I was pregnant on my wedding day. It was August 6, 2010 — and my new husband, Storey, and I were thrilled. Given my age (39), we’d started trying as soon as we got engaged eight months earlier. It was perfect, and I thought, “That was easy!” But it wasn’t meant to be, and I experienced my first miscarriage — we soon discovered that having a baby would be anything but easy.
After the loss of that pregnancy, a faint, achy sort of fear came over us, although it faded somewhat when we learned in November that we were expecting for the second time, just three months after our wedding. But by January, the news again was not good. Our growing baby’s heart rate was weak (under 100 beats per minute). We were told to prepare for the worst.
It was heartbreaking. One of the hardest things for me was seeing Storey’s face when they told us we were going to lose this pregnancy, too. I felt old — and broken. He didn’t ask for this. He was six years younger than I was and healthy. I was the problem. Many times over the next two years I’d find myself asking him to leave me. I wanted him to have children and didn’t want to be responsible for keeping him from his dream of being a father. But Storey was resolute in his belief that we would have a baby together — that everything would work out. We’d even prepared for this, just to be safe, when we first met. I was 36 at the time and wanted to protect my fertility. When I told Storey about my plan to freeze some eggs and embryos (my eggs, fertilized using a donor’s sperm), he said, “Use mine.”
“But what if we break up?” I remember saying. “Then I won’t have any embryos.” And his response still makes me cry. “I’ll sign off on them,” he said. “You’ll make a great mom.” I fell even more in love with him for being so selfless, kind and generous.
And so, a few years later, we embarked on an arduous journey of fertility treatments. Even though we had become pregnant naturally twice, we decided to turn to IVF, because the clock was ticking. We’d frozen seven embryos and six eggs. Unfortunately, I hadn’t frozen all the eggs as embryos. Embryos are heartier and easier to thaw than eggs that haven’t been fertilized. The success rate for transferring embryos is much higher than the newer option of thawing eggs and fertilizing them later.
The process began with copious drugs to prepare my body to receive an embryo. Injecting yourself is terrifying at first, but you do it so often that it becomes mundane. The side effects vary, but for me there was the standard weight gain and mood swings. My belly was so bloated people actually thought I was already pregnant. I wasn’t.
Even making frequent trips to the fertility clinic in the city was taxing. We live about two hours from Toronto, and the clinic sees the “cycle monitoring” patients between 8 and 10 a.m. The stress of commuting was compounded by the fact that people often recognized me in the waiting room. I’d hear whispers of ‘“Hey, isn’t that Monika Schnarre? See, honey, she has problems too!” I craved privacy.
Then we learned that our frozen embryos had not fared well in the thawing process. Out of the seven I thought we had, only five had actually been frozen and now only three were suitable for transfer. Of those three, none looked very promising under a microscope. My stomach dropped. I’d thought IVF was a sure thing. I was 36 when they were harvested, and so they must be okay. Right? I kept thinking, “This can’t be.” We waited anxiously for a few days and were devastated to find out that none of them had taken. I was not pregnant. Now all of our frozen embryos were gone. I was 40, and our hope was waning.
My initial fear turned into full-blown panic. Well-meaning, kind-hearted people kept asking me when Storey and I were going to start a family — my hairdresser asked me about it not long after my second miscarriage. Not his fault. He didn’t know. It took everything in me to smile and say, “We’re working on it!” Lots of people had advice too. “Hang upside down after sex!” Or offered their help: “Use my uterus.” I felt like screaming.
The only thing that I’d ever been 100 percent sure of, the only thing I’d ever known for certain in this life, was that I wanted to give birth and to be a mom. And now, the possibility of that not happening elicited a terrible darkness that I wasn’t prepared for. It was selfish, I know, to ask for anything more than I already had. I’ve been truly blessed in my life. I’m healthy and happy; I have a good family, a wonderful marriage and great friends. And I’ve enjoyed the most exciting career that’s taken me around the globe. So this cloud that followed me everywhere was so foreign to me that I didn’t quite know what to do with it. Nothing else seemed to matter. Getting pregnant was the only thing I thought about.
I knew I wasn’t alone. There were many, many women in my position, and I was shocked to see people I knew at the clinic. I had dinner with a woman one night, then saw her at the clinic the next day — I’d had no idea she was having problems, like me. No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to admit she needs help getting pregnant. And no one wants to talk about miscarriage. It’s a lonely, lonely place.
When I did open up to others about my miscarriages, I was often shocked to learn that they’d had them too. I turned to the internet, where there are chat rooms for women seeking answers, sharing losses and information, but I found them overwhelming. Some women were on their seventh IVF cycle and had suffered many miscarriages. Reading about them only made me more frightened.
Before we started IVF, I got into complementary medicine. I went for acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic adjustments and nutrition counselling — you name it, I tried it. The nice thing about my traditional Chinese medicine doctors is that they told me a woman’s age is less important than her overall health. “Is your body in balance?” is a more important question to them than “How old are you?” They gave me hope.
After the disappointment of the failed embryo transfer, I wasn’t ready for another IVF treatment. I couldn’t stomach another round of injections quite yet. I filled the months we weren’t doing IVF with prescriptions for either Clomid (used for indirect stimulation of the ovaries) or other drugs meant to help me release more eggs. In most cases, they elevate your chances of conceiving but also increase the risk of multiple births. Unfortunately, I developed a cyst as a result, so I stopped taking the drugs.
Every month we tried something new. We did three months of IUI (intrauterine insemination), which involves sperm processing (or “washing”) and placing the processed sperm into the uterine cavity with a catheter on the day you ovulate (and the day before). It’s a humiliating procedure, but we approached it with the attitude “If this is what it takes...let’s do it.” Nothing worked.
We even attempted a “fresh” cycle (meaning not frozen) of IVF in the winter of 2011. Freezing the embryos could have put a strain on them, and so we thought maybe that had been the problem.
Every day for 10 days before your egg retrieval you need to inject yourself in the stomach, buttocks or thigh. Admittedly it had, at times, its moments of humour. If anyone walked by me in my car, they’d probably have thought I was a heroin addict. “Hey, there’s Monika outside the movie theatre, injecting herself.”
Once, I went through airport security with my bag of needles. There, in front of a long line of curious travellers, the security guard pulled out my syringes for all to see. Thankfully, they were accompanied by a doctor’s note explaining everything, but I could have died from embarrassment. I just did my best to laugh it off , thinking “end goal,” which was holding our baby in my arms, smelling his delicious baby smell. I kept telling myself this would all be worth it one day. But that round of IVF didn’t work either.
We wanted to try another fresh IVF cycle in the spring of 2012, but the cycle was cancelled because of my body’s poor response to the drugs. There were simply not enough eggs to continue. I was grateful to the clinic for not leading us on or allowing us to spend more money on a cycle that wouldn’t work (by now, we’d already spent over $30,000). In four years, I went from pumping out 13 healthy eggs each cycle to just two or three.
In the summer of 2012 we decided to take a break from the drugs, stress and disappointment. I kept seeing my acupuncturist and stopped drinking coffee and chardonnay. Generally, I just tried to be healthier.
One day my girlfriend called to tell me about a friend of hers who’d spent a fortune on IVF and then went to a naturopath for something unrelated. The naturopath had asked if she’d had any miscarriages (she had) and then checked her thyroid. He said her thyroid wasn’t functioning properly and told her to take two drops of iodine under her tongue daily. Incredibly, my friend’s friend did get pregnant and now has a beautiful baby girl.
After all this time, I felt a glimmer of hope. I also have a thyroid problem and had been taking a synthetic thyroid prescription to help control it, but perhaps it wasn’t enough. I immediately made an appointment with the same naturopathic doctor in Montreal. And at the same time, I began taking iodine drops. I figured, what could it hurt?
I was pregnant six weeks later. We conceived on our two-year anniversary, naturally. Was it a coincidence? I don’t know. But I couldn’t wait to drive to Montreal to tell the doctor that I felt he’d already helped me get pregnant. During my first appointment, he tested my thyroid acupuncture point and found my thyroid was functioning at 10 percent. He told me I had an 80 percent chance of miscarriage, but that with the proper thyroid support it wasn’t too late to save the pregnancy.
He explained that many physicians only test your TSH (thyroidstimulating hormone) levels. But there are three thyroid tests you can do: T3, T4 and thyroid antibodies. (Iodine is a component of thyroid hormones.) Some studies show that if your thyroid isn’t working properly, it can be more difficult to get pregnant and maintain a pregnancy. A 2012 study confirmed that thyroid function can become seriously affected during controlled ovarian hyper-stimulation (COH). Researchers have discovered that up to 44 percent of women with normal thyroid function can develop TSH levels associated with a higher risk of miscarriage after a period of ovarian stimulation.
For anyone reading this with a heavy heart and faded hope, I’ve been there and understand your pain. When you feel like you’ve exhausted every avenue and you think that you just can’t go on, it’s time to take another road — and sometimes that road means simply having a break and letting go of all the stress.
This has been my journey. In no way am I telling anyone to stop a course of IVF treatments or medications, but a more holistic approach is what worked for me. As I write this article I’m seven months pregnant, and the gentle movements that I feel in my belly were worth all the pain and stress of the last three years. I can honestly say that I’m close to having everything I’ve ever wanted in life.
Update: We’re happy to report that Monika gave birth to a healthy baby boy on May 8. You can follow her on Twitter for more updates (and some pretty cute photos).