Last Tuesday night we got in the car for another trip to our fertility clinic the day before a big event, but this time we wouldn’t be going through it alone. Our gestational carrier Elle* and her husband Dave* had flown in that afternoon, which made it possible to met them for a late dinner the night before the transfer. The last time we had seen them was three months ago during the initial medical screening, so it was great to spend some time with them outside of the clinic. We talked long after we finished our meals and eventually decided to continue our conversation in one of our rooms upstairs after we had noticed that everyone around us had left and the servers were ready to close. Elle and I talked for a couple more hours about anything and everything, at one point we even ended up sitting on the floor in the hotel hallway, laughing harder than I have in years (no alcohol involved!). Meanwhile, Kyle and Dave hung out at the bar downstairs past midnight. Obviously it was a late night, but so needed. When we started this process, I never could have imagined how much of a support system they would become for us.
For all of the preparation that went into our transfer (and I am literally talking eight months of work for this one shot), I didn’t know how to process what I was feeling. I kept waiting to be overcome by some kind of emotion– any emotion at all– but I think in an attempt at self-preservation, I had let myself fall into a state of numbness. Unfortunately that didn’t protect me from the call I received from our doctor beforehand, only about 2 hours prior to our procedure, during which we heard that out of the 17 embryos we had on Day 3 following my retrieval, only one had made it to the blastocyst stage by Day 5 and just 4 others were showing signs of possible survival. I struggled to focus on his words, “We don’t know why this happened… Very unusual for your age… I’m still glad we tried IVF… We’ll have to find a way to overcome this in the future.” I tried to wrap my mind around the meaning. Twelve embryos that we had worked so hard for, that I had put my body through hell for, that I had held close to my heart for these three days– gone. Just like that. And suddenly the emotion I was missing crashed over me as I crawled into bed and cried myself to sleep, completely exhausted in every way.
Not much later, the four of us waited anxiously to be called back for the transfer only to be told that just one of us could be with Elle. She was upset that Kyle would be missing out, especially because it was different than what we had originally been told, but I’ve spent enough time in the medical world to know that everyone has their own rules and you just have to find someone else to agree. Once Elle was changed into a hospital gown and I had a jumpsuit on over my clothes, we met the doctor doing the actual transfer and she had no problem letting all of us into the room.
…And this is what I struggle to write about the most, because I don’t know how to put the experience we had into words. I can say that it was overwhelming, it was intense, it was like nothing I had ever imagined it would be, it was strange. I can tell you that I sat on a stool near Elle’s head while Kyle and Dave stood close by behind me. We watched the embryologist load our blastocyst into the catheter on a video feed and I held my breath as she finally carried it into the room. My eyes stayed riveted to the ultrasound monitor even when nothing was happening, just in case I might miss something. And then it was over as quickly as it had begun, and I felt the tears stream down my face unchecked. The embryologist brought me a photo of the embryo we had transferred and carefully pointed out the parts that would become the placenta, the baby’s spine. It was all so amazing and strange and wonderful and frightening that I couldn’t keep from crying throughout her explanation and she hugged me as she handed over the photo as a souvenir.
I know now that it all really happened because I still have the photo sitting on my dresser.
The rest of the day came as a welcome distraction. We took Elle & Dave into the city for some lunch and ended up staying a second night with them in order to take advantage of the time we had together. And then, the next morning, another phone call came from the clinic. Only a single other embryo had become a blastocyst (although this one’s survival is somewhat more precarious because it will need to be frozen); the others had not survived the night.
This final blow hit me hard. We had been told to expect to have 10-15 embryos following the high number of eggs retrieved. All along I had waited for the other shoe to drop, but when 17 of them had survived to the third day, my hopes started to lift involuntarily. I started to think seriously about finally being able to have a hysterectomy; with a potential baby on the way and several frozen embryos, my doctor believed I might actually be able to find someone willing to take everything out. I thought I could be free from these organs that have ruined and dictated my life for the last 15 years. I even started to have a spark of hope for a second child someday, if things could ever come together for such a miracle. Kyle spent hours looking up family cars online; I could see the change in him as he began to believe that this might really work for us. I thought about having extra embryos and considered donating them for the first time because I realized that I never wanted anyone— whether a loved one or a stranger– to suffer through life without a child of their own if I could do anything about it. Donating our embryos had seemed impossible to me before, but maybe this is what I could do help someone else.
And then the other shoe did drop, like it always seems to do for us, and all those thoughts went up in smoke.
Thursday evening when we got home, I walked into the guest bathroom for something and, for some reason, was shocked to see the remnants of our IVF cycle. The empty boxes of expensive fertility drugs I’d injected into myself were still stacked up on the counter. My IVF program guide and medication instructions had sat untouched for days (was it really only days?); I’d memorized it all by now anyway. It seemed so long ago somehow, and as strange as it sounds, it was a reminder of a time when I didn’t know what it felt like to be told that 15 embryos out of 17 were lost for no discernible reason. I sobbed as I thought about how hopeful I’d become throughout our cycle, how pleased I’d been with myself for learning how to stick needles into my stomach and getting through the pain of the egg retrieval. I had known all along that this was a possibility, but I hadn’t known what it really felt like. And that’s where Kyle found me several minutes later as I mourned the loss of all those embryos and broken dreams.
Even as I write this, I know I am lucky. Simply having the opportunity to try IVF & surrogacy makes me one of the lucky ones. Some women can even go through the exact same process and wake up on transfer day without any embryos at all while I still have two. And most importantly, in the midst of my grief and stress, I have managed to overlook the fact that we still have the possibility of this transfer being successful. I don’t want to let the loss of 15 mean more than the two chances we do have.
Now we’ll have to wait for a full two weeks following the transfer to get the results. I know we’ll be told to stay positive through this time, but I am trying not to think about it as much as possible. It’s difficult to find the right balance between protecting my heart and maintaining hope, and I haven’t quite managed it yet.
*Names changed for privacy reasons