Creating families for 40 years – lives dedicated to helping fertility patients

Patient-centred care based on trust has always been at the heart of IVF treatment at Bourn Hall. Dr Thomas Mathews remembers this was the philosophy when he first joined the team at Bourn Hall in the 1980s shortly after it opened as the world’s first IVF clinic.  His wife, Sheila, was an integral part of delivering this care through her role as a fertility counsellor.

This month we celebrated the couple’s significant contribution to ‘making IVF babies’ with a special meal to mark their retirement.

Tom Mathews Bourn Hall medical director 2006 - 2017
Dr Tom Mathews and his wife Sheila celebrate their retirement at Bourn Hall

One of the first fertility counsellors 

The fertility journey can be stressful and it is often difficult for couples to share their concerns with their partner or to gain support from friends and family.  Counselling has always been a feature of treatment at Bourn Hall as it was recognised that patients need to be helped to make choices about their care.

Having someone to talk to that is informed but independent from the medical treatment is particularly valuable and Sheila was one of the first counsellors to take this role.

Trained by Patrick Steptoe

Dr Mathews was trained by the pioneering gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and remembers vividly his interview all those years ago.

He says: “Patrick was an old fashioned gynaecologist. He was passionate about his patients and treated them extremely well. He took detailed histories, examined them thoroughly and was very honest about their chances of conception. That ethos continues today at Bourn Hall.”

Making IVF babies

Treatment was very different then. IVF was still in its early days and women could stay on the ward for 10 days waiting for the right moment for egg collection with their husbands waiting in an anticipation to provide a sample for fertilisation.

Dr Mathews remembers how after embryo transfer women would lie with their feet in the air as it was thought this would ‘stop the embryos falling out’ (something we know now is unnecessary!).

It was at Bourn Hall that IVF was transformed from being classed as research to become a proven medical treatment and a whole generation of consultants, embryologists and fertility nurses were trained at the clinic.  Many went on to set up their own clinics worldwide.

Dr Mathews himself worked at some other hospitals before returning to Bourn Hall and becoming Medical Director in 2006. He took semi retirement in 2017 and came back this week for a retirement celebration.  

Bourn Hall pioneered IVF and has 40 years of expertise in treating infertility – this knowledge is used to provide personalised treatment that offers the optimum chance of success – more about IVF treatment

Gary and Matthew with Verity and Elliott and Thomas Mathews
Dr Mathews with Bourn Hall’s first babies with two dads

First Bourn

Dr Mathews oversaw a time of consistent improvement in IVF success rates. When the clinic first opened the chance of success was one in ten and IVF was only used when a woman had blocked fallopian tubes. The medication to stimulate the ovaries to produce more eggs, or the technique ICSI to overcome low sperm issues, had not been developed.

Success rates improved with each break-though in techniques, technology scientific innovation over the years and in 2009 Bourn Hall was awarded a contract to provide eligible patients in the East of England three cycles of NHS funded treatment, the level of treatment recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

Under this contract Bourn Hall treated thousands of patients and worked hard to refine its procedures to achieve the best chance of success. The result: 8 out of 10 patients funded by the NHS took home a baby, with nearly half successful on the first cycle.

Dr Mathews also welcomed changes in the status of same-sex couples that, through Civil Partnerships and changes to legal parenthood laws, have made it easier for these couples to have fertility treatment.

He was particularly delighted to meet Elliot and Verity, Gary Unwin-Riches and his husband Matthew’s twins born following IVF surrogacy treatment at Bourn Hall. The couple had looked into adoption and decided with great sadness that it was not for them, and were becoming resigned to never having children when a family member offered to be a surrogate.

Bourn Hall was the first to offer surrogacy in the 1980s for women who were unable to carry a pregnancy. Now 40 years on technologies developed at Bourn Hall are enabling gay men to realise their dreams of being fathers.

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