To celebrate 40 years of IVF I decided to expose myself at work. Not physically, although post IVF egg collection I repeatedly wandered around the office with my trousers undone because, quite frankly, the stubborn blighters refused to button up around my bloat. Instead I exposed myself emotionally, with a post on the work intranet informing the few thousand people I work with that I struggled with infertility and had IVF (you can read what I wrote on my website - link in bio). This morning the intranet opened up to a photo of me from the day of egg collection, wearing my hospital issue wizards outfit. It was a topical piece given IVF's birthday and not at all out of place for the intranet considering that I work for the Department of Health and Social Care. But prior to today's exposure I had told a total of 4 work colleagues about my infertility. Just 4. I knew that there must be others in the office who had been through similar experiences and by the end of the day I'd received half a dozen emails from colleagues who had also struggled to conceive. I knew it! (Slap hand on desk). We, the infertility community, are EVERYWHERE. So here is a copy of my IVF post for my work intranet, suffering slightly from the devastatingly restrictive 500 word count.
40 Years of IVF
Today is the 40th birthday of Louise Brown, the first person in the world to be born through in vitro fertilisation (IVF). She was conceived in vitro exactly 40 years to the day that I began my own IVF cycle. This pioneering technique, developed by British researchers Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, was a medical breakthrough but considered morally, ethically and religiously controversial. With over 8 million babies worldwide born to IVF since Louise, IVF babies are now commonplace. So what is it actually like to go through IVF?
Key stages of IVF
The drugs are one of the most daunting aspects and when I first saw the needle my heart skipped a beat – it looked like something you’d use to tranquillise an elephant and not something that should be allowed anywhere near my tender little tummy. Luckily, I was gawping at the mixing needle, which is much thicker than the tiny, sharp and painless needles used for injections.
The drugs encourage your body to produce a crop of eggs while simultaneously preventing their release before egg collection. They come in separate parts like a chemistry set, forcing you to become a mixologist at home. Also provided is a terrifying sharps tub to discard syringes, a thick plastic box with a ‘go near this and you are going to die’ skull and cross bones warning on the side. Comforting. Thankfully, I only had to endure 10 days of injections, which is quick by IVF standards.
Egg collection and fertilisation
Extracting the eggs is a pretty undignified operation performed under general anaesthetic or heavy sedation. It involved me donning a rather fetching pair of paper pants and wearing oversized hospital garments that made me look like a wizard. The operation was quick – only 30 minutes – and then I was wheeled back into the room for recovery. I felt fine. I looked a state.
Immediately after egg collection we were informed of the number of eggs collected, although numbers matter less than quality. Given we had been trying for a baby for over 3 years, I guessed that my little eggs safely fell into the category of ‘could be improved’. The embryologist called most days with updates on how our little ones were developing. I felt a connection to them (the embryos, not the embryologists – although I’m sure they were lovely too). Embryos are usually left to develop for either 3 or 5 days, depending on their quality, and the best one then chosen for transfer.
Our embryo was inserted back into the womb by a skinny plastic straw. It’s another undignified procedure (think 100 watt bulb being shone where a 100 watt bulb should never go). Through the marvels of modern technology, an image of our embryo magically appeared on a television screen in the corner of the room. I couldn’t stop staring. We had not discussed beforehand whether to take a photo, so under the watchful gaze of the consultant we started having a civilised mini domestic. In my mind, IVF provides an opportunity not available to most people – to show a child what they looked like as a clump of cells, just 5 days old. But my husband’s view that taking a photo would jinx proceedings won out and alas, the photo idea was no more.
2 weeks’ wait followed by a home pregnancy test
After 3 years of failure it was safe to say that I was expecting a negative result. I had even planned how to tell my family and friends – it was a humorous and light-hearted message that was hopeful for the future, none of which I actually felt. But to my utter disbelief the result was positive. I was shocked, thrilled – cue immediate tears. Finally, could this be it?
Viability scan at 7 weeks of pregnancy
The biggest question of the day: will there be a heartbeat? The sonographer turned the screen for us to see and said triumphantly: “Look! Here is your embryo” while pointing to what appeared to an untrained eye to be a grainy black and white picture of a fried egg. I nodded enthusiastically, while simultaneously squinting to see whether that had the same effect as the sharpen filter on Instagram. It didn’t. “And here is the heartbeat, do you see it?!” “Yes!” I lied. Basically, the heartbeat was just a small grey flicker. But thankfully our little one continued to grow, and next week I head off on maternity leave, something I feared would never happen for me.
1 in 7 couples struggle with fertility issues. It remains a subject not frequently discussed, although openness on this difficult topic is thankfully increasing. I’m proud to be having an IVF baby and I will be forever grateful to the wonderful NHS for giving me the opportunity to become a mum.