Ashley & Chuck
Ashley & Chuck's Story:
Getting pregnant is supposed to be easy. I mean, it happens all the time, right? Couples who get pregnant the first month they try and teenagers who have kids in high school are prime evidence of just that. Conceiving babies is easy. Until it’s not.
My husband Chuck and I decided to start trying two months before our first beautiful niece was born. “Trying” is an interesting word. It implies that it may or may not happen, but the truth is, everyone who tries expects success within a few months. After we made our decision, I remember the anticipation, the feeling that our lives were really moving forward, the dreams of what our child would be like. Each month the pregnancy test—if I took one—came back negative.
The twelve month milestone—the official timespan labeled infertile—came and went. We hit that point and then some. Still, I thought maybe we weren’t pregnant because we paused in trying because of my sister’s wedding. Maybe we weren’t having sex on the right days. Maybe I was sick while I was ovulating. Really, you can manufacture a thousand excuses when you’re ignoring the truth.
Then I got a letter. My sweet, wonderful aunt told me about our family history with infertility. She had heard we were trying, recognized my symptoms, and reached out. She also included an article explaining Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Some of the symptoms—like irregular periods and facial hair—jumped right out at me. I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life for that letter because it gave me the push I needed to finally acknowledge what Chuck had been saying for months. We needed help because, like some of my aunts, I was infertile.
The gynecologist didn’t really believe us and gave us a few things to try. One was taking my temperature, which never spiked. The other was having sex every day. Fun but ineffective. We went back, and he referred us to a fertility center near my job. I was terrified, mostly because I still didn’t want to believe I was infertile. I think part of it was that gynecologist had me take a pregnancy test the last time I saw him. I told him my period was late (FYI: I maybe got a period every three months, so being late usually just meant it wasn’t coming). Clearly, he still thought I could get pregnant naturally…maybe I could.
We went to the fertility center anyway. I didn’t like the woman who met with us. Her demeanor threw me off. I didn’t feel confident when I left her office (lesson: trust your gut), especially because she dismissed my confession that I believed I had PCOS. Still, it was convenient, especially for a teacher who couldn’t take a bunch of half days, to be a few minutes’ drive from my doctor. We started treatments by taking Clomid, one of the pills that generally starts off treatments. That was, of course, after I used medication to get my period going each month. The cycles failed, and it was a frustrating few months, especially because I didn’t quite feel comfortable at the fertility center.
Somewhere in there, I got an unexpected phone call. From a state away, my sister told me she was pregnant. I tried to sound happy, but I was emotionally wrecked. Did I want another niece or nephew? Of course. But my sister had just gotten married (they conceived month one of trying), and I wasn’t prepared for that call. I cried for hours because I wished I was the one calling her.
Fertility treatments can be brutal because of that one reality: other people keep having babies. And, when you’re longing for a child, it seems like everyone else is getting exactly what you want. Every pregnancy announcement is a tiny prick at your emotions. The further you get into treatments, the worse it becomes. Trust me, the crying during and after that phone call was nothing. But that story is for another page.
Soon, we were staring reality in the face again. We needed to move on to IUI, intrauterine insemination, but our insurance didn’t cover the cost. Honestly, that was not that big of a deal because my parents would help if we asked. What was a big deal was the treatment plan, which included birth control. My mother has a blood condition that was triggered by using birth control, so my sister and I had always avoided it. My doctor read my bloodwork and assured me I’d be fine. My gut told me to stay away from birth control, but that’s what the desperation of fertility treatments does to you: makes you ignore your gut. We set up the IUI. Hope blossomed. We were moving forward.
Until I got a bloodclot. Our treatments were suspended while I recovered. My parents couldn’t believe I had used birth control, and looking back, neither can I. Yes, we trusted our doctor, but we also did it because we wanted to take that step toward our goal and that was how he said we had to do it. Sidenote: he called a few months later and asked when we were coming back. I told him we had moved out of state (we had, but I wouldn’t have gone back anyway).
Fast forward to December 2014.
We drove home from Christmas with my family to meet Dr. Kiltz at CNY Fertility. I was unsure. Since my blood clot, I’d realized my instincts had screamed at me that the last fertility center wasn’t right the entire time we were there. I felt like I was walking a balance beam over a pit. Any moment, this new fertility center could become exactly like the last one, and we wouldn’t be any closer to having our child.
The meeting with Dr. Kiltz was the complete opposite of the one at the first fertility center. He was welcoming and energetic. He immediately recognized that I had PCOS and assured me that birth control would never be part of my treatment plan for getting pregnant with PCOS. He made me feel like I was a worthwhile person, and more importantly, he made us feel like he was truly invested in our journey to have a baby. Hope crept back in again.
We started with a pill, just like before. This time, after only a couple tries, the nurses suggested we move on to IUI. With our new and improved NY insurance, the decision to move ahead was easy. Deciding to take the next step with fertility treatments is sort of a catch-22. On one hand, you’re moving to a procedure with better odds. On the other hand, you’re acknowledging that your body needs more help, which makes it feel like those better odds may not apply to you.
It was during the IUI treatments that I began to dread the phone call. Two weeks after the day I could have become pregnant, I would drive to Syracuse to get my blood test. At some point that day, my cell phone would ring. I stopped answering. Don’t get me wrong; the nurses at CNY are amazing. Their bedside manner is unparalleled. But I couldn’t answer the phone and hear that my test was negative…again.
How can I explain the rollercoaster of the fertility cycle? No matter which approach you take, which treatment you undergo, hope is always there. It’s easiest to stay positive and keep hope alive at the beginning of the cycle. The possibilities are laid out in front of you. As long as the ultrasounds are showing good things—like developed follicles—optimism rules. The dreams of a baby slip into your thoughts, even when you try to water down your expectations with reality. Then you take the next step, whichever method you’re currently using to conceive: intercourse, IUI, or IVF. That leads to the two-week wait.
I’ll try to put into perspective the two-week wait. Positivity is key. We even had an affirmation painted on our bathroom mirror to help us maintain the right attitude. Trust me, though, after you’ve done five or six cycles, that positivity is a struggle. You’re afraid to hope too much, to dream too much because that phone call might report a negative pregnancy test. I felt like I was walking over a bed of nails or skating across thin ice. One wrong move would be disastrous.
Despite the great follicles and perfect sperm, IUI never worked. Somewhere between April to June, I hit my lowest point. Everyone in the world was having babies…except me. Chuck would warn me if someone put up a pregnancy announcement on Facebook. He got into huge fight with one of my cousins who posted a fake one on April Fools’ Day. One of the girls I was friends with at work had a baby shower, and I didn’t go. Not because I was leaving town that day, like I told her, but because I couldn’t bring myself to sit through someone else’s joy over a baby. Worst of all, I skipped my sister’s tea party, a celebration of her impending baby girl, because I couldn’t handle it. Again, I made an excuse that was only partially true.
You’re probably wondering how someone can be so callous. After all, if you want a baby, how can you be mad at others for having one? The easy answer is that I wasn’t. I have been genuinely happy each time a family member or friend has had a child. But some things are just too much to handle while undergoing a constant barrage of tests and emotional rollercoasters. One of those things is sitting in a room playing baby-themed games while everyone talks about babies, eats baby-themed food, and opens baby gifts.
In June, I underwent the dye test for the second time. I hate that test (I’ve now done it three times). Here’s the basic procedure: they stick a catheter into your uterus, so they can inject dye into your fallopian tubes to make sure there aren’t any blockages. This particular test did not go well. Dr. Kiltz said I was in more pain than I should have been. As a result, he wanted to do laparoscopic surgery to take a look at my fallopian tubes and make sure everything was in working order.
The surgery went well. Afterward, Dr. Kiltz gave me a picture of my ovaries and showed me where he did a process called ovarian drilling. If that’s not weird to show your parents, I don’t know what is. After the surgery, I wanted to do one more IUI. I could tell Chuck wanted to move on to in-vitro fertilization (IVF), but I was hoping that the surgery would make a difference.
That was, and still is, my greatest weakness during fertility treatments. I’ve got a talent for grasping onto a small thing and convincing myself that it will make my body work normally, which makes no sense since my reproductive system has never been “normal.” This time was no different, but that wasn’t the only factor. IVF represented a moral quandary for me.
I was raised in a Catholic family. Although I am not a strict Catholic, I do believe in the concept that a fertilized egg is a human life. I knew that IVF would most likely result in more embryos than we would use. I wasn’t going to have babies just to have them (if IVF worked), so I was left debating over what we would do with the extra embryos. Well, it’s been two years since we did IVF, and I still haven’t figured that out.
Back to that August of our last IUI. I remember the day we got the phone call very well. We were at the State Fair, walking along a hill when my cell phone rang. CNY Fertility scrolled across the screen. I answered, and once again, my heart broke. Another negative test. In the middle of the Fair, Chuck held me, and we took a moment to let the sadness pour over us. Then we stepped back and put our minds on to our next step: IVF. Because that is where we knew we were going to go next.
I know that Chuck was relieved that I had finally come to terms with what we needed to do. I will forever be grateful for his patience with me. Furthermore, I cannot give enough thanks to the CNY nurses, especially Kelly and Jamie, who laid out my options month after month and never pressured me to commit to something I wasn’t comfortable with.
At this point, IVF was clearly our route to a child. We’d already decided that we would adopt if we couldn’t conceive, but I would never have been content if we hadn’t explored every option. It was something my sister said that really made me believe that IVF was something I could handle. She said that God wouldn’t have created the means to do IVF if he didn’t believe it should be used. Add to that the fact that I’d lost almost thirty pounds with the Keto diet, and I was, for the first time, feeling really good about doing IVF.
IVF is a whole different animal from IUI. The amount of medication you’re on increases, and you feel like you’re on the verge of the two-week wait for the entire cycle. After using medication to mature as many eggs as possible, I went through the short procedure to have them extracted. I remember hoping they got enough. My body hadn’t done well with anything else the treatments had thrown at me, so I wavered between believing it would work and worrying they would only find a couple eggs.
They extracted something like 27 eggs. After fertilization and the five days needed to let them develop, we were left with ten embryos. Ten more chances to have a baby. Suddenly, the possibility of baby seemed close to reality. I looked at that affirmation on our mirror every morning and let hope bloom.
The IVF procedure was performed in the Healing Arts portion of CNY Fertility. Calming music, dim lighting, fluffy robes, soft blankets, and a padded table. Before the procedure, Jamie, the nurse, gave us a picture of the two embryos they would be implanting. That the picture is forever fixed in my mind. That day also contains my absolute favorite memory from our entire fertility experience—Chuck in a jumpsuit they gave him to cover his clothes, wearing a cap over his hair and a mask over his face, looking straight at me and saying, “Embryo, I am your father.” I laughed so much that Jamie actually commented on it. Not enough can be said about the value of humor in such an emotionally-charged situation.
The procedure is short and simple. Dr. Kiltz inserted the embryos, and we got to watch the whole thing on the ultrasound machine. Afterward, we went home, just like we had so many times before. The two-week wait began. This time it came complete with a set of shots we had started earlier in the cycle.
I’m going to take a moment to focus on the shots. I have always been scared of needles. When I was little, that fear resulted in so much screaming that my parents used to warn my doctors. As I got older, I stopped screaming, but the fear stayed with me. Fertility treatments fixed that. I am now at peace with the needles. Blood test after blood test during our treatments leading up to IVF were my preparation for the shots Chuck gave me during that cycle. We had various shots throughout, but two stuck with us for the long haul. Because of my blood clot, I needed a shot in my stomach every night along with the traditional Progesterone in the glutinous maximus. I couldn’t bring myself to do the injections, so Chuck did them all.
Back to the IVF. I can’t explain the barrage of emotions I experienced during that two-week wait. Positivity was just as easy as despair. We were pretending we thought it worked and trying to not let our hopes get too high the entire time. Then came the phone call. As usual, I was at work, but this time I decided to answer. I still can’t say why. I walked into the hallway, and listened as the nurse told me my pregnancy test was positive. I had to walk away from my students, so I could freak out. The happiness was overwhelming, and all I wanted to do was hug Chuck. I had to make do with a very excited phone call instead (I did get my hug after work).
We’d gotten over the biggest hump for an infertile couple: we were pregnant. Our joy was indescribable. Despite that, at the back of mind, realism kept interjecting. False positives and miscarriages were a reality I couldn’t ignore. One of the blessings and curses of getting pregnant using fertility treatments is that you are monitored at least weekly until you switch to your OB at 10-12 weeks. For us, the monitoring started out as a curse. Our first ultrasound showed an empty sac. According to Kelly, the nurse, it shouldn’t have been empty. She told us that she was worried that I had an ectopic pregnancy resulting from the other embryo. We went back, and the sac still wasn’t right. She told us to return on Friday. If we didn’t hear a heartbeat by then, the pregnancy wasn’t viable.
I thought the two-week wait was bad. But both Chuck and I agree that the days between that appointment and Friday were the worst. Our hope had been ripped away, our dreams were on the verge of being shattered. How could it be possible that, after everything we’d gone through, our positive test wasn’t a pregnancy?
Friday came, and I remember sitting in that waiting room absolutely terrified to see the ultrasound screen. We were trying to stay positive, but it felt like my body just kept hitting us with another and another problem.
We sat in the room and waited for Kelly to do the ultrasound. She found a heartbeat! I’ve heard parents say their baby’s heartbeat was the most amazing sound they’ve ever heard. For us, it was that and so much more. It was joy, relief, love, and excitement all in one. That day is another one that will stay with me forever.
The weeks marched by, and we stayed pregnant. What an odd thing to say, right? Here’s the thing. After going through so much to get pregnant, I could barely believe that I was pregnant. Honestly, I don’t think I truly accepted my pregnancy until the day our little boy was born. I kept waiting for something to happen because it just didn’t seem possible that we were actually having a baby. Our joy was unparalleled, but that fear was always there.
The weeks between leaving CNY and going to my OB were stressful. After seeing and hearing my baby every week having to wait several weeks to see it again was really hard. I was so paranoid that the baby was gone or something was wrong that I’m sure I frustrated Chuck. Seeing the baby on the ultrasound again was exciting and relieving. What wasn’t great was the part where our OB told us he thought we had a placenta previa. An ultrasound on a more updated machine verified it. Apparently, with IVF, a low-lying placenta is more common. We needed to see a specialist in January.
Our pregnancy moved forward. My stomach grew, and our impending specialist appointment loomed over us. The day arrived and we drove on the worst roads we’ve ever experienced to get there. We narrowly avoided several accidents. The appointment was not fun. My OB wanted us to meet with a genetic specialist who could explain my connection to my mother’s blood condition. Reluctantly, we agreed. After a very extensive ultrasound, the genetic specialist told us all the things in our family that could affect our baby. Then she explained that our baby had several markers which pointed to Downs Syndrome. Let me make this clear: we would never give up our child, but having a baby with Downs Syndrome would involve a whole extra set of preparations we weren’t ready for. They offered us another test to make a definitive diagnosis, which we turned down. We were going to accept our baby in whatever state it came out of the womb.
At our next specialist appointment, some of the markers had gone away. Relief coursed through us. At this point, it was March and our little peanut was due June 6, D-Day (a day important to my family since my grandfather was there). The placenta had also moved enough centimeters that a vaginal birth was now a possibility. We were moving forward again, and things finally seemed to be lining up in the right way.
On June 1, our little Chase came into the world. He was perfect, and we fell instantly in love (so cliché and so very true). The next day, as I tried to breastfeed him, my PCOS problems came rocketing back. I wasn’t producing enough milk, a common problem for women with PCOS. I was so upset about it that my OB spoke to Chuck about watching me for signs of postpartum depression. I had just birthed a baby, and less than a day later, my body was reminding me that it didn’t like to do things it was supposed to do.
That’s the thing about being infertile, specifically with PCOS. The hormone imbalances stay with you and hit you hard at the most unexpected moments. If I am honest, I had suspected that breastfeeding would be a struggle, but the reality of my difficulties was hard to swallow. As a side note, Chase and I did persevere with some help from Chuck and a dropper during the initial feedings, and little man breastfed until fifteen months.
Around Chase’s first birthday, we decided to try for another baby. This time things have been very different. The pressure’s off, the rollercoaster is more gentle, and our outlook is more consistently positive. After all, if the embryos we have left don’t take, we still have our little boy.
Remember how I said I fall into a trap where I convince myself things are working right? Well, it happened again. Since April, I’d had consistent periods for the first time since college, so I figured I could try a transfer with minimal medication. There were a few other factors as well, including the fact that I was still breastfeeding Chase before bed and I had transitioned to exclusively essential oil support for my body. I didn’t want to take all that medicine if I didn’t have to, despite the fact that it had worked before.
I could tell Chuck was skeptical, but, as always, he let me make the decision. Needless to say, it didn’t work. I didn’t even get a viable follicle. At my last appointment to check things out, the nurse told me, if I was her sister, she would tell me to cancel the cycle and try again next month. That’s what we did. But this time the devastation and despair weren’t there. Just disappointment and me hating my body again for not working right.
I took the medication, we did the shots, and Dr. Kiltz did a frozen embryo transfer. I went to work afterward, and Chuck brought the picture of the embryos home and showed Chase, who later crumpled it when he grabbed the paper off a table. The anticipation is still there…the fear of hoping too much is still there. I’m trying to walk that all-too-familiar line between reality and dreams. I haven’t let myself insert the picture of another child (or children) into our little family’s lives. Because I know how this fertility thing goes. The cycle is hard, and, despite all the successes it does create, it doesn’t always work. The two-week wait has started again, but this time, with our precious little boy by our sides, things are just a little bit easier.