So where were we… oh yeah, 2 and a half years ‘not trying but trying’- no baby! And fairly bloody miserable if we’re honest!
We had been referred to a place I now hold very dearly in my heart- The Assisted Conception Unit at Jessops in Sheffield. We had an appointment with a consultant who talked us through our options and explained the paths our next steps would take.
In a very over simplified explanation- there were basically two types of assisted conception that we had on offer. The first option was IUI- drugs to make sure everything is doing aso what it should be and then at exactly the right time, they take sperm and fire it into the fallopian tube so that the chances are much higher that egg and sperm will meet and the magic will happen! The second option is IVF. You inject drugs throughout the first half of your cycle to over stimulate your ovaries, they monitor the growth of the follicles and then at the point they would normally release, they carry out a procedure to remove the eggs from your ovaries. These eggs are then mixed with sperm and they are monitored to see how many fertilise. When the embryos are five days old, they assess the quality and put the best one back in. Then you play the waiting game to find out whether the little blob of cells has clung on or not!
I had very mixed emotions going in to this process. Part of me was excited- the control that I’d been longing for felt like it was heading back in our direction. Every part of the cycle was managed and clinical- there would be no question of whether or not I’d ovulated or if we’d ‘caught it’ at the right time or if the egg had fertilised. The whole thing was a monitored science experiment with no ifs or buts or variables and this appealed to the inner control freak within me!
However it’s fair to say there was an epic amount of trepidation accompanying the excitement! They skipped along together, sometimes hand in hand, on dark days the fear edging it and running back towards the start line while excitement tried to drag it back in the right direction! I was a wuss when it came to anything medical… the egg collection sounded terrifying and even as a grown woman I still had to take someone with me if I needed a blood test as I had a history of passing out! I had a really a deep rooted fear of needles and the prospect of having to inject myself left me in a cold sweat. Then there was the pressure. Each month leading up to it had been a pressure cooker of stress leading up to each failed outcome- this was now The Big Daddy of attempts and it felt like the rest of our lives depended on this 28 day cycle.
We declined our option of IUI- we had an entitlement to 3 rounds of IUI on the NHS and then 1 cycle of IVF. The stats on IUI weren’t high and we both felt that we were up to our eyes in stress and anxiety and wanted to skip straight to the procedure which had the highest success rate.
We had all the bloods and scans done and the next step was an appointment with one of the nurses at the ACU to take us through the process. This was the dreaded appointment where I would learn how to inject myself! The needles are tiny and a bit like an epi-pen which were all pretty self explanatory. I would have to inject myself once a day for the first few days with a drug that stimulated the ovaries and caused more eggs to grow than a standard month. After having a scan about 10 days later, I would then have to do a second daily injection which basically stops the follicles from releasing the eggs so that they can be collected by a doctor instead of spontaneously popping out.
The injections were my arch nemesis! I could easily have got someone to do them for me- lots of people get their partner to do it- but I was adamant that I wanted to do them myself. Looking back, I think it was my way of trying to keep some control over the process. However, just because you are clear that you want to do it yourself, doesn’t mean that it will be easy to do! You inject into your stomach and whilst you know that it is something you have to do, your brain and arm are in an ongoing battle about why the good god you are trying to jab a sharp piece of metal into your flesh! In the appointment, I scratched the top layer of my skin about 20 times before finally committing to it and plunging the needle through my skin and into the flesh! The nurse kept explaining that the bit that hurt was what I kept continually doing and pricking the surface of my skin but I had a mental block that just wouldn’t shift! The first day of the cycle when I had to inject at home was both hilarious and infuriating. Luckily it was a Sunday so I didn’t have the pressure of having to get to work, I say luckily because it took me almost an hour to do it! I sat on the bed with everything laid out and the needle in my hand and counted down from 5… 48 thousand times!! For those who have used self wax strips for your bikini line the experience was similar- you’ve applied the strip, you’re committed now, you just have to grab hold and rip… but you know it’s going to hurt like a bitch and even though you try to trick yourself by pretending you are going to count to 5 but actually do it on 3, your mind knows your cunning, wily plan and your hand refuses to cooperate! Jon sat next to me, trying really hard (after the 20 minute mark) not to grab hold of the needle and do it himself and getting increasingly frustrated while trying to pretend that he wasn’t! I got a bit quicker as the month went on but it never got easy. On the plus side, it didn’t actually hurt that much and my phobia of needles is pretty much cured now!
So the drugs were administered, the cycle monitored with scans and blood tests and after a couple of weeks I had to go in for the egg collection. The hospital are great at getting you off your tits for this procedure so it was nowhere near as bad as I thought it was going to be! The whole experience was one I would classify as surreal rather than horrific! You are laid on a bed, your feet in stirrups with your partner next to you in surgical scrubs. To keep the eggs in prime condition, the room is kept at a constant cool, which makes it even more comfortable to be laid down with your nether regions on display! They give you a strong sedative to take the night before, another when you wake up and one when you’re on your way to the hospital. You have a cannula pumping morphine into you and gas and air on tap… It’s fair to say I felt a tad fuzzy! The eggs within the ovaries are suspended in fluid- the procedure uses a super fine needle, guided by ultrasound, to insert into each follicle and suck out the liquid which hopefully contains an egg. The liquid is then put into a dish of some kind and this is passed through to embryologists in a room next door that you can’t see but can hear! Sometime the egg can get stuck in the follicle so they check the liquid and you hear a random shout of ‘egg’ through the magic window if there is one present! We got 8 mature eggs which was an ‘acceptable but not high’ haul!
There was a moment during this procedure when the enormity of the whole thing hit me! Somewhere in a room next door to us were 8 tiny little dishes containing eggs which may go on to become our children! Bonkers! At some point Jon was whisked off to his ‘special room’ and he had to produce his contribution to the process- I again remember thinking that our day had been considerably skewed in his favour in terms of pleasantness of procedures but I suppose he didn’t get the drugs so whatevs! It all gets mixed together (in my drug fuelled mind I had an image of a cocktail shaker!) and then…
Then it’s a waiting game! Someone rings you the next day to give you an update on the progress of your fertilisation… The next day we took a call to say 5 of the 8 had fertilised. On day 2 we got a call to say there was a further embryo that had fertilised later and although was a slow starter, it seemed to be doing well! 6 little embryos, thousands of times smaller than the head of a pin, all carrying the weight of our hopes, dreams and expectations!
Something happens with the division of the cells on day 4 which means it’s difficult to ascertain their quality so the next progress report we got was 5 days after the collection. This is also the day that the embryo would be transferred.
I report all this very matter of factly but IVF as a process is not just one entity. It has to be seen as a series of hurdles to cross, any one of which you could fall flat on! You may not get any eggs, your womb lining might not be thick enough, you may not respond to the drugs, none of the eggs could fertilise or be of a good enough quality to transfer by day 5! I think it’s roughly a 50:50 chance once the embryo is transferred back but so many things can go wrong in the run up to this and you really do go through the mill at each stage!
On day five we got a call to say that we were down to one embryo. When they examined the quality of them they were only happy that one was worth either transferring or freezing. This was a big kick in the guts for me as it meant that we only had one chance! I had hoped that we would have a number of others to take forward and freeze to use in future cycles if this wasn’t successful but that wasn’t to be. They did say however that our late starter wasn’t yet in a position to make a decision about so they would keep us posted on that one.
We were summoned to the hospital to have our embryo transferred back in. Our five day old embryo was about to be checked in to what would hopefully be its home for the next 9 months! The best way of describing this process is to ask you to imagine a straw and a spit bomb that you would have fashioned at some point in your secondary school career! Again this process was surreal and I remember thinking that the whole thing felt mad! I was laid, again with my legs akimbo in a freezing cold room with aforementioned nether regions on display- a group of visiting Chinese doctors were also stood at the business end as well as what felt like 43 other people. Everything has to be set up and ready before the embryo is brought in, that little teeny tiny dot is the royalty in the room and the circumstances have to be perfect for it so this ever so flattering pose felt like it went on for quite some time. I remember the consultant (business end) and Jon (head end) having a conversation over my paper towel covered knees about the best driving route to get from Sheffield to Cambridge as Jon had a meeting there the following day! This was potentially the most monumental event that would happen in our life! Our baby, who we had longed for for years and years, was about to be transferred into our care and safe keeping, this was the moment we had built up to after huge amounts of stress and anxiety and hope, and here was everyone carrying on as if it was just another day! (For anyone in any doubt, they concluded the A14 was the most convenient route!)
In terms of medical intervention, we were now done! Get on with your normal life, try not to think about it and come back in 10 days for a blood test! We failed miserably at the first 2! I was terrified that the embryo would fall out! I got home and took up residence on the sofa for the following 3 days- I knew all about that pesky gravity and decided I was going to do all I could to give the little fellow a fighting chance to cling on and burrow in! This 10 day wait was the longest of our lives and probably the bit of the process that I found most difficult. I had psyched myself up for the injections, the collection, the transfer… but the wait caught me off guard and I found it really hard. My advice to anyone about to go through this process is to book in lots of nice things during that time to keep you busy!
Thursday the 21st of July 2011… Judgement day! I went and got in the queue for bloods in the morning and cried on the nurse… the enormity of what this day could bring hit me at a million miles an hour and I felt awful! I went to work after having them done and sat out the agonising 5 hours until we could call the hospital at 1.30. Never before has time stood still like it did that day. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day but chuff me, that morning lasted so long I could have built Rome, Venice and bloody Pisa and managed to get that tower considerably straighter!! I went home and met Jon- I could have called from work but it felt right that we were together when we found out. We made the call along with everyone else finding out that day and got eleventy billion engaged tones before finally getting through. I couldn’t speak through the lump in my throat so Jon spoke to them on loud speaker; names, dates of birth, addresses confirmed… For the love of God tell us already!!! And then just like that our worlds changed, ‘I’ve got some great news for you… Rachels pregnant!’ 9 words that we had waited 2 and a half years to hear, 30 sets of failed cycles, each harder to deal with than the last, 30 months of wishes and hopes and dreams, all brought to fruition in 9 little words! We both cried, and then laughed and then rang all the prospective nanas and grandads who were waiting in the wings and they cried and laughed too! My levels were through the roof which indicated a very healthy pregnancy (or twins!! Sigh of relief at the first scan!)
Lots of people who have IVF have very nervous pregnancies, terrified that the precious cargo they’ve waited so long for might slip out of their grasp, but I didn’t. I just knew we’d be ok; I knew in my heart of hearts that this little bean was here for the long haul!
The rest as they say, is history! The only other thing to revisit was our little late starter… remember the embryo that was a day behind and may have been good enough quality to freeze and use again? We got a call the day after the transfer to say it was a good one and they had popped it in the ACU freezer in between the fish fingers and ice cube tray! (For those of you that are good at spotting plot twists in TV dramas, you may already have a sneaky suspicion on who that feisty, tough, stubborn and tenacious little embryo went on to become!) When George was ten months old we went back to have the frozen one taken out of the freezer and popped back in the oven! We were convinced we wouldn’t be so lucky second time round so decided to rule it out before we had to consider other treatment- our inkling was wrong and the call once again heralded amazing news! 18 months and 2 weeks after George was born, he was joined in the world by his formidable sister Esme. I’m convinced one of the reasons we struggle to get her to wear a coat in winter is because she’s acclimatised to the cold from her time in the freezer!!!
I’ve rewritten this post a number of times- hind sight made me nostalgic and I applied an instagram filter of warmth to the experience which is easy to do when you’ve just tucked your 3 little miracles in bed! It was heartbreaking, depressing, anxiety inducing stress for month after month after month! There were times when I lost all hope that I would ever hold a little bundle of chubbiness in my arms or share a story snuggled up before bed or hear the word mummy uttered and know it was aimed at me. Infertility was painful (both physically and emotionally) exhausting, draining and overwhelming and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy!
That said, I look at my three little monkeys and every single second was worth it! Every needle, scan, procedure and Operation could be performed ten times over to ensure their safe arrival! And I got to the following realisation about the whole business a few years ago- if we hadn’t been through all this, we wouldn’t have these little munchkins running us ragged! Those specific eggs and little tadpole fellas obviously had a date with destiny predetermined in order to bring us our beautifully sensitive but crackers boy and our gloriously bonkers girl! Fate obviously had it in hand and wanted to deliver us the best possible creations it could find!! And everything worth having in life is worth waiting for!!
(And if your wondering why the story stops here without mention of little Ted, that’s because his creation had a lot less to do with science and a lot more to do with complacency! And look at the marvellous little miracle that created!) 💙💗💙