The funny side of IVF and the crazy beautiful moments
I’ve been thinking whether to write this piece or not, I’m aware that the words ‘IVF’ and ‘funny’ are seldom within the same sentence. But, I wanted to share my story, and thats all it is, my story.
I started IVF about two weeks ago, having moved to London to do the treatment. Being at the wonderful age of 41, I picked the clinic that has the best success rate for over 40s, stats count so much as I have come to learn with IVF, and they also count for shit. The clinic is dubbed, ‘Last stop salon for IVF’. The clinic however, lets just say, it does not look like it has any reputation. In fact, walking into it, you feel you have literally taken a Back to the Future vehicle to 1984. The practice is basic, when I say basic, I mean, there is no airs and graces, the carpet looks like it needs a good wash and the best part, the real icing on cake, is there are barely any digital records. Yes, you understood correctly, all of the patients notes are carried around in a paper drop file folder and thats just how it is.
The clinic however are obsessed with monitoring, meaning daily blood tests plus scans. The first time I had to be scanned, the doctor doing it on the day was a young guy. This was the first time I was ever going to be scanned internally by a man and I felt awkward. In the end I had to just get on with it and as with all things, two weeks down the line, I’m now going into the room of whatever doctor, whipping my trousers and underwear off and ready for the scan, before they have even confirmed my name from the files!
So IVF goes like this, first they monitor your cycle and see how your normal cycle is, then they will do a hysteroscopy, which is to put you under sedation to look inside your uterus, take measurements and prepare the uterus for when the embryos are put back. Next they will start your ‘stimulation’, basically getting your ovaries who produce one egg a month, to produce more than one, in fact lots. Its a bit like over revving an engine in low gears, pushing it to produce lots of nice eggs/follicles. Stimulation is done through various medication (injections) and in the case of my practice, the dosage varies daily depending on your daily blood results, which has its own hilarious process, more to come!
On the day of my hysteroscopy, arriving at 6.30am at the clinic with my husband, it was the first time I’d seen so many men in the clinic. Don't get me wrong, you do see them daily but as I have come to realise, this process, the actual IVF process, it really is a woman's process. My husband, sitting in the waiting room after we arrive says ‘er, are they doing the procedure here, this place is an office not a theatre!’ I had to reassure him it's downstairs and it should be fine (I had no idea)! The procedure went ok and in recovery, lying on my bed and literally cramped side by side with the other ladies who had done the procedure, I opened my eyes and looked at the women next to me, we both smiled and we started eating some biscuits we were given in recovery. Looking around the room I realised it was the same room that I had come a few weeks back to do some IV drip and just like a set in theatre (the art type), it had been changed to a recovery room!
I started talking to the girl next to me and then the next day when we were both there for our daily tests, again we spoke and that was it. I made a friend who would be my sidekick through this process.
Her name is Eva, she is a warm, small cute bubbly Spanish girl, 41 years old but looks about 31! She has the kind of face that expresses every joy and sadness when she tells a story. She’s funny and fun and she’s my kind of person…oh and she has a fear of needles. Yes, in the most Woody Allen or in her case, Almodovar way, our little Spaniard who has started IVF, has a needle phobia. She breaks into a cold panic sweat every time she needs to inject, often her husband or myself doing it for her. And, this process is all about daily needles, whether its blood tests or injections!
After our daily morning bloods and scans, Eva and I go and get breakfast, run some errands around town, drink our water, we must drink 3litres and then keep rushing to the toilet every 20 mins! We then get a call from the clinic to give us our daily instruction. The calls typically go like this: ‘Hi, its Marie (or any other name) calling from the clinic, do you have a pen and paper to write your instructions? They are as follows, take X amount of this and Y amount of that in the next 2 or 3 hours’. The X and the Y are the meds, the daily injections we have to make up and inject in our belly. The first time I had to do this, it was like an episode of Breaking Bad. I lined up my needles, syringes and meds, all nicely on the table, taking great care with every part of it. By day 4, I had my meds in my bag, ready to shoot wherever I needed. Breaking bad felt more like Amy Winehouse as I was measuring my meds in a photo booth at a private members club and yes,we even took a photo holding the syringe. I’m sure we weren't the only ones who had taken anything in that booth!
As part of the IVF, I had decided to see an acupuncturist too, throw everything at it I thought! Eva comes with me for my first appointment as we are by now hanging out most of the day. The fertility acupuncturist is this interesting, beautiful woman with a wonderful energy. I tell her that Eva just came along and she is going through IVF with me. While I am getting ready to lie down, Eva mentions her failed first round of IVF and the acupuncturist says ‘ come sit here, I want to do some acupuncture on you for free. So there I am lying with few needles in my belly and there is Eva who has about 6 needles in her ear sitting in the chair, trying not to think about the needles! The whole thing was comedy and yet there was something very warming about it, the connections us women had with each other, a shared goal, compassion, it felt warm and Almodovar at same time.
Since starting this process, I have this further respect for women. I visit the clinic daily for my monitoring and see the odd male partner who is no doubt offering support where he can. But honestly, this is a womens process, its our bodies and we are the ones that are physically going through the fertility process, thats just a fact. Women helping other women through it, is the most important thing, you need other women to support you and to share and laugh with. I have been feeling quite upbeat and taking it a day at a time but then again, I have not have 1 or 2 failed IVFs! So you help each other, prop each other when one is down and my goodness, it makes such a difference! It makes me think how us women, when we put our energies to building each other, rather than breaking each other, are so incredibly powerful.
The daily ritual of visiting the blood clinic from 7.30am has become something to look forward now, it’s where we all see each other again. The place is funny, you enter this clinic which is a converted English Georgian house. You hand your blood form to the the receptionist, a well dressed, Filipino lady, who we call the ‘Madame’ now, as she looks like she is the main Madame at a high end…well you know what I mean. She takes the forms and we wait to be called. There are usually about 3–4 phlebotomists who take the blood and as I have come to learn, not all phlebotomists are created equal! There is an art to blood taking, the ones who know their stuff, will just feel a vein, one you can barely see with your eye, they go in with the small butterfly needle and boom, you are done in under 1 min. Then you get the other ones, who basically, dont have it! I had one guy, sweet but head in the the clouds Filipino guy who took so long to do my test and with such caution, that I was close to grabbing it, doing it myself and then poking my eye out! Another time, I had this lady who not only didn’t use the butterfly needle, which frankly is the best invention in medicine, but when she went in, she couldn’t get blood out, like nothing and it hurt like hell. In the end, I had to ask someone else to do it. Now folks, let me put it into context for you, before you think I’m too harsh, these guys are trained phlebotomist, they dont take blood occasionally, they take blood ALL DAY, thats ALL they do. So when a phlebotomist cant get the vain, its basically like a pastry chef whose soufflé doesn’t rise, or the tailor who cuts the suit too short. After experiencing these two, I try and make sure I avoid them, allowing someone else to go in front of me. On one of these days, I am waiting, have already clocked who are the phlebotomist on duty. Cloud Filipino guy is cubicle 1, noted. Must avoid 1. A girl sits next to me, due to go in after me. As we hear the words ‘next’ from cubicle one, I say ‘ you go’, thinking maybe it was just my experience and others are ok. Then she says to me with a smile ‘nooooo, please, not him’! Omg, so its not just me! She is running the same phlebotomist avoidance scheme! Then I high five her and we smile and luckily another victim, sorry patient comes in and we let them go in front. And that was it, another connection and a new friend. So this now becomes a running joke between myself, Eva and new girl. Whoever gets to the clinic first will let the others know which cubicles to avoid. Eva told me she kept going to the toilet to avoid bad blood taking lady and she is sure she knows. But honestly, when you are taking so many meds, piercing your skin daily with injections, you really cant be dealing with the bad blood taking and your body actually just needs you to go easy on it. Some days they only need one bottle and its quick but other days, it could be 4–5 and although these bottles are not big, its still blood, its still your source of life.
I like observing routines in places, especially in places I would never normally be in. The blood clinic has that and its weirdly comforting, maybe it’s the continuous daily routine of this IVF stage thats comforting as the reality of IVF is, you do not know if you will be successful and it can change, so holding onto the daily little joys or wins, whether thats ok blood results or scans, keeps me sane.
The blood clinic also sends some samples to other labs, or has samples dropped from other clinics and this is done with a guy carrying what can only be described as a DIY tool box. Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce you to Dwayne, our young fro hairstyled, black jacket wearing dude that looks like he was taken from Shaft rather than belong to any clinic here! He looks so out of place that I think even he thinks, ‘ yeah I know I’m rocking a different vibe to this joint’. Dwayne has swagger and actually, the juxtaposition of him sitting against the period wallpaper backdrop of this Georgian clinic makes him look like an extra from a movie set. The other day, I saw Dwayne pull out a small sandwich and start eating it while waiting for his samples. He looked at me as he was eating and smiled sweetly. I wonder if he is aware what all these samples are for? Whether the samples and their results will affect what medicine we inject that day? Or depending on where you are in your IVF journey, the result can hold happiness and cries of sheer joy or the shattered dream and hope for a family. Dwayne probably doesn't think of that and why should he. Looking at his young face biting into his sandwich, with no care in the world, he is a refreshingly carefree symbol of youth in a place where age is rarely on your side.
By week 2 of stimulation, Eva, who started a few days before me is now nearing the egg collection stage. Her count is ok, not too high and she is worried. I reassure her we only need the one good egg! She has her collection and the next day, we go and see Dreamgirls in the theatre as I continue my endless water drinking. They say its important to be relaxed during stimulation or as I like to say ‘ happy hens lay happy eggs’.
One of the days, Eva and I go to see another girl who I met very early at the clinic, Bella. She is 32 and pregnant with twins and ready to pop. We go to her flat in Chelsea, a posh part of London where she lives with her husband. Bella is a force of nature, small build, high achieving Oxford educated control freak. She is also very sweet and generous and has been great to chat to during my process as she has already gone through it. Today Bella is freaking out. In her posh pre natal classes, the ladies had been asking about whether ‘the list’ was ready and Bella had no idea what they were talking about. ‘The school list Bella’ , they had said with a look of shock that I can only imagine. This has made her panic so hard that she has now gone into Bella overdrive. Basically, to get a place at the top private schools in London plus the nurseries, you need to register them as soon as they are born, some even before they are born. Yes, thats right, even before the child comes out of the womb, they are already on the school list. Bela has gone into military action involving a spreadsheet of the schools and nurseries and contacts. In fact, some of these exclusive schools need you to be referred to them, they don’t just take anyone! Bela has also organised a 1.5hr consultation with a schools specialist from Tatler magazine, so she can make sure she has contacts in the right places. As I sit around the table with Bella, frantically typing away on her school spreadsheet, Eva, worried about her eggs and myself, who is getting ready to inject, I have to laugh at the serious ridiculousness of this whole scenario! And yet, there is a common thread of compassion and empathy we all feel for each other.
I am told I’m finally ready to ‘trigger’. A few days back, they had made sure I had the trigger injection and they had wanted me to have it on me the whole time from now on. The tigger injection is basically what you take to start the egg collection process. It is very time specific and once taken, there is a 36hr window to take the eggs out of the ovaries. The trigger instructions are even more Mission Impossible than my regular instructions. ‘Prepare the injection 10 minute before your time of 8.15pm and we will see you at 6.30am day after tomorrow, both you and partner need to be nil by mouth’. The trigger basically feels like the point in an exam where the examiner says ‘time is up, pens and pencils down please’; you don’t know how you have done, but you know that the time to work on getting good eggs is over. Collection day arrives and my husband, is also ready for his moment of glory. The waiting room is filled with the women and their partners who you know will at some point be given a cup to go and supply their sperm. I’m hoping my husbands heavy work week and long hours haven’t affected his little swimmers as really, once the eggs are collected, the sperm needs to go and swim for their lives, we don’t want some hippy trippy lost sperm, we want ones with focus, determination!
I am put under sedation and when I come round, I am told they collected 20 eggs from me! 20, damn girl I think, you did ok! Of course, its about quality not quantity but I managed to mature 20 eggs in one cycle! I’m sent home and told to rest and that I will be hearing from the embryologist daily with an update. We receive the first call few hours later, the eggs are fine and as they have this number, they suggest to do some natural IVF and some ICSI, which is basically when they manually take some sperm and inject it into the egg. I tell them I want to do minimum ICSI, after all, who wants the sperm that couldn't make it himself to be fertilising your egg? Thats how Trump supporters come to be!
I go over to Eva’s house last night, having done her transfers 4 days ago, she now needs to take progesterone injections in her butt! This injection is the one that most people struggle with during IVF, and yet its one of the most important as drops in Progesterone are associated with miscarriage.When you hear butt injection, it conjures up old cartoons or films, bending over and an injection going straight into the butt cheek, right? No No No!!, as poor Eva found out the hard way. On her first Progesterone injection night, her patient husband Paul, having seen videos or pictures of where its should be injected had tried to calm her and ended up chasing her around the house with the needle for 50 mins! In the end, despite his concerns that its the wrong location, Eva insists straight into the butt cheek, hitting her sciatic nerve and now she is barely able to walk! Note to self ‘never go head to head with the glutes!’
I am now day 2, the embryos are all dividing, some better quality than others. I was told that I may transfer tomorrow. They either transfer by day 3 or day 5, by which point you have blastocyst.I’m still feeling quite sore from collection, feel really bloated and actually thinking, ‘shit, is this how you feel when you are pregnant?’ It’s a waiting game now, I still need to drink lots of water and eat protein and wait to hear what will happen tomorrow.
The IVF journey is a strange one, its the best and worst of all of us, compassion yet comparing yourself to others, their egg numbers, their age, etc. I dont know what the result will be for me or anyone else, hope we all fall pregnant and we can laugh about it over coffee and screaming babies. I want to focus on that and not get sidetracked by the stats, the damn stats! Whatever happens, I hope these new friendships continue because its through this journey that I have seen the best of women and their support for one another and the world is a lovelier place for it.