“We got married ten years ago when we were 25. All I have ever wanted was to be a mother, but I had this gut feeling that we were going to struggle,” says Veronica. She and her husband Craig were told they were ‘young and healthy’ and didn’t need to worry, but then they discovered his sperm motility was low.
“We agreed on our original two-year plan: we were going to travel a bit and have fancy holidays, enjoy ourselves first and then when we went for it, well, we would have sex and then we would have a baby … wouldn’t we?
“Two years after our wedding we started trying for a baby. We were still living in South Africa at the time, which is where we are both from, and after six months I went to see a gynaecologist. She said ‘it can take up to a year, and you are both really young and healthy so just keep trying.’
“12 months later I went back to see her because I still wasn’t pregnant, and she advised that it would be worth Craig getting checked out – so he went to see a consultant and gave a sperm sample. The consultant said it was a bit low but didn’t seem too worried because Craig was still ‘young and healthy’.”
The couple moved to Hertfordshire in the UK and carried on trying to conceive naturally, but still nothing happened. Veronica continues: “I went to see my GP and was sent for hospital tests, which revealed that one of my fallopian tubes might have been blocked, and one of the scans picked up that I had a uterine polyp, which was removed.”
Semen analysis reveals low motility
“Craig had a semen analysis and it had really deteriorated since his previous test in South Africa, with low sperm count and really low motility. The doctors were worried that it was just going to keep getting worse and so referred us for NHS-funded IVF straight away.
“We looked at the clinic options and there were a few in London but I didn’t want to travel on the tube early in the morning for scans or after embryo transfer. Bourn Hall was the most central, close to me work-wise and only 30 minutes from home too. When I looked at it online and read the reviews, we knew it was the right choice.
“We arrived at Bourn Hall, five years after we had started trying. Our first appointment was with Dr Mauro, who talked us through it all and answered all our questions really well; she was such a lovely doctor and made us feel at ease about the process.
“However, because of the sperm issues, Bourn Hall told us that we would need to see a urologist before we embarked on IVF.”
Bourn Hall is fortunate to have a specialist in male fertility Mr Oliver Wiseman, who is also a urologist. He explains to couples that only a few good sperm are needed for IVF and if the sperm count is low or there are no sperm in the ejaculate, then there may be small pockets of sperm production in the testicles, which can be obtained by a procedure called Micro-TESE (Microscopic testicular retrieval of sperm).
Veronica continues: “Our back-up plan was Micro-TESE but in the end Craig produced enough samples of sperm to freeze without needing a sperm extraction, which was great.”
Struggling with infertility
“It was a difficult time for Craig because men don’t tend to talk about infertility; he knew that I spoke to my friends about it and he didn’t want me to tell them that he was ‘the problem’. He was feeling really low.
“It was difficult for me to try and support him. I didn’t love him any less and I didn’t blame him for the problems we were having; it was just one of those things.”
When there is a male factor issue, it is usually recommended that the couple have IVF with ICSI – this is when a good sperm is chosen and injected directly into the egg. The fertilised egg becomes an embryo and is transferred to the womb when it is about 3-5 days old.
Clinicians prefer to use a fresh sperm sample where possible, but to ensure that there would be sufficient available on the day, Craig and Veronica froze samples of sperm ahead of egg collection. The first fresh sample was not usable, but one of the nurses advised Craig to try again in half an hour “because sometimes that can work”.
Veronica continues: “Craig followed her advice and they said the second sample had produced enough sperm to fertilise all of the eggs. Craig felt a massive sense of relief at this point.
“We ended up with six embryos which went to day five blastocyst stage, and I was called back in for a day five transfer using one embryo.”
“Unfortunately that embryo didn’t take. We had been trying for a baby for so long that I think we had started to feel numb about the whole process, but equally it had been impossible to not get our hopes up – so when the pregnancy test was negative we both felt like we had failed at the last step, having come so far on this challenging journey.
“We had five frozen embryos remaining from our first treatment, so we went back to Bourn Hall a few months later for a frozen embryo transfer using two embryos.
“The two-week wait felt like an eternity again, and this time we were much less optimistic, so much so that I did the pregnancy test early in the morning without waking Craig, assuming it would be negative and not wanting to break his heart again. But just as Craig walked into the bathroom, there it was, the test was showing positive. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Elation doesn’t begin to describe it.
Happy at last
“I think from having the experience of infertility, and having dealt with it for so long, we were on tenterhooks for the entire pregnancy, waiting for something to go wrong because we couldn’t believe that it had worked.
“In the middle of this we moved from Hertfordshire to Leicestershire.
“Olivia was born on 8 July 2020, the most perfect little girl. She is happy, healthy and has been an amazing baby since the day she was born, but we’re biased! She was a really early walker, and she has been keeping us on our toes from the beginning.
“We definitely plan on going back to Bourn Hall for more treatment; the place is amazing and the car journey to Cambridge is only just over an hour from our new home in Leicestershire. We still have embryos in the freezer as well as Craig’s frozen sperm. Ideally we would like a close age gap; it would be nice if we could plan it like most people who say ‘let’s have another baby’ and then they have a baby straight away!”