Why me? Infertility and the stubborn Yorkshireman

Why me? Liz O'Donnell talking to Robert Edwards
Liz O’Donnell talking to Robert Edwards

Why me? was a question even Robert Edwards, co-father of IVF, could not answer. This photo was taken in October 2007 in Washington D.C. almost 3 years to the day before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine. That’s me on the left.  I began the interview and he very quickly took charge and told me, with brusque affection, “…you have ten minutes.” I didn’t take him seriously and he wasn’t serious. We chatted for 30 minutes about the work that drove his life and changed my life, and the lives of millions of others.

Here Liz O’Donnell’s interview with Robert Edwards here.

Onboard the infertility train

If you are reading this blog, then you and I will soon be intimately acquainted. Infertility does that. It fast tracks you to asking and answering the kind of questions that on any other subject on any other day might have leave you wondering “what business is that of yours?”

There is not much room for privacy on the infertility train; it’s an open carriage with a lot of exposed windows. When you are called to catalogue the details and function of your reproductive system, and checking your underwear becomes a blood sport, life as you know it can start to feel unstable. You probably already know that.

There are many angles and hidden corners, inadequate explanations and brave new world trials.

Hope at first IVF clinic

Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe are the fathers of brave new world trials. Responsible for the birth of the first IVF baby Louise Brown in 1978 they went on to found Bourn Hall Clinic in 1980. Or perhaps the tiny village of Bourn found them?

It is certainly where I found myself in September 1987 after having undergone 3 unsuccessful rounds of IVF and numerous IUI’s in Toronto, Canada in the years before. I still remember the many faces, if not the names, of the staff that cared for me, and the fragile gait of Patrick Steptoe as he made his rounds (he died in March 1988). I haven’t lost the wonder and gratitude of living in the time of in-vitro fertilization when only a decade earlier I would have had to shape my persistence and stubbornness into a passion, other, than getting pregnant.

No guarantees

You are going to hear that word, or variations of that word passion a lot in this blog. No doubt passion simmers in your own brain, occasionally rising to a desperate boil when no matter how hard you work at getting pregnant nothing seems to make a difference.

Infertility is one of those problems that defy the fundamental principles of a good work ethic.

You aren’t likely to do better because you do better. You can’t exercise your way out of this one. I have always maintained if we could work ovaries out in the gym we would have eradicated infertility years ago.

No, infertility demands a different kind of tenacity – passion, patience and dedication to a principle without a guaranteed end-point. Even though everyone on every side of this equation is fighting for the same outcome, maybe with different odds and differing consequences, it is the body to be treated that suffers uniquely.

While there is no doubt that the aim of all players is a healthy baby, or two…the natural order of things as we have assumed them to be is shattered and this can leave the person being treated struggling to pick up some very sharp pieces.

Picking up the sharp pieces

But what is life if we don’t constantly strive to shatter the natural or perhaps unnatural order of things? Robert Edwards was a natural order shatterer. I know that’s likely not a word but we are all busy reorganizing from disorder in one way or another so I am going for it. In fact maybe that’s in part what drives our need for survival and the desire to have children?

No one theory fully explains why we are willing to work so hard to reproduce or why some people conceive when it’s the last thing they want or the furthest thing from what they need but this, and the questions that follow from those unknowns, are examples of those sharp pieces that we struggle to gather when getting pregnant is getting difficult. Questions like “ why me? ” and sometimes even, “why not her?”

Why me?

I am sure you already suspect there is no good answer to these questions but it likely doesn’t stop them from popping into your head and often over-staying their welcome until you’ve developed your own implausible answer. As any good researcher will tell you, the trouble with posing poor questions is that they always lead to implausible answers.

I have yet to discover an acceptable explanation to the question ‘ why me? ’ whatever the circumstances and difficulty from which it arose. As Robert Edwards says himself in the interview, “…life isn’t like that.”

Love, inclusion and meaning

Infertility woos you into nakedness and is a tough negotiator. What other deal would you enter into with such inequitable odds and unpredictable risk? Infertility isn’t simply about getting pregnant, having a baby, and becoming a parent. It is about love, inclusion, expectation, and meaning. It is about stigma, invisibility, trepidation, and too often despair. It is about the question of faith and the certainty of uncertainty.

Infertility turns ‘assumption’ on its head sometimes fracturing the arc of our belief so that the only thing left to do is reconstruct it. As ironic as it may seem, infertility is the pursuit of human growth, of the embryo to be conceived, and of us, the expectant mothers and fathers who ache for a child that doesn’t need us yet. It takes endurance and a commitment to the long haul to navigate this journey.

Takes stubborness

It takes that Yorkshire stubbornness and it takes a village; a village of scientists, clinicians and aspiring families willing to join forces with compassion and perseverance. Robert Edwards says it so poignantly in this interview, “…I needed a lot of people to get through. I wasn’t fighting for myself but for my patients and my children.”

You will hear useless suggestions, unproven claims, recycled myths (and I mean really recycled), and insensitive declarations.

No, you are not more likely to get pregnant if you adopt than you are if you don’t. Yoga won’t get you pregnant, (the rates of infertility are the same in India and there is a lot more yoga going on there) and, although I highly recommend luxurious vacations for relaxation, there is no established direct line from a frozen Margarita to one’s ovaries.

However, while none of those phantom legends guarantee thin blue lines they do sometimes incite rage, trigger jealousy, encourage isolation, and challenge identity.

So what to do? How do you stay focused on what you want and stand being where you are? How do you turn off the noise and feel better about not being pregnant right now while you pursue treatment? How do you reconnect to your own life while you are trying to create another?

Share with you what helps

I want to share with you what I have discovered helps with those questions both personally and professionally. I want to listen to your story and help you build a map that takes a different route to a desired destination.

I am honoured to come back to where my family started, to meet you and to share with you the words of the man who started it all and whose fascination with the science of reproduction and genetics inspired my own work in infertility. There might be some tears, there will definitely be laughs, and it is my goal that everyone of you leaves the room with something more than you came in with.

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