Infertility: Hope in an All-Consuming Struggle
When Nadine Wilson was 37, she started trying to get pregnant. When she wasn’t having any luck, her OB/GYN kept telling her there were plenty of options (like Clomid) to help her get pregnant. When those suggestions didn’t work either, Wilson and her husband were referred to a fertility specialist – two years after they had first started trying to conceive.
The next phase of the process included a “sperm diet,” medications, several intrauterine inseminations (IUI), heavy doses of hormones and other drugs, and an unviable pregnancy that resulted in a medically induced miscarriage.
“Dealing with infertility is emotional, frustrating, maddening, and really, really sad (not to mention a financial burden),” Wilson says. “You’re put in a situation that is already emotional, and then get pumped full of drugs and hormones that heighten the emotional experience even further. The hardest part for me was the loss of hope. Fertility treatments also consumed my life.”
Wilson makes up the one in eight couples – or 12 percent of married women – who have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy, according to the Center for Disease Control. A couple ages 29-33 with a normal functioning reproductive system has only a 20-25 percent chance of conceiving in any given month, but after six months of trying, 60 percent of couples will conceive without medical assistance, says the National Women’s Health Resource Center.
When are you considered infertile?
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine states that you should seek the care of a specialist if unable to conceive after 12 months of unprotected intercourse and if the woman is under the age of 35. If the woman is more than 35 years of age, see a specialist after six months of trying to conceive.
Talk to a healthcare professional regardless of how long you’ve been trying if you answer yes to any of the following, says RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association:
- I have painful periods
- I have irregular periods
- I can’t pinpoint when I ovulate
- My partner/I have a history of STDs
- I have an unhealthy Body Mass Index (BMI) – underweight or overweight
- I’ve had more than one miscarriage
Despite the recognition of infertility as a disease, many feel like infertility is a taboo topic. Why? “Because our society says it is!” says Barbara Collura, President/CEO of RESOLVE. She explains that talking about a private health issue – especially one that involves sex – is very difficult. We don’t learn about it as part of reproductive health, doctors don’t proactively talk about it, and it’s not discussed as a public health issue, she says. “People feel like they did something to cause this and don’t have the information to know better,” she adds.
Kristin (not her real name), a mom of two – who tried to conceive for 12 months before being diagnosed with PCOS, which resulted in taking four rounds of Clomid and then having a successful IUI with her first child – described infertility as scheduled heartbreak. “Every 28 days, there was another disappointment,” she remembers. “I felt like my body was betraying me, like I was irreparably broken. I was letting my partner down. I had no control.”
Carrie, another mom of two – who had a miscarriage and two unsuccessful IVF rounds before conceiving her first daughter, and used an egg donor for her second – called the process painful. The worst part was that it was always in her face. “Pregnant bellies everywhere, babies everywhere, friends posting pictures on Facebook. I had to block many friends because their posts made me cry,” she says. She called it very isolating because very few people talk about it, and while her husband and friends listened and were supportive, they had no idea how she really felt inside.
Everyone interviewed for this article recommended finding support. It’s important because for many, infertility is a major life crisis, says Collura. Data shows that the stress of infertility is the same as a cancer diagnosis, yet infertility is stigmatized and people feel isolated and alone, she says. RESOLVE has online support communities with more than 22,000 members, in addition to support groups and HelpLines with trained volunteers.
The only brand new technology that has emerged in the last one or two years has been the approval of a new device that allows for fertilization and culture of embryos in the vagina rather than in expensive IVF labs with “electromechanical incubators,” says Dr. Kevin Doody, president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART).
- While Dr. Doody did not invent the device, he has been optimizing it and is the medical advisor to the manufacturer. He sees the potential to greatly decrease cost and increase access to care.
Dr. Doody sees assisted reproductive technology going in two directions:
High-tech, expensive, resource and labor intensive modifications – would include micro-manipulation techniques, embryo biopsy, pre-implantation genetic testing, time-lapse incubation; the downside is this will further increase costs
- Simplified, effective, but streamlined care – a greater understanding of how individual women differ will allow IVF to be offered with a decreased time and financial burden; a newly approved test of egg supply (AMH level) combined with body weight will predict response to fertility drugs, thus reducing the number of visits required; blood tests can be eliminated; this strategy combined with vaginal incubation will decrease financial, geographic, and time barriers
Currently, the primary challenge is the high rate of treatment failure, especially in older women, Dr. Doody says. This goes along with the risk of multiple pregnancy, which is also risky for the babies. He thinks we have some distance to go in this area.
For some people, relaxing about the process helps. Carrie had been a stressed out mess each month, but when she moved into a new house, she was so distracted that she lost track of her cycle and relaxed. Once she let go, she got pregnant.
Michelle Abelson had no problems conceiving her first child, but after miscarrying, was diagnosed with secondary infertility, or more specifically, premature ovarian failure, at age 35. She underwent IVF and got pregnant with twins, only to lose one at 23 weeks.
When she started thinking about expanding her family because she knew she wasn’t done, her physician told her she should wait 10 months. Her reproductive endocrinologist told her it was unlikely she would conceive on her own, and that she was basically infertile. She didn’t believe it, and knew she could do it naturally.
Abelson started doing fertility massage, acupuncture, fertility yoga, meditation, energy treatments, and worked with a naturopathic physician. She was placed on a herbs and vitamin regimen that focused on egg quality. She completely changed her diet, lived and breathed fertility. By the time 10 months rolled around, she was experiencing regular cycles and was consistently ovulating within the same two day window each month. “And the supposedly infertile woman got pregnant the first month she tried!” she says. Her daughter was born 37 and a half weeks later.
In addition to seeking support, try to connect with your partner in ways that aren’t baby-related, says Kristin. Sex had become a chore, so finding intimacy in other moments was important to her.
Because infertility treatments are expensive and only 15 states require insurance coverage, one woman who learned the hard way says she wishes she had known about clinics that have money-back guarantees. To see if your state is one of the 15, check out RESOLVE’s list.
Another veteran of infertility recommends counseling. “We live in a very baby-centric culture and it can be tough to feel like the only one who can’t make it happen,” she says. “If you can’t bring yourself to attend a baby shower, don’t go. Take care of yourself first.”
Wilson has closed the door on the “trying to have a baby” chapter of her life. For the most part, she’s ok with it all and believes things work out as they should. She has a great marriage and life, sees the advantages of not having children, and still entertains the possibility of adopting an older child from foster care.
Ultimately, it’s about remembering that you’re still a contributing member of society. “Just because you can’t have a baby doesn’t mean you don’t have value,” says Wilson.