Hannah, age 45, co-founder@The Fertility Circle
7 years, via 5 rounds of IVF, including egg donor treatment. We were successful on our final round and have a 20 month old son
“It never, ever occurred to me that I’d struggle to have a baby”
Anyone could have a child whenever they were ready, couldn’t they? To say I was naïve about my fertility is an understatement. As a 70s kid I recall a much-hyped ‘sex education’ class: in reality an awkward one-hour session dominated by nervous giggling over some odd-looking drawings in a biology text book. No word of dwindling egg supply or there being an age when you were quite frankly past it.
So a combination of busy career and meeting my now-husband later in life meant we didn’t really get started until my mid-30s, by which time my body clock was ticking audibly.
I’d always had heavy and painful periods and by my early 30s started to experience quite debilitating abdominal pain, leading to a couple of emergency hospital admissions and two laparoscopies.
I was finally diagnosed with endometriosis and also the less-well-known adenomyosis, where rogue tissue grows within the muscle of the abdominal wall itself.
“The best thing you can do for your endometriosis is to get pregnant. Oh how I laugh at that now.”
Everything else – ovaries, tubes – looked fine, and my gynaecologist actually told me ‘the best thing you can do for your endometriosis is to get pregnant’. Oh how I laugh at that now. After about two years’ trying (I was 38 by now), I was referred by my GP to my local hospital. All the usual markers of ovarian reserve – FSH, AMH etc – were good and I was offered one free cycle of IVF on the NHS. I was put on a long protocol but as it turns out – lucky me!- I’m very sensitive to hormones, and I had a bad reaction to the drugs. A couple of trips to A&E and an almost-cancelled cycle resulted in just six eggs, three of which made it to day three transfer but it wasn’t looking hopeful and the cycle resulted in a negative test. Because of my age, and because I wasn’t offered any further treatment on the NHS, we had to find a private clinic.
We swapped to a short protocol and tried again. This time we got eight eggs: five of them fertilised, which seemed positive, and we transferred two. Again though, a negative test two weeks later. IVF no3 followed a very similar pattern but by this time my husband and I were working together in Hong Kong. I was 41 and really beginning to feel desperate. My body clock wasn’t so much ticking now as screaming and I struggled as friends announced their own positive test results.
“Things quickly unraveled as I found myself in A&E with ascites and impaired liver function”
We couldn’t complete a full treatment cycle during our visits back home to London so we had to find a local Hong Kong clinic.
Success rates were a lot lower, especially in my age bracket, so deep down we didn’t fancy our chances, but needed to keep trying. ‘Third time lucky’, we kept saying. But things quickly unraveled as I had another bad reaction to a different fertility drug and found myself in A&E with ascites and impaired liver function. A week in a Hong Kong public hospital later and I was struggling to continue with the stimulation treatment, but I was determined to finish the cycle. Again, the cycle failed, so we returned to our London consultant for advice. We managed a short protocol for IVF no4 during an extended London visit (I’d confided in my CEO about my fertility struggles by this stage and she was very supportive). As a couple, we’d always been in the ‘unexplained infertility’ bracket, so we chucked everything at this round including endometrial scratch, ICSI and even some advanced sperm and DNA testing for my husband. Just. In. Case. But again, it resulted in similar egg quantities; average embryo quality and again, the same negative test result.
At this point we were really despairing. I was getting older and, faced with the diminishing odds of success as a 40-plus woman, we turned to egg donation. A dear friend in Hong Kong generously offered us her eggs but we decided to use an anonymous donor. Our London clinic worked hard to get us a good match. The only details we were given about our donor were her ethnicity, age, eye, hair colour and build, educational background, and childbearing history. We saw no photos of our donor but we felt confident in our clinic and decided to go ahead with the first donor they put forward.
“We put two embryos back, crossed our fingers one last time and got on a 12-hour flight back to Hong Kong the next morning”
Our donor was doing an egg share so we only got 50% of her total eggs, and with just seven, it felt a bit like old times again: would they fertilise? Would they make it to transfer? We ended up with three viable embryos in the end. Two were good-looking blastocysts; the third a poorer-quality embryo. We put two embryos back, crossed our fingers one last time and got on a 12-hour flight back to Hong Kong the next morning. A week later, we were on a staycation in a HK hotel and I started to bleed. Me and my husband had agreed this really was our final throw of the dice, not least because having spent over £50,000 by now, we’d simply run out of money. I’d been given some drugs in case of a bleed so I took my final injection and prayed. As it turned out, one of the embryos had arrested, hence the bleeding. But the other one made it. We welcomed our boy into the world in March last year.
So what next? I feel the most overwhelming sense of gratitude for our son but as more and more friends with children the same age start to fall pregnant with number two I feel that familiar pang of things being just out of reach once more. A month off my 45th birthday with no eggs on ice from any of our past cycles means my chance of having any more children is pretty bleak. Fertility is such an odd game though, so perhaps I’ll leave it at this: never say never and watch this space.