In vitro fertilization (IVF) is the most common medical procedure for infertility, which affects one in twelve women of childbearing age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even if you've done your research and know what it entails—a series of procedures where eggs are removed from a person's body, fertilized by sperm to create embryos, and re-implanted into the uterus—a factsheet can only tell you so much.
Here, Diane (last name withheld), shares her experience undergoing IVF. From how it affected her physically and emotionally to how much it cost, she holds nothing back.
The big decision
I was 19 when my husband and I got married—a very young bride. While we never actively took measures to prevent pregnancy, we didn't start officially trying to conceive until I was 24. We tried for about two years. I would literally buy pregnancy tests in bulk from Amazon, but every time I took a test, it came back negative. Finally, I got a positive test.
I was so excited that after two years of trying, I was finally pregnant. I had watched several of my other friends get pregnant so quickly; I didn't know why it was so much easier for them than for me. I went to the health clinic to confirm that I was really pregnant, but my test there came back negative. That day at the clinic, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is one of the most common causes of infertility.
Because my husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for several years despite our relatively young age, the doctor at the clinic suggested we see a fertility specialist. First, the fertility doctor suggested we try taking fertility drugs meant to make me ovulate more frequently (people with PCOS often have irregular cycles), therefore increasing the odds of getting pregnant. When that didn't work after a year on the medications, he suggested IVF. But the process seemed so confusing and difficult. So much of what he talked about—fresh cycles (when the best embryos are transferred into the uterus three to five days after retrieval), frozen cycles (when the frozen embryos from a previous fresh IVF cycle are thawed and then transferred back into the uterus), cryopreservation (freezing eggs to use in the future)—I just didn't understand. It was mind-boggling.
"It was all just so overwhelming that my husband and I waited a year to decide what to do."
Then there was the price tag, can be between $20,000 and $30,000, depending on different factors, like the injectable medications required to kickstart the egg retrieval process. And it wasn't guaranteed to work, either. It was all just so overwhelming that my husband and I waited a year to decide what to do. During this time, we still kept trying to conceive naturally, with no success.
During that time, I researched to see if there were organizations that could help with the costs, none of which were covered by our insurance. My husband is active duty military and I read that the Reproductive Medicine Associates of New Jersey, where we live, helps pay for IVF for military couples. They agreed to cover the majority of our costs, except for medications, which came to $5,000, and continued storage of frozen embryos, which is $1,200 a year. This was a huge relief to us and we decided to move forward with IVF. I had my first appointment in September 2016, when I was 28.
Injections and lots (and lots) of doctor appointments
The first thing the doctor did was run tests to make sure that becoming pregnant wouldn't threaten my body in any way, since having PCOS already increases the risk of miscarriage, preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes. We discovered that I had an unexplained rapid heart rate, called tachycardia. I had to go through extensive heart testing, including wearing an EKG for three days, to make sure the strain of the pregnancy wouldn't be problematic for my heart. The cardiologist tentatively came me the all-clear to move forward with the procedure.
Now I was officially ready to start IVF. The first step was giving myself multiple injectable medications every day to get my body ready for the egg retrieval process. One was the follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which stimulates egg growth. The second, human menopausal gonadotropin (hMG), also stimulates egg growth and is often given to women with PCOS. And the third, cetrotide, stopped me from ovulating naturally, which I was on for about four days, in addition to the other two.
I had to inject them all into my stomach every day for two weeks, which is about as fun as it sounds. The first time I did it I was a little freaked out, but I just had to get over it. I wanted to be able to give myself the shots because my husband had an erratic work schedule and wouldn't always be home to help me. Two of the nights, I had to do one of the shots at 11:30 p.m., so I had to stay up just to give them to myself even though I was exhausted.
During these two weeks, I went to the doctor almost every day to make sure the egg follicles were growing properly, which is done through ultrasounds. The doctor counted the eggs at each appointment to know when it's time to stop production, which was about two weeks in for me. Then, I was given another injectable medication to stop ovulation so they could perform the egg retrieval.
If all of this sounds time-consuming, it was. So much so in fact that I actually quit my job as a veterinary technician so I could focus solely on IVF. Many women are not able to do this, so I feel very fortunate that I was a position to be able to.
Retrieving the eggs
After the two weeks of injectables, I had my doctors' appointment for the egg retrieval, which is when they collect the viable eggs. I sat there in my hospital gown waiting for the doctor and all the emotions of what I was going through just hit me. I felt overwhelmed and so desperate—and so far still from any concrete results. Fortunately, my husband was with me to help keep me calm and focused for every major doctors' appointment, including this crucial one. During this time, I felt so emotional that my blood pressure dropped and I nearly passed out.
I was under sedation for the egg retrieval, but basically what the doctor does is stick a needle through the vaginal wall and suction the eggs out of the ovarian follicles. When I woke up, they told me the number of eggs they were able to retrieve: 16. I felt relieved, but I was still anxious. There was still a chance none of them would become embryos. The whole IVF process felt like going from one worry to the next.
After a week of waiting, the doctor called and told me that of the 16 eggs, four embryos (fertilized with my husband's sperm) made it to the blastocyst stage, the phase of development recommended for a successful implantation. The rest of the embryos had either stopped developing, were never successfully fertilized to begin with, or weren't mature enough to become embryos. Again, I felt a mixture of relief and anxiousness. The embryos were sent off for genetic testing, to make sure they were viable for a transfer and all four came back normal.
"The whole IVF process felt like going from one worry to the next."
Then came a waiting game. I had to wait another menstrual cycle before starting progesterone, which I would need to be on during the first trimester to help maintain the pregnancy. Of course, mine didn't come on time. (Thanks, PCOS.) But it finally came a couple weeks later, and I was able to start the medication and book the appointment for an embryo to be implanted into my uterus.
The call that changed everything
I had my doctors' appointment for the embryo transfer on February 5, 2017. They transferred one of the embryos in my uterus, in hopes it would implant into the uterine wall and start developing into a fetus. They did this by using a large catheter that went up my cervix, and then the embryo is transferred from the catheter into the uterus. I was awake the whole time; it felt similar to getting a pap smear, only more painful. The other three embryos my husband and I had frozen.
I found out I was pregnant nine days later, on Valentine's Day. I was so nervous when the phone call came that I actually gave my husband my phone to talk to the doctor himself. I was pregnant with a baby boy—which we knew this early on because of the genetic testing. My husband and I just hugged each other and cried. It was all so emotional. I was finally pregnant.
After that, my pregnancy was like a dream; smooth sailing except for a little bit of morning sickness in the second trimester. The whole pregnancy, I just felt so grateful and I couldn't believe it was happening. Of course I was still worried something would go wrong, and I was worried until I held my baby in my arms when he was born on October 31, 2017.
My husband and I are making the most of parenthood and actually, we're going doing IVF again, using another one of the embryos. This time, the price came to $10,000. We held a fundraiser, which a lot of our friends and family members contributed to, so that is helping with the cost. I really hope it works out again, but even if it doesn't, I'm so grateful that I have my son.
Looking back on the whole experience, I wish I didn't think so much about the big picture, as surprising as that sounds. The whole process is so overwhelming and it's easy to become consumed with worry about whether it will work or not. This time around, I'm focusing on one step at a time. It's also important to have people in your life that can support you emotionally as you go through the process, whether it's a support group, online support group, spouse, family, or friends.
IVF isn't easy—physically or emotionally. But in the end, I'm so glad I did it. That's why I'm doing it all over again.
As told to Emily Laurence.
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