All kids ask where babies come from at some point or another. Mine asked this week. Specifically, they wanted to know how they got inside my belly.
I can’t use the old standby I gave the girls at their age… the simplified, poetic generalization about lady parts like flowers and male parts like hummingbirds and springtime pollination.
That whole symbolic sex talk won’t work again this time… because my two sets of children were born twenty-four years apart. And the second set were conceived using no sex whatsoever. Symbolic or otherwise.
Poetic sex is far easier to comprehend than the clinical origins of our twin boys. Instead of birds and flowers, there were needles and meds, and online egg shopping, and paper cups and porn (so I guess there was sex, after all) and petri dishes and plastic tubing.
But there are poetic elements to their story — like how they were conceived in a sterile laboratory. So, irony.
And then there’s the same poetic prelude of how when a mommy and daddy love each other VERY much… (but here’s where it diverges)… they sometimes go shopping for eggs.
So here, boys, is your IVF origin story…
Once upon a time, there was a mother — a mother more autumn than springtime — with older eggs, eggs tired and twisted with age. They were a wee bit too old to hatch more little ones.
But she really wanted siblings for her daughters and progeny for their padre.
She loved her grown girls very, very much. They brought her joy and chaos and laughter and love. And she loved her husband very, very much. He brought her joy and chaos and laughter and love. And she wanted to share more joy and chaos and laughter and love with the world.
She wanted sweet little hands nestled tight in her own once more. And against her cheeks, more soft fuzzy heads of dusk and dandelion fluff.
But those exhausted eggs of hers just didn’t know how to hatch more fuzzy noggins. So she and her mate travelled to a place where workers knew how to coax caviar from crotchety cackle farts. Only this time, they were told, it just couldn’t be done. Her eggs were too ancient. Too cranky. Too tired.
But there are other ways to get babies in your belly, the workers told them.
You can shop for new eggs — perfectly chosen by you and perfectly prepped by us. We have a baby-mixing kitchen, where we blend your new eggs and you bake them up in your belly. It’ll take a little while, though. What do you say?
Well, we said yes. And the eggs we selected did too. (It doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, for whatever reason, things don’t mix up quite right and nobody really knows why. And sometimes fuzzy little noggins don’t hatch from perfectly picked and prepped eggs.)
But these did. Through science and love and magic and miracle.
And six years ago, this month, two leggy lads with fuzzy noggins broke out of my belly and into the light. They said yes. And so did the universe.
And they’ve been spreading joy and chaos ever since.
So there it is. There’s the story of how you boys got in my belly.
No birds, no bees, no storks, no cabbage patch. But plenty of poetry, nonetheless.
Six years ago last week, Mike and I announced we were pregnant with twins. It was football season, and it was an IVF pregnancy. We’d been practicing safe shots at halftime in random field houses and between parked buses for half the regular season. It was not an easy place to be, but it was definitely a blessed place to be, so we savored and celebrated each and every needle poke in my hindquarters.
After trying for over a year to get pregnant (and knowing at my age it was unlikely without intervention), we’d visited a fertility specialist earlier that spring. Naively, I’d thought we’d start the in-vitro process my next cycle. That way, if all went according to plan, we would be well past the exhaustion, hormone injections, and morning sickness of a first-trimester IVF pregnancy once football season began.
Boy, was I naive.
First off, I was 47. Which meant my cycle was far from predictable, even if it had all been up to me and my eggs… which it wasn’t.
My doc kindly informed me my eggs were dinosaurs and he didn’t do Jurassic fertility. So I would be using donor eggs… and an online site to find our match. Kind of like eHarmony, but for couples looking for open, available ovaries.
Second, IVF takes months to prep and plan for. Months. The game plan is exact and exacting, requiring lots of perfectly-orchestrated moving parts. Her ovaries, my uterus, Mike’s swimmers. This was a team effort. And there was no hurry-up offense.
The process was complicated, timely, expensive, and painstaking. But once we found our donor (anonymously), her ovaries were hyper-stimulated, my uterus was prepped, a couple balls were bobbled (wink wink), and… SCORE! (times two!)
And that’s when the really hard part began on my end. My rear end, that is.
We’re talking needles. Lots of them. And vaginal suppositories. And pills. And time. Lots and lots of time. It was quite the process. All in the midst of football season — our embryo transfer happened scrimmage week.
The nightly shots to my booty were a real pain in my end zone. There was a sharpie-circled bulls eye on each cheek, where Mike took aim. (He’d asked the nurse to draw them during week one, and he’d redraw them every couple days as they began to fade. He didn’t want to miss. My booty is plenty big. There’s no way he would’ve missed.) Those shots bruised and burned and gave me an itchy allergic reaction. My ass was hotter than an August-in-Georgia kickoff. And not in a good way.
And because I had to receive those shots as close to the same time every single night for ten weeks or so, they became an even bigger pain on Friday nights. So we arranged for them to fall between 8:30 and 9:00 pm. Because… halftime.
Away games were hard. At home, I got poked in the floor of my husband’s office on a jacket he chivalrously laid over the spongy, decades-old carpet. But away games…
Away games, Mike would scope out the joint, pregame, looking for a hopefully private (sometimes not-so-much) place for me to drop my drawers so he could thrust a needle into my angry, sharpie-circled buttocks.
I got poked on a striped sofa in an Athletic Director’s office.
I got poked in a dark hallway outside a gym within audible distance of the opposing team’s halftime harangue.
I got poked in the back of a Kia Soul, my legs at a cramped, contorted angle while a sweaty linebacker hunted for his mouth guard in the parking lot nearby. Thank God he knew nothing about the shenanigans a mere ten yards away…
I got poked in the arse so many times, and in so many weird and far-from-wonderful locations, that it’s easy to lose track.
I was a pincushion. But I was pregnant pincushion, so I wasn’t complaining.
Beyond the shots, were the oral medications and vaginal suppositories that turned my undies periwinkle if I forgot my pantie liners. Which I did. A lot. My mind was all floaty and fuzzy from the chemical cocktails doing their job.
There were some days when all of the hormones got to me and I cried. Who am I kidding? They got to me all the time. I cried all the cries, all the time.
I cried on touchdown runs. I cried on Publix commercials. I once cried when I cleaned the ceiling fan and clumpy caterpillars of dust dropped from the blades onto my freshly-washed duvet.
But I really, REALLY cried during the band’s playing of Amazing Grace after every home game. Because the reality of God’s gracious favor hit me like a hurricane every single time.
This pregnancy was happening. This was real. And this was all God. I couldn’t take credit. Nor could my husband or my good doctor.
God kept us pregnant through dehydration and preeclampsia and advanced maternal age and hospital runs at midnight and a fortnight of sleeping with ice packs on my chest when it felt like my little linemen were splitting my sternum like a wishbone formation.
So I cried all the cries all the time because I knew and believed in God’s perfect timing.
I was 41 when I met the most amazing football coach. I was 46 when that coach finally threw me a Hail Mary and asked me to be his wife. (But hey, God’s perfect timing…). I was 47 when my fertility team tenderly laid our two precious, perfect, 5-day blastocytes inside my uterus. And I was a monthish shy of 48 when those little linemen burst through my middle in an unplanned C-section just shy of 35 weeks gestation. Absolutely perfect.
So yes, I believe in God’s perfect timing.
Y’all, I am by no means trying to make light of infertility or the expensive and excruciating journey that comes with it — a journey so full of uncertainty and with absolutely no guarantees.
We were incredibly blessed to get pregnant on our first IVF round. Unbelievably blessed. The statistics were not in our favor.
Most women go through an average of 2.7 IVF cycles and experts recommend going through at least three cycles to increase you pregnancy chances. Even then, the success rates fall below 50%.
While the numbers may not sound promising, God’s faithfulness always does. And hearing other people’s stories about fertility treatments helps you feel less alone. Because this is a story so many of us share.
No, there are no guarantees. But there are options.
There are so many generous strangers out there –fertility godmothers, is how I see them — working with God to lend their eggs or their wombs or to give their babies up for adoption. God works in mysterious and perfect ways. None of these journeys are easy. But nothing perfect ever is.
Your blessings may come differently, but they will come. Trust in God’s perfect timing
I defy logic. I defy all explanation. I am one of the wonders. I shouldn’t have been able to have these boys. I’m a challenge to the balance. I know that. I knew it all along. But when our maternal fetal specialist agreed to take our case pro bono because our lovely Georgia governor played dirty with our insurance, I learned just how unique I was. Modern medicine was eager to use me as a case study. I was a Wonder with a capital W. Without my fertility specialist extraordinaire and my maternal fetal specialist with angel wings and a big check book, without my ever-steady and supportive ob/gyn, I wouldn’t have these boys. I completely get it.
But it’s not just medicine that brought my winsome sprouts to my womb and formed them into into flesh and blood and spirited magic. There is so much more to it than that. Prayer played a tremendous part. And Grace. And finally Fortune, that most fickle of Ladies. She decided to be kind. For whatever reason, the Universe decided to bestow two breathtaking blessings upon Mike and me. And I cannot be thankful enough. Ever. And so I’m giving my testimony for others. Sharing our recipe for success. Hoping that someone, somewhere along with way, will benefit from our story.
I know that my age was against me. VERY against me. Especially when I would read all of the unhappy IVF stories of women my age. I quit reading them, actually. I eliminated all negative energy from my life. That was ingredient Number 1. Only positivity and sunshine.
I began listening to Natalie Merchant’s song, “Wonder,” some lines of which I alluded to earlier. Now if you don’t know it, Google it. Get on YouTube and listen to it. It is powerful stuff. Words are powerful potion. My father taught me about self-fulfilling prophecy and about spoken blessings. He’s quite the preacher type. He’s also a physicist. He’s kinda weird. He’s an oxymoron. He’s Sheldon Cooper on scripturoids. But he always, always, ALWAYS has believed in the power of prayer and the spoken word. So I accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative.
Speaking of the power of the word, if you haven’t read The Secret by Rhonda Byrne or The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Ingredients 2 and 3), read them. Out loud. And believe. They both discuss the power of the Universe and Her generous nature, Her willingness to grant your heart’s desire. You just have to say it. See it. Believe it. Write it. And wait for it to be delivered.
Now of course it’s not that simple. There is hard work involved. You have to dig. And keep digging. And the digging is physical, which is hard, full of medicines and injections and time and doctors visits and uncomfortable procedures, and it is also mental. The ups and downs of infertility is an ordeal no one who hasn’t experienced it can ever possibly imagine.
But you know what else? It is one that SO MANY of us share. It is a taboo subject that most are afraid of, or ashamed of, or too private to talk about. I was amazed at how many couples I knew presented themselves as IVF patients once I came out about our journey. Infertility sufferers are everywhere, yet it is still such a lonely, isolating experience.
So Coelho nails it. The mental digging is the hardest. But he explains that just when you are ready to quit, when the digging has gotten darn-near impossible. When the clay and rock are so incredibly rigid and unyielding and your body is bone-weary and your soul is sucker-punched, just KEEP digging. Because the Universe is about to deliver. It’s like the transitioning stage in labor. It feels like you’ve accomplished nothing at all, but your bundles of blessings are about to present themselves, to crown in all of their wondrous beauty.
So just like the good books commanded, we said it, we believed it, we wrote it down, complete with baby names (names, incidentally, which are now the middle names of both boys ). We visualized. We saw our sticky beans steeping in the placental gravy of the Universe’s Grace. We believed we would stay pregnant, even through dehydration and preeclampsia and advanced maternal age and hospital runs at midnight and the fortnight I slept with ice packs on my chest because it felt like the boys were splitting my sternum like a Butterball turkey’s wishbone.
Beyond saying and believing, Mike and I also played an active part in our process. We researched a ton, which included watching IVF home videos of couples who had been through this process before. (You would be amazed at how many of those there are online.) We watched those who had succeeded and we watched those who had failed and then succeeded. We searched for any and every kernal of wisdom and homeopathic hocus pocus, which leads me to Ingredient #4: pineapple core (yes, CORE) and raw walnuts.
I ate them every single day without fail for two weeks after embryo transfer to assist with implantation. The core was a bit gritty and fibrous and pulpy, but not as bad as you would think. And besides, I would’ve eaten an entire pineapple, in all of its sharp and spiney glory, if I thought it would help in our quest for the elusive sticky beans.
Coming home from the clinic on our transfer day, Mike and I implemented Ingredient 5, a tradition that carried me and our embryos through that most terrifying of times for all fertility patients: the first trimester. We listened to two very, very (have I said VERY?) uplifting and prophetic songs: Natalie Merchant’s “Wonder,” which referenced earlier, and Elton John’s, “You’ll be Blessed.” Google that one too. Right now.
These two songs became the soundtrack of our conception and gestation. I listened and sang along to them religiously every day. Every. Single. Solitary. Morning. Without fail. My power songs. Through them, Fate smiled at Destiny. Through them, the Universe laughed as she came to my cradle and laughed as my body she lifted and laughed as she filled me with her bountiful blessings. With a little help from these songs, and With love, with patience, and with faith. I made my way, and continue to make my way through this miraculous journey.
The final ingredient is absolutely NOTHING like the aforementioned ingredients. It was nothing I planned or researched or manufactured. It was completely unpredicted and unrehearsed and (thankfully) unrepeated and something I would’ve preferred had happened in a bit more private of a manner, but the Universe works in mysterious ways…
Ingredient # 6: the Collywobbles. Such a fun, playful, Roald Dahl kind of word for one of the most UNfun, UNplayful conditions known to man: intestinal distress. The night before our two little baby buds would be siphoned from a petri dish and shot through my cervix with a straw, I had an up close and personal experience with the Collywobbles. To say it was horrible would be an understatement. But I have no doubt in my mind that not only was it God trying to acclimate me to the shit storms to come (twins are nothing, if not collywobbles times two), but I also maintain that it was an integral (and embarrassing) part of our recipe for in vitro success. Doctors prescribe enemas for all manner of procedures. It just so happens that this particular order was placed by the Heavens. Now, my girls will tell you I just don’t ever discuss poop. Ever. But in keeping with the nature of my blog to give honest, heartfelt information about our journey and our family, I guess I have contracted myself into spilling all… kind of like that midsummer night’s eve three years ago.
So before getting down and dirty, allow me to set the stage as prettily as possible: Daytime was dripping into dusk and it was hothouse humid — typical August fare for Georgia. Mike was away at football and wouldn’t be home until late — again, typical August fare for a Georgia football wife.
I was at the park across from our neighborhood, the chattering rise and fall of cicada song pacing my run. Butterfly bushes lined part of my path and I was pushing myself hard. I knew that the following morning Mike and I would drive to the perimeter for transfer and I would be taking it easy for at least the next nine months. I was taking no chances. I didn’t care that my doctor had told me I couldn’t sneeze, poop, fart, laugh, hiccup or jiggle those embryos out, I was going to be as safe and sedentary as possible.
So on this hot, humid, hellhound of an August night, I decided to get my last run in and work out all of my remaining anxieties. When, much to my surprise and chagrin, on the far side of the baseball fields, in a No Man’s Land of summer perennials and the boys of summer charging their grounders and snagging fly balls– I was struck with a vicious and violent blitzkrieg. My stomach flipped and dropped. I broke out in cold sweats. My core cramped. My vision blurred. I was a half a mile from home. And I was in trouble. To call it intestinal distress would be an understatement. And to call it collywobbles seems way too pretty. And it was NOT pretty. And there was nothing I could do. Nothing but think about that horribly humiliating scene in Bridesmaids and be jealous because Maya Rudolph at least had a huge tent of a wedding dress to hide her shame. All I could do was break out in spontaneous prayer. Sincere prayer. Bona fide, true blue, unpretentious prayer. There’s no prayer more down to earth than a “please don’t let me crap myself in public“ prayer. And as I prayed, I shuffled. A hearty knees together, buttocks clenched shuffle. A get-your-Flintstone-feet-in-gear shuffle. And I am here to tell you that bona fide prayer and heartfelt hustle will get you far. It’ll get you darn near half a mile. Close, but no latrine. I made it to our driveway, and I am forever thankful for that small blessing.
And then then floodgates of Heaven opened and the rest is a poorly digested visual. I don’t know if it was nerves, a beastly bug, or the reheated half of a Reuben sandwich from Larry’s Giant Subs I had for dinner, but I was dealt a savage– and I believe an extremely fortuitous, hand. I thoroughly believe the Universe decreed that I have a completely pristine vessel in which to implant my little lads. I’m convinced that in our parenting game of chance and childbirth, my royal flush didn’t beat a full house, it helped make one. (Sorry, terrible pun.)
Anyways… that is our sticky beans recipe. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Note I didn’t say THE recipe for success. Everyone’s recipe will different. And the climate and the conditions and the Universe all have a mighty say in how and when and where the blessings will be rewarded. Some beans will be organic and simply made, with no assistance whatsoever. Others will need chemical intervention, like ours did. And still others will be harvested elsewhere and then supplied. But know that if you want it deeply enough, badly enough, heartily enough, your own little peas will be delivered unto you. Thus sayeth the Universe. So dig deep.
Cackling farts — from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. And I certainly love me some vulgarity. Anyone who knows me knows my propensity for my favorite four-letter acronym – one I’m trying to curb since I’ve got these two impressionable young lads soaking in vocabulary like spaghetti sauce (or pureed prunes, or masticated teddy grahams, or you name it) on your favorite silk blouse (but I’ll save the stain stories for another blog). Still, “cackling farts” is simply the grossest, funniest, most colorful, obscene, and obscure term for EGGS I ever did hear. And this post is dedicated to them.
Eggs. Such simple things, it would seem. But simple, or not, as humans, we are fascinated by them. We eat them for breakfast in numerous ways, from the simply scrambled or over-easy, to the fancy-schmancy eggs benedict or quiche. And the recipes go on and on…
We’ve also built idioms around them. Some to reflect personality: “you’re a tough egg to crack” or he’s a “good egg” or a “bad egg.” Others reflect embarrassment: you can have “egg on your face” or we’ll tell someone to “go suck an egg.” We can use them in terms of monetary metaphors: we build “nest eggs” or search for “the goose that laid the golden egg” or we’re cautioned not to “put all our eggs in one basket.”
Naturally, if there are idioms about eggs, there are bound to be books about eggs. Some of the greatest literature features them. From Gulliver’s Travels to The Handmaid’s Tale to “Green Eggs and Ham,” we celebrate and admonish, using the Egg.
So eggs are far more complicated than the chalky-white ovals of serene, life-giving perfection they might seem. They house SO MUCH POTENTIAL. In the afore-mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator proclaims, “I think that this is what God must look like: an egg.” And then later, “If I have an egg, what more can I want?”
Interestingly enough, this novel is about infertility. An entire nation that has fallen on post-nuclear sterility. The narrator may or may not be infertile. She has one daughter. She, nor the reader, knows for certain if she can get pregnant again.
And just like Offred, six years ago, I myself didn’t know if I would be able to carry children again.
We had an appointment with our fertility specialist, Dr. Mark Perloe, at Shady Gove Fertility in Atlant. (I can’t sing his praises highly enough!!! If you are contemplating IVF or if you are struggling with infertility of any sort, go see HIM.) Anyway, at that very first meeting, Dr. Perloe informed us that a woman over 40 had nearly zero chance of getting pregnant with her own eggs, and that we would need to use a donor.
My eggs were past their expiration date.
Now, you know what? I knew that already. Of course I did. I’m an educated woman. I do my research. I knew it going in. Still, his words stung just a bit. Just for a second. Not, though, for the reason you are probably thinking (the use of donor eggs).
NOPE, it was the Advanced Maternal Age phrase he used. AMA, a three-letter acronym that isn’t nearly as fun as my favorite four-letter one, and a label that would go into my charts and follow me to delivery. I still feel twenty-two, after all. As Jimmy Buffet says, “I’m growing older, but not up…”
“Donor eggs,” though — I was already familiar with and prepared for that phrase. We were given a password and the privacy of our home to view the donor profiles and search for our potential anonymous Wonder Woman — a super hero of the highest magnitude. I am forever and ever in her debt.
It felt strange, perusing those profiles. A giddy, dizzy, feverish, frightening cyber-ride. We wanted someone as close to me as we could get. Not because we intended to hide the fact that we used donor eggs from the boys or anyone else, for that matter, it was just something we wanted.
We wanted someone who loves literature as much as me. Someone who excels in science like their big sister. Who swings a mean bat or tennis racket, like their other big sister. Who appreciates a mean game of football, like their dad. Oh, and we wanted height. A nice, tall drink of water. I’m 5’10 and so to combine that height with their daddy’s good genes, we’re hoping for a couple of defensive powerhouses one day.
“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen,” said the mighty Ralph Waldo Emerson.
And our decision, our selection, set the Universe in motion, her cogs and wheels, parts and plugs assembling the various and sundry pieces, the stardust and cackling farts, the wood glue and lacquer and metal most attractive that would spark our little fellas into being.
Her eggs. My basket. And a gaggle of Y chromosomes from Mike. Now of course, it wasn’t nearly that simple… but more on that next time.
Babies. I don’t know that there is a subject that tweaks the heartstrings and fuzzes up the solar plexus quite like babies. Just the thought of tiny wriggling newborns gets us all giddy with promise and potential. We thrill to the touch of their tiny fingers and toes, their tufted, downy crowns, their milk-mottled necks. We cradle them in our arms; they cradle our legacy in their limbs.
Four years ago, this past week, Mike and I brought our own downy-crowned, milk-mottled newborns home from the NICU. And we’ve been caring for and corralling our twin bundles of rollicking, unequivocal energy and joy ever since.
We owe it all to the generosity of the universe — and a top-notch IVF team.
Because it was five years ago, this month, that Mike and I sat down to meet with our newly- acquired fertility specialist to learn all the ins and outs of “test tube” baby making: the belly and booty shots, the ovary stimulation, the egg extraction, the cup deposits, the petri dish insemination, the embryo transfer. All of it.
Talk about exciting.
Daunting because I was about to do from-scratch motherhood all over again at forty-seven. I’d already raised two daughters successfully into adulthood (no small task); yet here I was again, preparing myself mentally – and physically (hence the fertility specialist) — to bake up a couple more.
And daunting because the odds were not necessarily in our favor.
Now the first thing I recall about that initial meeting is the vast, heavy, wooden desktop in the doctor’s office. The surface of that desk seemed to me a small-scale representative of the hard, formidable expanse that must be crossed to make Mike’s and my dream of parenthood together come true.
But luckily, there on the other side sat Dr. Perloe himself – frothy white curls, cropped close, and eyes twinkling behind clear lenses. He instantly put us at ease.
But he didn’t mince words either, when he gave us the facts. The fact that my eggs were too old to consider for our IVF procedure. The fact that using a donor’s eggs could cost us as much as a compact car or a midsize sedan, depending. The fact that the procedure was no guarantee, but the odds were greatly increased if we followed his protocol precisely: multiple medical and psychological exams; donor candidate selection; numerous supplemental vitamins and hormones using ingestions, injections and suppositories; and time and patience — lots and lots of time and patience.
Our success depended on it. Our success demanded it.
We signed a contract to do our part. The contract also specified that our clinic would do its part.
We never considered otherwise. Events in the news this past month suggest perhaps we should have.
Thank heavens, Dr. Perloe and his staff are consummate professionals and we never had a need to worry. Mixing babies for couples with fertility issues goes beyond their life work. It is their passion. And they do it with compassion. And with contracts.
Those two qualifiers — compassion and contracts — ensure that they would never, ever risk a patient’s hard work, dedication, financial and emotional investment, and (most important of all), eggs or embryos. Never.
The procedure is risky enough as it is.
The IVF success rate for a woman over 40 is between 13-18%. A donor egg increases those chances to 35% per embryo. Transferring twin embryos gives slightly more favorable odds, procuring a 55-65% success rate that one embryo will take. With a chance for twins at 30-40%.
Now I’m no mathematician (far from it – despite being the daughter of a physicist), but I do understand that even when hedging my bets with donor eggs and a double-embryo transfer, there was absolutely no guarantee we would find success – especially on the first try.
But success, we found. On the very first cycle, too. And with both embryos.
It was an absolute miracle. Without a doubt.
But the miracle was brought to fruition through the hard work and dedication of our IVF team – the physicians, embryologists, nurses, technicians, and Mike and me. We were all in it together, working hard and following our contract to the letter. We dotted every egg and crossed every petri dish.
Again, I reiterate that the one thing that was never considered when we rolled the dice, said our Hail Marys, and took our gamble on IVF was that our clinic would be negligent.
But a month ago this week, a fertility clinic in Ohio was just that: grossly negligent. There were issues with a cryogenic tank that housed microscopic miracles, the frozen eggs and embryos of thousands of prospective parents. Somehow, the built-in failproof — the remote alarm system that would notify employees if temperatures began to climb — had been turned off.
As a result, that tank — a tank that housed a total of 4000 eggs and embryos– rose to temperatures that left all 4000 nonviable. 4000 hopes and dreams, 4000 Hail Mary passes, 4000 double or nothing bets, 4000 potential babies… all lost.
I’m up close and personal with the IVF process that these heartbroken families went through. I understand their hopes, their dreams, their financial and emotional investments. I understand their courage, their fear, their gamble.
But I am not up close and personal with their loss. The emotional cost is unfathomable. I can’t imagine it. I don’t even know where to begin. That reality is too harsh, too brutal, too gut-wrenching. There is too much frustration and betrayal and agony and pain for my mind to go there. It slams shut at the thought.
IVF is a wild, whirling roulette wheel. The odds are frightening. A world-class clinic makes the risk worth it. Still, it’s a scary bet.
Wannabe parents willingly take bold risks at steep odds because babies are the jackpot. Babies. Our tiny-fingered, downy-crowned, milk-mottled legacies. We will do almost anything humanly possible to bring them into this world.
These parents in Ohio did just that.
This clinic in Ohio did not.
This clinic was anything but. It is a tragedy and a travesty.
The harm done is irreparable. The resources lost are irreplaceable. The crime committed is unforgivable.
And as the lawsuits stack up, the cases are nearing class-action status. But how do you put a price on hearts broken? On families fractured before they’ve begun? On entire legacies lost?
We got pregnant four years ago via IVF. We used donor eggs, fresh and locally sourced. I guess our pregnancy mirrored the current foodie trend, although it wasn’t quite farm to table. More like follicle to petri dish to uterus, with a five-day incubation in between.
You see, I was too old to supply eggs of my own. I was two months shy of forty-seven when we began the process, and I was forty-eight when I had the boys. Everything in between went smoothly enough (relatively speaking), from embryo transfer to the thirty-fourth week. But that’s when things took a rapid tumble downhill. That’s when my “Advanced Maternal” body declared mutiny on the whole pregnancy thing by throwing some protein in my urine and slinging my blood pressure into the stratosphere.
I don’t remember a whole lot between then and the two days it took to bring the boys into the world because magnesium was introduced to my blood stream (Which is the Devil. Magnesium is the Devil). I recall a little ambulance ride up over the state line where our maternal/fetal specialist practiced. I recall fainting while lying flat on my back. I recall oxygen masks and my 300-pound husband tightly poured into the wrong size scrubs. I recall (fuzzily) my twenty-four-year-old baby girl sleeping on an orange couch in the corner of my hospital room with the cushions piled over her head. I vaguely recall talking to my eldest baby girl via FaceTime and her double and triple checking what actions the doctors and nurses were taking. And I remember kissing the boys on their wet little heads before they were wheeled away into the NICU. That’s pretty much all I remember about those couple of days.
Now we were extremely lucky with our boys. Thirty-four weeks is a solid gestation time for preemies. Hearts and lungs are developed and strong. Immune systems are decent. The only real issues we had to face were body temperature maintenance and feeding challenges. Boys are notoriously lazy eaters (you would never know it now), and because of that, Tate and Parker spent six days and nine days in the NICU, respectively.
For those of you unaware, September is NICU awareness month. That’s why I am revisiting one of the most difficult times in our lives. NICUs are hard places, one of the hardest places on this earth. Babies should never have to suffer. Innocence should know no pain. Innocence should know no struggle.
I think that’s why NICU families will always have a tender place in my heart. I don’t know if there is any situation quite like a NICU stay. Think about it – here you are, in what is supposed to be one of the most magical and perfect times of your life – the birth of your child. It’s the moment you and your spouse have prepared for since you first peed on the stick and got the news. And then something goes wrong. Sometimes horribly wrong. There is nothing quite like that kind of an emotional hijack.
And Mike and I had it relatively easy, all things considered. (Although at the time, it felt anything but.) Nine days in the NICU would be a Godsend for some preemie parents. We were surrounded by cribs housing babies who had been there for months and months, parents loyally by their side. Babies who had undergone surgery after surgery. Babies whose cribs were peppered with personal items from home. Or worse. Babies who had been there for months and months with no personal items and no family members to be found. Crack babies. Unwanted babies. The world can be a cruel place for some of the most amazingly beautiful miracles ever made.
I can’t even imagine seeing the suffering day after day. I have no idea how the staff holds it together amongst that kind of injustice. My faith would waiver, I tell you. It would waiver big time. As it was, our babies were loved and they were relatively healthy and they were incredibly strong. All of those little warrior babies in the NICU are strong. Much stronger than the parents. Me, I was an absolute disaster.
Those nine NICU days, I felt like a giant, injured cuticle, stripped and torn, tender and exposed. I cried at the slightest provocation. When the elevator was too slow, I cried. When the hallway was too crowded, I cried. When I held the boys for the first time… I didn’t cry. I vomited — the anesthesia from the C-section. But that second time –oh, I cried.
I cried when I pumped for what felt like hours the very first time – my nipples stretched thin and angry and complaining like hell. I cried. And when all I got for my hard-fought labor was the tiniest, most miniscule amount of colostrum you ever did see, I cried. And when the nurse divided up that tiny little miniscule amount of colostrum and put it on two separate Q-tips and swished it around in the boys’ mouths, I cried.
When we bathed the boys for the first time, their wrinkly little alien bodies so slippery and small I feared they would slide right through my fingers, I cried. And when my milk came in and my chest rippled and ridged and cordoned itself off like a honeycomb, chamber after chamber flooded with liquid gold, I cried.
The worst, though, was if somebody was nice to me. If somebody smiled kindly at me, it was over. Or if I saw something beautiful. Like my boys. They did me in every time. But so did the long, sunny mural on the way to the NICU — a green and golden ant village, with ants sailing on leaf rafts, or ants raking their gardens, or ants swinging on tire swings or flying on butterflies. It was beautiful and whimsical and comforting. And it sent me into a bleary, teary, snot-filled mess every time Mike wheeled me down the hall.
And it wasn’t just me. This NICU time was also the first time I ever saw Mike cry. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s a meathead. And he’s a fixer. But this was something beyond his fixing abilities. This was all up to his boys — his tiny, fragile, five-pound boys. They had to decide when they would eat what they needed to eat – and on a consistent basis – to be allowed to go home.
I saw him break down for the very first time one morning at the breakfast table. His shoulders shuddered, his face folded under and crumpled, and there, above his cereal bowl at the Ronald McDonald House (I can’t EVEN tell you how much we owe to the Ronald McDonald House, but that’s another blog), he wept. And I cried. (Apparently there was another instance where he sneaked into the chapel across from our room and cried and cried and cried. I wasn’t there for that one. But I’m telling you, the NICU is hard on the strongest among us.)
Yes, the NICU is a hard, hard place, but the people there are far from hard. They are big-hearted and oh-so-capable. The nurses and doctors who work in a NICU are special people. They have to be, to work somewhere where innocent souls suffer so unjustly. To dedicate themselves to a life surrounded by the harsh realities of a cold universe…every single day… I don’t understand their endless capacity for TLC without frustration, but I am forever grateful for them.
Those nurses, especially, were our salvation. They instructed us, they comforted us, they listened to us. They rattled us sometimes. And sometimes they just made us mad.
I’ll never forget one NICU nurse in particular. I thought I hated her. I thought she was the worst one of the bunch. She was grouchy and my nerves were brittle, and I humbly admit I despised her. I thought she was so self-righteous. Turns out, she was just plain right.
That cranky, caustic nurse was actually an efficient, matter-of-fact caretaker who knew her stuff and took a no-nonsense approach to her little patients. She was the one who showed us the technique that finally got Parker to eat so we could take him home. She may have been cranky, but she was an absolute Christ figure. She sacrificed personality for patient progress, and she saved us from who knows how many more days in the NICU and how many more nights in the Ronald McDonald House. I will never forget her grumpy ass.
Yes, NICUs are hard places and special places. They are grueling. They grind parents down. But they lift babies up. They are a place of miracles, where miracles go after they are born, to heal up and head home – to their earthly home or their heavenly home.
NICUs may feel like they are Godforsaken places, where the innocent suffer without cause, but NICUs are far from Godforsaken. He puts His best angels there: the gentlest, the ablest – and sometimes the crankiest angels there to do His work. They shelter those little miracles until they are ready for the world.
But sometimes the world is just not ready for some of them and they go back to Him. At least that’s what I have to tell myself. Otherwise I can’t. I just can’t.
Some people claim the good old days are long gone. I call Bull Shenanigans. According to those folks, people used to be more trustworthy, more helpful, and more neighborly. You could “always depend on the kindness of strangers,” to borrow a Tennessee Williams’ quote. And speaking of borrowing, if your hens weren’t laying and you wanted to bake a cake, you simply garnered a couple of eggs from a buddy down the block. And if you needed some assistance — raising your barn or raising your kids — someone always came through.
Now I haven’t raised any barns recently, but I am raising twin boys – which takes a hell of a lot more strength and manpower, let me tell you – and folks always seem to come to the rescue. Take this past Sunday afternoon. We were at a local burger joint when one of the boys, who was curled up on my lap feeling crummy, managed to knock over my drink, giving both of us an ice bath. Before I could even react, a mother at the next table jumped to the rescue, swabbing us with napkins and then going for reinforcements when it became obvious we would need a warehouse-full. So don’t tell me chivalry is dead.
And while people have performed random acts of kindness since time immemorial, only in this day and age have those acts been granted an international day all their own. But kindness is not relegated to a single day. You constantly hear and read about layaway Santas, drive thru do-gooders, and animal shelter altruists.
What really elevates this era from the ones that came before it, though, is that the whole neighborly trait of lending a cup of this or a couple of that when you’re in need has moved beyond simple, farm-variety produce. In this beautiful, postmodern world, you can borrow eggs to bake up a cake or you can borrow eggs to bake up a baby. Seems to me that’s taking the whole “kindness of strangers” notion and knocking it up (you see what I did there?) a notch.
I like to think of the IVF process as a pantry to pregnancy revolution (rather like the farm to table one in food). And I guess that makes our boys a sort of revisited and reinvented version of the Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa classic:
Take a cuppa sperm, well beaten 😊 and a coupla eggs, borrowed.
Marinate 5 days. Transfer resulting coupla embryos to clinically preheated oven.
Bake 9 months, and… VOILA!
Now, I don’t want to mislead you — IVF isn’t that simple. And it certainly isn’t as failproof as the time-honored Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa cobbler recipe. It takes a carefully calibrated oven and experts who’ve undergone years of rigorous training to ensure just the right amount of salts, sugars, amino acids and proteins are in place during prep and baking.
Nor do I mean to make light of infertility or the expensive and excruciating journey that comes with it, a journey that is so full of loneliness and uncertainty. There are no guarantees. But there are options. If your fertility quest is hitting roadblock after roadblock, please remember that there are generous strangers out there — fertility godmothers if you will – ready to lend their eggs or even their wombs (one of my former students has offered her uterus as a surrogate on two separate occasions) for struggling couples.
Three years ago, I was able to bake up some babies with a fertility godmother’s healthy, young eggs, my husband’s sweet sauce, and my own reconstituted oven. The effect of one anonymous stranger’s generosity and the amount of gratitude in our hearts for her sacrifice is impossible to put into words. She made our dreams come true.
I believe in the magic of kindness and the kindness of strangers. Put those two things together and miracles occur. Living, breathing, Cuppa Coupla Coupla miracles. If the glory days are in the past, then the hallelujah days are in the present. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.
I was always jealous of those moms who had scheduled C-sections. They were always perfectly primped in their post-delivery pics. That was going to be me this time around. My hair and makeup spot on. No sweaty curls, no petechiae in the whites of my eyes and the flesh of my neck like I had with the girls — when I pushed so hard that tiny blood vessels burst all over my head. I looked like a voodoo doll’s target. The boys were going to be C-section babes at 37 weeks. And I was going to be a glamour shot, post op, cover girl.
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
On a Wednesday afternoon three years ago today, I went in at 34 weeks for my prenatal specialist appointment. They took my blood pressure, did an ultrasound, and next thing I knew I was getting pumped full of magnesium and slung into an ambulance.
Let me tell you a little bit about the evil entity that is Magnesium. Not the magnesium you take as an over-the-counter supplement to prevent constipation or leg cramps. No, I mean Magnesium with a capital M, second cousin once removed from Beelzebub of the netherworld. It is given to women with preeclampsia as an emergency measure to prevent seizures when mom’s blood pressure gets too high, but it also has some nasty side effects. Like sending your BP plummeting so low you’re literally fainting while lying flat on your back. You feel heavy as lead… but MOLTEN lead. Because Mag is a stout, heavy devil that belches brimstone through an IV drip into your circulatory system, leaving you in a sulfurous state of confusion and heat. Sinners-in-the-Hands-of-an Angry-God confusion and heat. A great, fiery furnace of confusion and heat, flames and lava lapping at your body and soul for hours and hours. Hell hath no fury like a magnesium drip.
And it’s a hellish fury you tolerate because it’s saving you and your babies, but immediately after delivery, you beg, plead, bargain and bully to be taken off the drip. And if you’re lucky, really, really lucky – and really, really persuasive — your OB agrees.
Mine did. She probably regretted caving to my persuasive pressures because my feet continued to swell to the size of human lungs, and my blood pressure spiked, and my head pounded, and my vision sparked like Vulcan’s smithy. But she took pity on me nonetheless and yanked the mag bag.
But back to my first and only experience with a C-section and the delivery of our beautiful boy babies. My girls were born the traditional, squeeze and extrude through a narrow flesh funnel for hours and hours way, so I didn’t know what to expect. The OR was much smaller than I’d imagined. (They look so much larger on Grey’s Anatomy and House reruns.) And it was cold – ice cold. But that was a welcome respite from the MAG demon busily rafting rivers and tributaries of fire in my body. I also recall having a difficult time curling inward enough for the epidural because, let’s face it, YOU try curling your spine forward with double the fetuses and fluids in your frontal regions. NOT ideal.
I knew enough to expect a sterile sheet wall at my chin so I couldn’t see all the bloody shenanigans going on below my naval, but I didn’t expect my arms to be strapped, crucifixion-style, out to my side. To be perfectly honest, it made me feel a little out of control and vulnerable. (Like being paralyzed from the chest down and sliced hip to hip didn’t leave me vulnerable enough.) And I never expected to feel strange squeezing sensations coming from my lower extremities. When I asked the nurses about it, I was told I was wearing compression boots that were pumping my calves to prevent blood clots. Still, the ability to feel that regulated pressure and release was disconcerting. What if I felt the smooth blade of the scalpel slicing me open like a ripe cantaloupe?
I didn’t. But I did feel a whole lot of pulling and tugging and what felt like my uterus being stretched over the rim of the Grand Canyon. So much tugging. And I could hear a chorus of nurses and doctors, commanding and directing. And then, at 10:35 AM, the tiniest quivering wail rose over the sheet, and I heard Parker Isaac Candela singing heartily for his supper for the very first time, but certainly not the last. My heart swelled to bursting at his voice. A voice that still trembles and purrs with sweetness to this day.
One minute later, at 10:36 AM, Tate Michael Candela arrived. But this time, no song accompanied the entrance. Ironic, considering Tatebug sings constantly these days – a continuous refrain from sunrise to sundown: Itsy Bitsy Spider; Wheels on the Bus; If You’re Happy and You Know It… You name it, he sings it.
The NICU docs and nurses immediately shuffled Tate off to a corner of the OR and got to work. I couldn’t see a thing. All I could do was hear. And all I could hear was the sound of silence — for what felt like a millennium. It wasn’t though. Of that I’m sure. In a relatively short spell — one crammed with absolute horror and fear — the staff managed to coax and cajole his little lungs into song. His quivering wail joined his brother’s in a sudden, trembling hallelujah chorus, and Mike and I melted into a blubbering mass of unbridled relief and boundless love.
When they brought them round for me to kiss, they were beautiful. Beautiful, precious, tiny naked mole rats. Because honestly, that’s what all newborns look like, if we’re being perfectly honest. And that’s what got pulled out of my belly on March 20th, three year ago. Two of them. Only my naked mole rats had half-moon eyes. Beautiful, Korean, half-moon eyes. And Parker had lashes that fanned across his cheeks in the most magnificent display you ever did see. They still do, for that matter. And then there was Tate. Tate with the buttery-gold skin of an ancient temple Buddha. We oohed and aahed over his ancestral gift of a most-glorious skin tone. Come to find out, it wasn’t genetics. It was jaundice… But even after that bilirubin leveled out, he still possesses the most exquisite built-in tan you ever did see.Sadly, after planting a kiss on my long-lashed and beautifully-bronzed naked mole rats, they were whisked away to the NICU.
Now the NICU was not in my birth plan. Not even close. I had anticipated a glamour-shots delivery, remember? And then a saccharine-sweet bonding period full of soft, fuzzy snapshots. Me snuggling our newborns while they mewed hungrily at my breasts. Mike slumbering with them on his chest in our overstuffed, deep-seated rocker. That was my vision. That was my dream. Our reality was nothing like it. At all. There were no nursing newborns at my breasts and no happenstance naps with Daddy. Instead there were incubators and oxygen lines and feeding tubes and beeping monitors and carefully measured mills of breast milk in the tiniest bottles you ever did see.
But I’ll address the NICU and its roller coaster of events and emotions next time…
Carrying twins was a blessing of tremendous proportions, as well as an eight-month war of attrition on my body. Despite reinforcing myself with some of the best defensive strategies of modern medicine and engineering, I delivered prematurely.
I had preeclampsia.
But first, a little about those months leading up to delivery…
In all fairness, my body didn’t want to have twins. At forty-seven, it was biologically certain that the entire procreation thing was over and done with.
As a result, there was quite a lot of gestational gerrymandering involved in order to manipulate my hormonal constituency and ensure a victory.
We began with a preemptive strike of suppositories, injections and oral supplements, then recruited a donor’s eggs, an endocrynologist, an embryologist, and a nurse with steady hands and capable bedside manner. To seal the deal, we utilized a paper cup, a secluded chamber, a dimly lit procedure room and a straw. Okay, maybe it has some fancy, schmancy medical term, but for all intents and purposes, it was a straw. A straw meant to spit a couple of sticky buns into my baby maker. (BTW, if someone is looking to duplicate our successful campaign, it is important to note that there were five days separating the cup & the spit wads & the straw.)
So with these tools, we successfully raided my trench and left two embryos safely ensconced within my uterine walls. Now all that was left was to keep them there for nine more months.
The task was Herculean. Or, in keeping with my militaristic theme, the task was Spartan.
From nearly the get-go my body was pummeled with Braxton Hicks contractions that rocked my belly – as in, my belly was transformed to granite – close to eighty times a day. I took measures to reduce the contractions as best I could. A gallon of water a day helped. A gallon — no lie. I was supposed to drink 128 fluid ounces of water. A day. Twins siphon off your liquid intake pretty much as quickly as you can pour it down your throat. Dehydration was a constant fear – and became a two-time reality. Two times my champion husband drove me to the hospital for IV fluids, a quick Doppler listen, and close monitoring.
Another defensive strategy I employed was a battery of supplements: prenatal vitamins, calcium, folic acid, iron, fish oil and protein shakes. Not only would my little twin tenants deplete all my fluids, they could potentially steal my bone density, my red blood cells and my brain.(I think they successfully absconded with my brain.)
Epsom salts also became part of my nightly arsenal. I spent hours in a bathtub full of them. The salts contain magnesium, and some studies have linked them to a reduced likelihood of preeclampsia. They are also touted as a defense against restless leg syndrome – which plagued me incessantly while pregnant. I guess since I suffered from both RLS and, eventually, preeclampsia, the salts were probably a pointless maneuver. But, I do love a nice, long soak in a tub, so I’m saying, “No harm. No foul.”
Along with all the aforementioned strategies, I spent many a sleepless night sandbagging on pregnancy pillows and couch cushions with ice packs between my breasts. Not on my breasts. Between them. Why, you might rightly wonder? Because the rapidly growing juggernauts in my uterus were putting unconscionable stress on my rib cage. My sternum was ready to snap like a Butterball wishbone at Thanksgiving. Nobody told me about this horrific twin pregnancy phenomenon. I still haven’t heard of anyone else experiencing it. Maybe I’m the only one.
And finally, while pregnant, I suited up in armor designed specifically for safety and comfort. First, there were nylon compression stockings designed to combat swelling and provide support. Mike had to roll and tug and pull and pretty much squeeze me into them every morning. And then do the reverse every night. And he hand washed them. No small feat since they smelled like feet. Swollen, sweaty, pregnancy feet. And then there was my Velcro and cotton maternity belt with an extra-wide back support and straps both above and below my giant, billowing baby bump. That belt could’ve saddled the Trojan Horse it was so big and wide. And indeed I felt like the Trojan Horse, housing tiny warriors in my belly just waiting to spill out and conquer the world. Or at least northwest Georgia.
And finally, our mechanized measures. We bought a blood pressure cuff and took regular readings four to five times a day. We were closely monitoring for any slight increase in diastolic and/or systolic pressure, or both. Despite all our protective measures — along with meds to conquer and control the riotous numbers) — at thirty-four weeks, the nebulous, egregious villainous Preeclampsia invaded, wreaking havoc on my body and my babies.
Three years ago this week, I was forty-seven years old, thirty-four weeks pregnant, forty-three pounds heavier, and two cup sizes larger. My legs were the size of aspens and my ass was the size of Warren Buffet’s assets. I was an amniotic and edema filled cistern of IVF success. I looked like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Or a stack of stratocumulus clouds. I was so fluffy I could die. Literally. And so could my in vitro twin boys. Preeclampsia is no laughing matter.
Three years ago, this week, I was about to experience a barrage of new and scary experiences, including: an ambulance ride, an emergency C-section, two five-pound, six-week-preterm twin boys and an up close and personal relationship with a NICU.