forward and retrieved two eggs. One fertilized and was placed back inside me. I waited the requisite twelve days. I knew two days before the blood test I wasn’t pregnant. I was not meant to have the miracle so many of my friends received. Sure enough – the test confirmed – we weren’t pregnant.
Devastation is really too mild of a word. Coming off the drugs was as bad, if not worse, than being on them. Our “debrief” with Dr. T. told us what we knew nearly 8 months ago, our options were egg donor or adoption. I knew Steve wanted to use an egg donor. At least the baby would have his DNA. And I would carry him or her, so I’d be nurturing the baby. Dr. T. said if I wanted to use an egg donor, then stack the deck and find one between 21 and 28 years old, who had donated before and the donation resulted in a pregnancy. I started checking out egg donor websites but at the same time, adoption was pulling at me and so was my obsession of my failure.
I was fat (now 40 lbs overweight) and not pregnant. I could not produce a child. I would never have a biological child. I was never going to be that “miracle” that you hear about all the time. If one more person told me about their “friend who decided to adopt and got pregnant” or their “friend who had only one egg and it fertilized and stuck and now they have a beautiful child,” I was going to kill someone. I had succeeded in everything else in my life, why not this? Why couldn’t I make this better? And now, at least four friends have announced they are pregnant. Why don’t I get to be like everyone else? What did I do wrong in my life to deserve this? There must be something out there. I am a former investigative reporter; certainly I can find something that will help. I scoured the internet. This was not over until I said it was over. But the question was…would it ever be over or would I always have a lingering hope out there, even if the hope was just that, hope, and would never lead to a child?