An Embryologist’s Journey To Conceive While Helping Others On The Same Path

An Embryologist’s Journey To Conceive While Helping Others On The Same Path

As an embryologist, I am by definition a fertility scientist, but I like to think that I also work in the less-stark realm of hope. I help the dreams of would-be parents become reality.

I always knew my job was special. I have felt extremely lucky to do what I do, and to help people dealing with infertility—one of the most stressful experiences someone can endure. 

One problem, however, is that working with patients every day, including those that can’t get pregnant with IVF, resonates with people like me who work in a fertility clinic.

With our training plus seeing what our patients experience can make us hyper-aware of the potential challenges of getting pregnant. I felt this and have spoken to many other embryologists who felt the same way. We know that the worst thing we can do early is wait until we are much older to get pregnant. I and a lot of other embryologists that I know, begin investigations into our conception chances as soon as we can.

An Embryologist’s Journey To Conceive While Helping Others On The Same Path 1

For me, not having regular periods and being diagnosed with PCOS long before marriage, I knew that the reality for my patients could very well be true for me, too. 

I was well informed and knew that I needed to start my personal investigation long before my husband and I wanted to start trying. I had months of blood hormone tracking, which showed that I was not ovulating. I got a referral for an endocrinologist and had numerous tests done, which led to my PCOS diagnosis. 

We saw a fertility specialist, armed with our tracking results, and was told ovulation induction would be our starting point.

I was well aware of the incredible struggles that IVF patients go through. A lot of people currently in a cycle have been trying for many years and I know that a lot of time, and significant money and effort, go into fertility investigations long before patients can even get to the stage where they can pursue IVF. 

Knowing all this, my husband and I set out on our very first medicated cycle. I remember being so scared that my ovaries were going to puff up like blowfish and I would get sextuplets.  I’ve never actually seen this happen in my job; but hey, it happened to Jon and Kate Plus 8!  

I went for my Day 9 blood test. Nothing. I went for another test a few days later. Nothing. I went for another test a few days later, and then a few days after that and still, nothing. And then my estrogen dropped and my cycle got cancelled. 

Um, what? Despite everything I knew about IVF, I didn’t know that this was possible. Of course, I knew that IVF cycles got cancelled for various reasons; but it never occurred to me that a simple ovulation induction could fail. 

Cue the hysterics that I now had to wait for my period for my next chance with an assisted cycle, which I knew could take months. 

As an embryologist, we’re used to waiting for eggs to fertilize and we’re used to waiting for embryos to develop to suitable stages. I somehow didn’t think about all the waiting that I, and other fertility treatment patients, would have to do. We wait in the clinic for monitoring. We wait for blood work results. We wait for insurance approvals. We wait for our bodies to ovulate.  It can be maddening. 

I waited and my period didn’t come until a few weeks later. We then started Round 2. Once again, I had several blood tests and nothing. I didn’t ovulate. Yet, another cancelled cycle. 

At this point, my husband and I were due to travel interstate and instead of being excited, I begged my husband to freeze his sperm and go without me so I could have an insemination while he was away. He looked at me like I was nuts. (At this point, he was probably right.)  My entire life became a cycle of googling what I could do to increase my chances of getting pregnant, what foods I could eat, what supplements I could take. 

I have a Masters degree in Reproductive Medicine—I’m supposedly an expert— yet I found myself looking for some magical information that would be more helpful than anything my doctors told me or that I had learned in my studies. 

Here’s a little secret: if such magical advice existed on how to instantly conceive, we would all know about it! 

We traveled, and a blood test done after our return revealed that I had ovulated while I was away and couldn’t start fertility drugs until my period came. 

My period didn’t come. I was pregnant.

I am well aware of the fact that my conception journey was nothing compared to what most infertility warriors go through. 

I do like to think, though, that it gives me a great appreciation for the stress and obsession that #TTC can cause, because I know how much it affected me and my marriage even though our journey wasn’t that long or complicated. 

I even remember thinking one night that I should leave my husband when he didn’t want to have sex on the day I was actually due to ovulate. I was so angry that he didn’t appreciate the significance that I was finally ovulating. Do men not understand how hard it is to get lazy PCOS ovaries to ovulate? 

This struggle is something that I think of regularly, about how patients are coping and how much it is actually affecting them and their relationships. I now know that there are so many different ways they could be struggling.

I vividly remember being in the lab and being pregnant. My job was suddenly so much more important. I was grateful that I was able to conceive and also that I had the ability to help others in the office who were still trying. 

I would sometimes cry during patients’ embryo transfers because I wanted so badly for the patients to be able to feel what I was feeling. 

When I became heavily pregnant, I avoided patient contact out of respect, but there were a couple of times that it was unavoidable. 

Sometimes it was a good thing: One patient was so excited to see that I was pregnant that she asked if she could rub my tummy for “baby vibes.” Other patients happily commented and asked who my doctor was or where I would be delivering. 

But there were several occasions in which I would stand there with my big belly, waiting in silence for the doctor to insert the catheter into a patient. Though it may have been in my head, I could feel the woman and her partner staring at me. I could feel them thinking it was inappropriate to bring a heavily pregnant embryologist in at such a vulnerable and sensitive time of their IVF cycle. 

It was hard for me not to feel remorse. I even thought: This just isn’t fair and I don’t deserve this when so many of these families can’t get pregnant. 

I never got any negative comments, but several of my colleagues did when they were pregnant.

I returned to work after maternity leave. I had an eight-month-old baby girl and it was the greatest thing to be back doing what I was doing, knowing that I got to go home at the end of the day to my baby. 

I had a renewed sense of purpose in my job. I knew exactly what these families would be feeling when they finally got pregnant. Every embryo check, freeze, and thaw I did was done with so much care and love—like they were my own. 

My husband and I decided to try for a second baby not long after we had the first, in case it took longer and to have a close age gap between the children. Many months of negative cycles ensued and then a weird cycle in which my estrogen started going up, and then dropped, and my progesterone started rising before I even ovulated. My doctor agreed that this was abnormal and we would start drugs after my period came. It didn’t come. I was pregnant again.

Anyone who has ever had a positive pregnancy test would know the agony of waiting for the ultrasound. It. Feels. Like. Forever. 

When my husband and I finally got to go for our ultrasound, I laid with my legs wide apart, ultrasound in, and the doctor staring at the screen with a confused look on his face. It wasn’t the “Oh look, there’s the baby” we got with our first pregnancy. I said: “There’s no baby is there?” and he replied ”‘I’m not seeing what I want to be seeing.” We went back to his office where I was booked in for a D+C.

This is a devastating part of infertility and pregnancy that isn’t even uncommon, but feels soul crushing. Pregnancy ultrasounds are performed regularly and sometimes, unfortunately, the result is “No Fetal Heart,” so I was well aware of this possibility. 

Weirdly, my first reaction was not to cry and I think that’s because I see patients all the time getting this result. The very first thought that popped into my head was: “Oh no. I can’t believe this. I cannot go through all of that again.” 

The doctor decided to rescan me and discovered an additional sac that did have a heartbeat. I was originally having twins and the doctor initially found only the sac that had no heartbeat. 

I ended up delivering another healthy baby and again, returned to work with an eight-month-old baby.

Upon returning to work, now as a mother to two healthy babies, my job felt very different. 

It was the start of my calling to help others much more than I could in the lab. Due to my passion for embryology, I had thought many times over the previous five years about starting an IVF social media platform or blog. Now was the right time. My passion for positive education of the IVF world to help ease confusion and stress. I like to think that my job working with infertility patients and my own struggles to conceive has made me appreciate my children so much more.

There was one night we were up with our daughter vomiting all night. Hubby was cleaning her up and calming her down and I was stripping the bed, swapping towels, putting on washing at 2 am. I remember thinking that it was pretty awful, and then telling myself that I was actually very lucky to be able to do this. 

I gave my little one a cuddle and I thought about how many people would absolutely kill to be in my position. 

I’ve always known my job was special, but being a mother makes my job as an embryologist a million times more profound. I look at every single embryo with awe about what it is capable of. 

I think about how my babies started from a little bundle of cells just like them. At embryo transfers I think about the future of that embryo and if it will become a baby. During an ICSI procedure I always think about the egg and sperm being potentially the start of an entire human life. During an IVF insemination (where the sperm is added to the eggs), I look at the sperm swimming and wonder which one is going to be the one that gets in and creates a baby.

I know how it feels to get that positive pregnancy test, to feel a baby grow inside me, the excitement of packing a hospital bag, setting up a nursery and bringing a baby home. I want this for every single person that I know is trying for a baby. 

This journey is not always going to be easy, but I hope that it will be worth it. Whether you get pregnant or not, the person you are when you walk out of the fertility clinic is not the person you were when you started.  Whatever the end of your journey is, I believe it’s going to be OK. As John Lennon said: “If it’s not OK, then it’s not the end.”


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