“It’s true what they say, IVF is one huge emotional rollercoaster” says Anastasia, who spent 12 years trying to conceive.
For Anastasia (41) and her husband Thomas (45), from Peterborough, that rollercoaster was a long and complex journey which spans over 12 years.
Anastasia begins: “We started trying to have a baby as soon as we got married in 2002. After a year with no success we went to our GP and were referred to our local hospital for some tests.”
“I really struggled with it being unexplained”
The tests revealed that Thomas’ sperm had slow motility (movement) but that it shouldn’t affect the couple’s chances of conceiving. The hospital concluded it was unexplained fertility and they were referred for one cycle of NHS funded IVF treatment in 2007, which they chose to have at Bourn Hall Clinic near Cambridge.
“I really struggled with it being unexplained infertility” recalls Anastasia. “I think it was harder not knowing what the problem was. It would have been easier knowing and having something to focus on and a hurdle to overcome. I found it really difficult and frustrating.
“Being referred for IVF treatment it felt like we were actually doing something and we were full of optimism. Looking back on it now we were quite naïve.”
IVF with ICSI
The couple had their first appointment at Bourn Hall and after some more tests and another semen analysis the consultant decided Thomas’ sperm motility could be the cause of their infertility and that IVF with ICSI would be the best treatment for them.
ICSI stands for Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection and is when a single sperm is injected into the centre of a mature egg, to help fertilisation occur.
Anastasia had her egg collection in 2007 and produced six eggs, which resulted in several good quality embryos, one was frozen and two were transferred to her womb after the second day of incubation.
“Then it was the horrible two week wait before you can take the pregnancy test” recalls Anastasia. “You want to do it early! My heart was saying do it and my head was saying don’t because the result might be false. It was so difficult to control my emotions.
“When we finally took the test it was negative. We were devastated. At the time there was only NHS funding for one cycle of treatment and we couldn’t afford to self-fund so the decision was made for us. We had to save up and wait till we could afford further treatment.”
A glimmer of hope
However, in 2009 the funding criteria for IVF in the East of England changed and the couple were entitled to a further two fresh and a further three frozen cycles of treatment.
“We were absolutely delighted when we heard the news. We thought this was our chance. This time I produced more eggs at the collection and they were left to develop until blastocyst stage. One embryo was transferred and another four were frozen.
“The two week wait was no easier this time but I took reassurance from a forum called Fertility Friends where I could see that other women were going through the same thing and feeling the same way.”
Unfortunately when Anastasia took the test it was negative again. The couple were disappointed but decided to keep on going and booked in for their next treatment which was a frozen cycle, using their five frozen embryos. Two were transferred to Anastasia’s womb but when she took a pregnancy test after two weeks it was negative.
Considering alternative methods
At this point the couple had been trying to conceive for over eight years and so Anastasia started to look into alternative ways to boost their chances of conceiving.
“I’d done some research on immunology and thought that prednisolone, a steroid that reduces the immune response, would help us, but at the time the drug hadn’t been researched enough for Bourn Hall to prescribe it. Our consultant recommended clexane instead which is a blood-thinning drug that helps implantation and increases blood flow.
“I produced quite a few eggs this cycle and the embryos were top grade. Two embryos were transferred to my womb and at this stage we were quite hopeful because we had two transferred and they had both been such good quality.”
The couple were right to be optimistic. Two weeks later Anastasia took a pregnancy test which showed she was pregnant.
“We were ecstatic!” exclaimed Anastasia. “I was so happy that it worked. It was the first time I’d be pregnant since we started trying nine years ago.”
“We were devastated”
Thrilled that things finally seemed to be going their way the couple booked in for a seven week scan, but a couple of days before the appointment Anastasia started to bleed. After a visit to A&E she was told to continue taking the medication, but that it might be a miscarriage.
Looking back, Anastasia says “I think we were holding on to a thread of hope and when we had the scan a few days later there was no heartbeat. We’d had our hopes built up so much, only for them to be ripped apart. We were devastated. I shut myself off from the world and just wanted it to all go away.”
This cycle marked the final NHS funded IVF treatment the couple could have so Anastasia and Thomas took some time to grieve and think about their future. It was during this time the couple renewed their wedding vows and had their wedding blessed in a church.
Support from mum and dad
Anastasia’s mum and dad offered to pay for one more cycle of IVF treatment, but Anastasia had mixed emotions about having more fertility treatment.
“I was so grateful to mum and dad for giving us another chance, but it took about three years before I thought I was ready. I think I was scared, I kept on making excuses to not go through it again.
“One day I saw on Fertility Friends that someone had been prescribed prednisolone at Bourn Hall. I was convinced that the prednisolone would help and when I rang the clinic and they said it was something they offered now I was thrilled. We were so happy we could go back to Bourn Hall for our final chance at having a baby.”
Anastasia and Thomas started treatment in 2013, knowing this was their last chance.
“I’d let my mum and dad know how much it might cost but they said that this was the final shot and to do anything that would give us a better chance of success.”
Prednisolone and Clexane
Anastasia was prescribed prednisolone and clexane during her treatment and was also given a course of intralipids. Intralipids are known as an adjuvant treatment, something that seems to work in practice but doesn’t yet have a scientific evidence-base. Bourn Hall has achieved good pregnancy results using intralipids before conception and during pregnancy. It is thought the treatment stops the immune system attacking the embryo.
“I’d convinced myself that our problem was to do with my immune system so having the intralipids and prednisolone made me feel much more confident.”
Opting for IMSI and EEVA
The couple decided to have IMSI (Intracytoplasmic Morphologically Selected Sperm Injection) which has been known to boost success rates for cases where implantation hasn’t worked on several occasions following ICSI treatment.
IMSI involves the assessment of sperm at a very high magnification, allowing embryologists to identify any defects or abnormalities. Once a sperm is selected it is injected into a mature egg in the same way as standard ICSI.
The couple also opted to use EEVA (Early Embryo Viability Assessment) which takes pictures of the developing embryos inside the incubator every five minutes. This information together with a software analysis helps the embryologist to select the best embryo.
Anastasia continues: “We thought we’d use EEVA because it was something new and it made sense. The consultant explained to us that every time an embryo is assessed traditionally, it is disturbed when it is removed from the incubator. Using EEVA the embryos could develop in the incubator without any disruption.
“I only produced five eggs, but all of them went to the day five blastocyst stage. Because of my age I was able to choose two embryos to be transferred. We didn’t have any frozen so this was it, our final chance.
A nervous wait after 12 years trying to conceive
“After 10 days we came back to Bourn Hall for a blood test to see if I was pregnant. Afterwards we had to sit in the café and wait for the results. I remember I had three cups of tea and sat pretending to read a magazine. I think Thomas was doing the same thing too – it was a horrible wait!
“The nurse called us over and I burst into tears, I was overcome with fear. I tried to compose myself but the nurse smiled and said she couldn’t have me crying any longer. She told me I was pregnant and I burst into tears of absolute joy and relief.”
Understandably the couple were delighted, but once they calmed down the nerves set in.
“I had another three intralipid infusions once every four weeks and each time I felt like I’d achieved another milestone and we were that bit closer to success.
But it wasn’t over yet for the couple.
“At about nine weeks I started to bleed and my heart sunk. I thought here we go again. I went for a scan the following day but everything was ok! We could see him there and it was so reassuring. Throughout the rest of my pregnancy I had quite a few scans which helped comfort my nerves.”
Proud parents to Hugo
Thankfully this time Anastasia and Thomas had no need to be nervous. On the 28th May 2014 baby Hugo was born.
Anastasia says “It took 12 years to have him but he is so worth the wait. He is lovely. Dark hair and dark eyes just like his parents. I love being a mum. I’ve worked with children my whole life, but this is completely different and everything I’ve always wanted.”
“Be there for your partner, to support every aspect”
Thomas adds “No one really thinks the men go through anything, but every setback and every emotion is felt as hard and as much as the women. We are always on the side lines as we only have ‘one job’ to perform but my advice to every other man about to embark on such an important journey, is to just be there for your partner to support every aspect. Try and attend all appointments and scans and above all, don’t take things personally and just believe that your life will be enriched when you succeed.
“I adore being a Dad to our beautiful baby boy Hugo. He was definitely worth the wait. I can’t wait to get home from work to spend time with him and I enjoy giving him his bath which we call ‘Barry Bathtime’ as we listen to Barry Manilow! Hugo makes us feel complete.”