You Are Here:Going through IVF

Purple Orchid’s regional sales manager Helen Dunkley, 43, met her husband Peter, a graphic designer, via the internet. Peter, now 45, already had a daughter Francesca, now 17, while Helen hadn’t been married before. They now live in Lymm, Cheshire, with their children Thomas, nine, and Nella, who is two.

Peter told me that he decided on our first date that he was going to marry me – he didn’t say that on the first date, that would have been too much! But he knew then, and he told me a few months later.

For my part I thought he was very handsome and we’d got along really well, we had plenty of shared interests and I was keen for a second date. Unfortunately that didn’t happen until about a month later because I was injured in a ski accident.

Our second date was in March 2005 and he proposed in November. It was so romantic – he took me to Ambleside in the Lake District and rowed a boat to a little island where there was a trestle table set up with champagne. I said yes, of course, and we organised the wedding for the following June.

We wanted to have children straight away and Thomas was a honeymoon baby – our first honeymoon, that is! We had booked a dream trip to Thailand, Japan and Australia for September, so we took a few days in France straight after the wedding, because we were so tired. By the time September came, we’d had to change it to Singapore to avoid taking anti-malarials during the pregnancy, and I vividly remember standing in a monsoon feeling miserable with morning sickness.

Thomas was born without any problems on March 3, 2007. It was all perfect, and we imagined it would be equally easy to have our second child when we were ready we were very wrong– I am an only child and while I didn’t have a set number of children in my head, the one thing I knew was that I wanted more than one.

I was 34 when Thomas was born, and he was nearly four when we started trying for another rbaby, assuming I would be pregnant in the first month. And actually my period was late, but there was no positive test. For the next 10 months we rode a horrible rollercoaster every 28 days, thinking it could be this time, then finding it hadn’t happened.

I knew I was pregnant with Thomas 48 hours after conception – I was motion sick & everything ached. So during this time I was constantly asking myself, ‘Do I feel queasy? Are there any signs?’.

My mum and nana had had early menopauses, in their early 40s. I knew that, but having Thomas was so easy that I fooled myself into believing everything was working fine. Looking back I can see now that there were some signs that my fertility was changing, I had noticed dryness, for instance, but thought it was as a result of my first pregnancy. Maybe we would have started trying earlier if we’d known.

Our romantic life became much less spontaneous and more of a chore, becoming more regimented and part of a scientific process as I found out more about fertility and started using ovulation kits.  After 11 months I realised the clock was ticking. So I went to the GP, who was lovely, and he referred us to The Liverpool Women’s Hospital straight away. There was a 12-week wait, which to me seemed ages as I hurtled towards 39.

They ran tests to get an indication of our fertility. Peter was fine. My I had an ovarian reserve test which showed my reserves were very low. That was a real shock. I didn’t know at that point that your fertility nose dives after 35, and that each month would erode further.

But they said it was ok, and the consultant was cautiously optimistic.

The first option was to take Clomid, which is a drug which stimulates egg production so you have a better chance of pregnancy. IVF felt like a much bigger decision, not just because it’s a more complicated process but I had a mental block about it and of course there’s the financial pressure. We already had a child and the NHS doesn’t fund fertility treatment if you already have a child, even if that child is from a different partner than the marriage.

Clomid made me feel swollen and uncomfortable and there are other more serious side effects, but the drive to have a baby is much stronger than the need to avoid side effects.

Peter was incredibly supportive through all this, doing all he could from his side – reducing alcohol, eating salads, exercising. You become obsessed with eating enough greens, how much folic acid to take, what you weigh…it becomes all-consuming.

There’s a finite amount of Clomid that you can have, we were prescribed three cycles lasting about 12 weeks, and I got pregnant on the second. We were of course elated, but after six weeks I bled, so we went to hospital, where they said I was miscarrying. It was horrific. I feel for all women who have been through it, it’s awful. It’s not just that you’re sent home to deal with the process of losing your child, and you don’t know what to expect, it’s the loss of hope.

After a few weeks of healing, we were ready to consider trying again. Starting the process after a miscarriage is different, and difficult, you wonder if you are setting yourself up for failure again.

After seeing the consultant again, we decided to go for IVF instead of another cycle of Clomid. The stakes were higher, time was ticking and if it didn’t work we’d be another three to six months down the line.

It cost £4,000, it’s not loose change. But it gave us a better chance, so we went for it. I can’t imagine what it’s like for couples who can see that the solution is available but it’s not an option.

With every stage, more time slips away. We couldn’t just agree to IVF at the appointment with the consultant, you are told to go away and think about it. Then when you decide to go ahead weeks turn into months before you can get an appointment which has to be aligned with your menstrual cycle, and you’re feeling it acutely because you know your fertility and your chances of pregnancy are dropping all the time.

IVF is such a big thing, it says to everyone ‘I need help’ and it’s incredibly hard to keep it secret because there are so many appointments needed and the timings are crucial. Once you reveal to friends, family and colleagues that you are doing IVF, they are all on the rollercoaster with you, and asking questions all the time about what stage you are at, what signs you are feeling, what the chances of success are. It’s bizarre really, because if you are trying to conceive naturally, no one else gets involved.

There are so many emotions churned up. If you get to your early 40s with children or even without, you can imagine that you are young forever, but this process of assisted fertility techniques forces you to face the fact that you are getting older.

During the IVF process they give you drugs to suppress your cycle so that it can be controlled, then you take different drugs to put you into a supercharged fertility phase, to stimulate egg production. It’s a fairly stressful situation itself, every day you are injecting into your stomach and hoping it doesn’t go wrong, thinking, “What if I drop a vial, what if I get the amounts wrong?’.

You’re not supposed to fly when you’re doing this but there was one meeting in Edinburgh that I had to attend, which still makes me laugh. I had to get the injections out at airport security and the guy asked what they were for. I said as quietly as I could: “They’re my IVF treatment.” And he couldn’t have replied any louder: “Do you have a medical letter proving it’s for IVF?” I was mortified.

Each month a woman will produce one or two eggs, but after 12 days of injections, I had 16. Unbelievable! They were 3-16mm each but they felt like a bag of potatoes after in my abdomen! It wasn’t exactly painful but pretty uncomfortable, I had to sit down carefully, but I was so happy I enjoyed it. When I got to the scan, they wanted them to grow a little more, which meant another 72 hours before they could harvest them – and two more injections at £160 a time. It felt like forever.

The removal part is very clinical, they take you to an operating theatre under a sedative so I wasn’t aware of what was going on and had a really great night’s sleep!

Of course amid all this excitement, normal life was going on, I was still a mum, still working, you’re fitting this big deal into your everyday life.

You wait for five days while they develop the embryos in a dish and because I was in a private process, I was on the phone all the time to check their progress, I wasn’t just sitting and waiting the way I might if it was on the NHS! But that was a horrifying process, I was torturing myself because we went from 16 eggs to 12 embryos, then 10 then seven then five, and on the day of implantation, there were only two left.

Time lapse photography was quite an innovation then, and it allowed them to get a better idea of which are strong. But when you are down to two, that’s irrelevant. And then when it was time for the procedure, they said there’s good news, which was that one of the embryos was developing faster than they expected, but there was bad news, which was that the other one wasn’t developing at all well. So we were essentially down to one.

In the implantation room, they asked if we wanted to see our embryo – which was by then 10 cells – on a big screen. And they asked if we wanted a photo – I said no because I couldn’t have had that if it didn’t work, it would be too painful, and I was too scared after the miscarriage. In retrospect I regret that now, I could have had an amazing picture of my daughter, but it was the right thing at the time.

The embryologist came in with a tube which looked about half a metre long, holding his palms over each end, as if the precious contents might spill out! There was no sedative needed, it seemed like they basically inserted the tube and tip it up to let gravity do the work.  And then we went home and waited.

Coincidentally we went back to France for a few days which had been booked before we started the whole IVF journey. I was green on the ferry, but still not convinced I could be pregnant, couldn’t allow myself to hope.

Amazingly, I can’t remember doing the pregnancy test – or tests, because I would almost certainly have done several! I remember the first scan though, which was after about four weeks We were elated but still terrified. It felt better at the nine-week scan but not until the 12-week one did we relax.

Colleagues knew about the IVF because it’s difficult to hide it and I was very open about not being able to do meetings and things, but from the point of egg collection to the 12-week scan, I went into silence. You don’t want to say you’re pregnant when you’ve had a previous miscarriage, you’re just holding on.

Nella – my nana’s nickname – was born on March 30, 2014 at 7lb 2oz, and I was 41 at the time.

I now know six couples who have had IVF successfully. I don’t even want to think about how it would have been if we hadn’t been lucky enough to have Nella…if we’d have kept going, and for how long. That’s heartbreaking for the couples who find themselves in that situation.

The drive to try to have a baby comes from a very deep place, it’s very difficult to be objective and reason with yourself at times fertility treatment can go on a long time and that takes courage because it’s so much of a rollercoaster. Equally, I admire people who come to a decision to stop.  I’m so grateful to the amazing team at The Liverpool Women’s, thanks to them our family is complete.

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