Three years that changed my life

I always wanted children, but I had never met the right person before I met Mark. He said that he didn’t mind if we didn’t have children, but I knew that he did really.

I wasn’t one of those girls who was desperate for children, but I just always thought that my life wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t have a child. Even as I was getting older and older, I thought there would always be IVF. I never thought for one minute that IVF at 40 wouldn’t work.

I am from South Africa and have lived in the UK for 19 years. Before the pandemic I was working at Canary Wharf in London and met my husband when I was 38 and Mark was 39. We met on Tinder; there are a lot of dodgy men on Tinder – but he was normal with a nice family!

We got together in March 2017 and on Christmas Eve he had proposed. We got married in Cape Town in 2018.

IVF at 40

If we wanted a family, we needed to get a move on. I have always had a regular cycle and know almost to the day when I am ovulating. So, because of my age, when it didn’t happen quickly, we went to our GP for advice. She referred us to the Lister Hospital for testing and the Lister hospital suggested we got the AMH test done privately as this would give us a result more quickly. [An AMH test provides an indication of ovarian reserve.]

My AMH level was good for my age, so it would be possible for me to use my own eggs for fertility treatment, but I was warned that egg quality and quantity decline over 35. When Mark’s results came back the morphology and motility of his sperm was not very high.

After doing all that our GP and the Lister hospital said we were eligible for a round of NHS-funded IVF treatment – I was over 40 so was only allowed one funded cycle. It was December 2019 when it was confirmed and we started treatment in January 2020.

Gain support

Everyone’s journey is unique but talking to other people that understand what you are going through can be helpful. The Fertility Support Group is led by independent fertility counsellor, Jackie Stewart.

NHS IVF funding for one cycle

We chose to go to Bourn Hall Cambridge as my friend had been successful there and other people said they had had good experiences there.

I threw everything at the situation: I changed my diet, changed my products, stopped drinking alcohol, took all the supplements, drank lots of healthy smoothies, and spoke to a fertility nutritionist.

Egg collection was at the start of March 2020. It was still the early days of the pandemic and no one really knew what was happening. This fresh round created 4 embryos but only two embryos got to day three and were both transferred at three days.

Mark was allowed in for the egg collection and embryo transfer, but when it came to the eight-week scan he wasn’t allowed in because of Covid (note this has now changed). The scan showed I was pregnant.

Losing the pregnancy

My gut instinct told me I needed more scans mainly because of my age.

For reassurance, I paid for a Harmony scan and a blood test at the Lister Hospital a few weeks later. Mark had to wait outside the hospital in the car and I was just praying for the best outcome. But they couldn’t find a heartbeat; I had lost the pregnancy. They let Mark come in to see me and gave me the options of what to do next. They didn’t want me to go home and take a pill, so I decided to go for something called a manual vacuum aspiration which is unpleasant but meant I didn’t have to go into theatre, which they advised against due to covid.

It was the first time that I had ever been pregnant and that was our one funded IVF cycle done.

We then had to save money and pay for the next one.

More options for self-funded treatment

For the first round, they give you a protocol based on your results and medical history, as they don’t know how you are going to react to the medication, but for the next round they can use information from your previous response to treatment to tailor it to you.

For the first round we had ICSI, where the sperm is injected into the egg. For the second time I asked for IMSI, which magnifies the sperm to a higher level so it is easier to choose the best one – it is on the HFEA’s ‘unproven treatment’ list, but I wanted to do everything I could do to improve the chances.

Due to the ongoing pandemic Mark couldn’t come in with me this time. The treatment resulted in nine embryos, and four embryos made it to the five-day blastocyst stage.

Sadly, I miscarried this time too

The first time was a ‘missed miscarriage’ as I didn’t know I had lost it until I got the second scan, but this second time I was told it was something called a ‘blighted ovum’, where the embryo doesn’t develop and leaves an empty sac.  I was told this time to miscarry naturally but by 10 weeks nothing had happened so I was advised by the Lister to take the pill.

Still due to the pandemic my husband wasn’t allowed in for the scan, so I had to walk back to the car and tell him. We were devastated. I kept thinking it was my age, IVF at 40 was never going to work, but I had to try to stay positive. [Note: this has now changed and partners can attend early pregnancy assessment scans]

I didn’t want to waste any time

I was okay although devastated. A lot of women get really down which I totally understand; maybe I am a bit harder than most. The first miscarriage was terrible and I was devastated after the second one, but I didn’t dwell on it. I just wanted to have another round; I didn’t want to waste any time.

I was producing eggs: I was still having regular periods, absolutely on time every month like clockwork. That is why I never lost hope – the struggle was trying to get my husband to take supplements!

We knew we had three more frozen embryos so that also gave us a bit of hope, so then it was a decision of when to start the next round. We ended up starting in January, using two of the frozen embryos.

Personally, if it hadn’t worked, I don’t think I would have gone down the route of using donated gametes. If I couldn’t use my own eggs or my husband’s sperm, I probably wouldn’t have had children.

We would have decided to enjoy our lives without them, earned our money, travelled the world.

Natural frozen transfer

I did quite a lot of research. That is one thing I would say to other people: do your research – I think it made all the difference as I felt more in control.

When I went for the consultation, we discussed the options for frozen embryo transfer, and the implications, and I asked about a ‘natural frozen transfer’ as a friend had mentioned this and the consultant said a natural cycle would be a good choice for me.

With a natural transfer you need to have regular periods and then you take just take progesterone to help the lining of the womb become receptive to the embryo, but not the other hormones to regulate the cycle. The transfer is timed around the natural cycle which is more unpredictable than a medicated cycle, but for some people it can be an option.

I went in for a scan, where they checked for my natural follicular development and the thickness of my womb lining. They timed transfer and said to come in on a particular day to do the transfer. I personally think that this is what helped, I was less stressed without the oestrogen hormones and it was much better for me, I think.

After the frozen round I did the pregnancy test at 4am on the date I was told to do it. It was positive but it looked weird, as though the dye had come out of the control line and gone to the test line. I didn’t quite understand what was going on and when I went to bed I Googled the result – it said it could be caused by high hormone levels and possibly twins.

When I went for the scan, I was just hoping for a heartbeat.

Mark had a look and cried

I left Mark in the car [Note: this has now changed and partners can attend early pregnancy assessment scans] and went into Bourn Hall for the eight-week scan. I couldn’t look at the screen; the nurse understood and after 10 seconds she said ‘you might want to call your husband – there are two heartbeats’. I couldn’t believe it!

I was allowed to call Mark on a video call and he had a look and he cried. He was really emotional; he was white as a ghost and we were very excited but obviously in a bit of shock – after two miscarriages you don’t think it is going to work.

I got to my due date at 37 weeks and I had our twins Matilda and Oliver at the Lister in October 2021, four months after turning 43.

Even if it hadn’t worked at least I would know that I tried everything – but it did all work out: after two miscarriages we got two babies, and having the twins was worth every bit of effort.

Mark adds: “Becoming a parent in my 40s has been a true blessing. Initially I felt such relief once the twins were delivered as the horrid feeling you develop following the miscarriages we suffered doesn’t leave you. That feeling was dismissed once Melanie gave birth and there was an overwhelming feeling of relief and pride. We consider ourselves very fortunate having been blessed with healthy twins.”

More information

A fertility journey creates a roller coaster of emotions – the Fertility Support Group provides an opportunity to share experiences and coping tips.

The AMH test provides a snap shot of your ovarian reserve – the eggs available for conception.

Dr Thanos Papathanasiou provides advice for women considering IVF at 40 

We saw pregnancy everywhere

“It was quite a whirlwind romance actually,” laughs Claire. “When you are a bit older you know what you want don’t you? We both knew we wanted children and talked about everything on our first date and I actually told my friends afterwards that I had met the man I was going to marry.”

“Wow I must have been really quite impressive!” interjects Alex.

Exciting… at first

Claire and Alex
Claire and Alex

The couple married in 2017. “We stopped worrying about contraception from that moment on and at first it was exciting not worrying about taking precautions and seeing if anything happened,” says Claire. “But then it shifted to checking when I was ovulating and tracking my periods and Googling on the internet. I tend to ‘over Google’ things because I have a little bit of anxiety in general. Towards the end Google became my best friend but also my enemy.

“I love my mum dearly but she was obsessed with me having a baby and was always saying to me ‘it is about time!’ So I felt pressure, albeit well meaning, and it wasn’t just from my mum it was from various people. It was really hard but I had to try and look for ways to reduce stress and go with the flow.”

“When you have decided that you want a baby it feels like it is never ending and is going on forever when nothing is happening,” says Alex. “Time just doesn’t seem to flow the same when you are at that stage.”

“When you are trying for a baby you initially assume that it is going to be fun,” says Claire. “But the problem is that after you have been trying for a while without getting pregnant that fun turns to disappointment and you finally start to lose count of how many pregnancy tests you have done.”

Even the GP was pregnant!

After two years of not getting pregnant the couple, who are registered with the same GP, made an appointment to go together.

“Our GP was great, we can’t fault her, but ironically she was heavily pregnant when we went to see her,” says Claire. “It just felt like everyone was pregnant and sometimes I would be walking down the street and all I would see was women who were pregnant or had a baby.”

“We definitely had a bad case of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon,” says Alex. “We saw pregnancy everywhere – we would switch on the TV and every programme seemed to be about someone giving birth or being pregnant.”

Ironically Claire could not escape babies at work either as she is a product manager for a baby product’s company : “I did find it challenging when we were struggling to conceive and I was preparing presentations with lots of photos of beautiful babies,” she says. “Thankfully I had a really understanding boss who had been through IVF herself and we built up a good friendship over it.”

Fertility test results a shock

Following a visit to their GP, Claire was referred for a number of fertility tests.

“It is quite hard on the woman I think because we tend to be the ones who get tested first, probably because they are more invasive and we have to have more done,” says Claire. “I had tests and procedures done which looked at my fallopian tubes and also my womb lining which came back fine. My FSH levels had been at the maximum borderline for the NHS threshold but I think they were probably normal for my age. I had thought ‘ooh what does that mean?’ but then someone told me they can vary depending on the time of month and so I stopped worrying about it and started Googling how to reduce it!”

“I had three sperm analyses done over the space of a number of months,” says Alex, “and all three measures came up differently at each test but they were all lower than they were supposed to be. It is a weird thing to say but when my mum got breast cancer she said ‘why me?’ and I have to admit that I felt a bit like that too. I am a very fit person, I have always had a good diet, I don’t drink a lot, I don’t smoke. Everything else about me is still going well and so it just felt like a surprise to have something ‘wrong’ with me because I had never had anything wrong. I just felt disappointed really.”

Claire and Alex, who live in Hertfordshire, were told after Alex’s test results that they could be referred for NHS-funded IVF.

Choose Bourn Hall for IVF

“It was amazing to be told that we could have  IVF,” says Claire. “We celebrated that evening with a glass of champagne and popped a note on Facebook saying we were ‘celebrating life’.

“We were given a list of clinics that we could go to and Bourn Hall Cambridge was our first choice,” says Claire. “There was something really appealing about going to the world’s first IVF clinic set up by the people who had brought Louise Brown in to the world. “

“Bourn Hall has such a great reputation and history,” adds Alex.

Coping with the journey

“We had such a warm welcome at Bourn Hall and it really felt like they wanted to help us,” says Claire. “We have got such a fondness now for the big old house and the grounds and I remember going there for the first time and having this magical feeling of hope.”

“Yes and we needed that feeling of hope after all the testing and waiting,” adds Alex.

“The doctor we saw at Bourn Hall, Dr Sharleen Hapuariachi, was really nice and very open and talkative,” says Claire, “and that is desperately what we wanted. We needed to have a conversation with someone who was happy to talk us through our questions and also go in to more detail because we are both really into the science of things.

“The one tip I would give to any woman or couple going through treatment would be to buy yourself a really nice notebook, one you know you are going to keep, and spend time writing down all your questions. I bought myself a really nice plastic wallet too to keep everything clean and put all my leaflets and documents in so when I came out of our first appointment having gone through all the questions in my notebook I felt listened to and we got really details answers and that was really important.

“Dr Hapuarichi seemed genuinely excited about helping us.”

Coping with the journey

Claire and Alex discovered a really novel way of turning Claire’s hormone injections at home into something to look forward to.

“First of all I would put an ice cube on my stomach just before I needed to inject and it would numb the skin and I didn’t feel anything when the needle went in,” reveals Claire.

Chocolate after each injection

“We developed this little routine after Alex bought me a nice box of chocolates where he would hand me the needle, I would do the injection and then straightaway he would hand me a chocolate. It really felt like we were in it together, the injections became a nice thing, it was lovely.”

The couple also listened to a mindfulness app featuring meditations on the way to their appointments at Bourn Hall.

After egg collection and fertilisation the couple had three viable embryos.

“It was so exciting when the embryology lab called us and told us how many had made it to blastocyst,” says Claire. “My stepdad bought me some roses and a lovely card congratulating us on ‘three beautiful embryos. We had a lot of support from close family.”

One embryo was transferred to Claire and the other two were frozen. “We called them our little ‘embies’” says Claire.

pregnancy everywhere

“A week after the transfer I just felt like something was different,” says Claire. I wanted to go to the loo all the time and was so thirsty. We ended up testing early. Alex was with me in the room and it was the first time we had looked at a pregnancy test together. When we had been trying for a baby naturally I would routinely take pregnancy tests on my own and they would always be negative and it would be heart-breaking every single time and I would do three in a month until my period arrived. It is really sad now I think about it but that is where you get to when you want something so much.

“We were delighted when the test was positive, Our IVF treatment had worked first time. We couldn’t wait to tell people and we even drove down to Kent to Alex’s parents with a little mini statue of The Thinker which had belonged to his grandmother with the pregnancy test nestled under his chin and we rang their doorbell and left it on the doorstep and hid round the corner to see their reaction!!”

Robin arrived

Nine months later – on April 5, 2020 – the couple’s son Robin arrived. The couple had wanted a water birth at home and had spent time sitting in the pool in the preceding week and as Claire went in to labour – but ended up having to travel to the hospital for a forceps delivery.

“When Robin was born and he was put on my chest I just burst in to tears,” says Claire. “We both looked at him and said ‘we have been waiting so long for you!’ He was so beautiful.”

“It was a proper sobbing moment,” says Alex. “This little dude had come in to my life and in the hospital I was holding him and having skin-to-skin contact and it was amazing. Then I went home and had a cry in the bath and some crisps and some beer and then I got some sleep!”

After Claire and Robin came out of hospital the country was still in the first lockdown. “Friends and family didn’t get to see or touch him for three months,” says Claire. “But the positive side of it was that we had some really wonderful time on our own with just Robin and it was really hot weather and I remember sitting outside in the garden breastfeeding him and Alex was making our first family BBQ and I felt like we were complete.”

Robin visited Bourn Hall
Robin visited Bourn Hall

Always an infertility survivor

Now that she is a mum Claire offers her support to friends and acquaintances who are struggling to conceive. “I remember how hard it was when I was being invited to baby showers and childrens’ birthday parties or people would post up scan or baby photos on social media,” she says. “There were times when I would just avoid some social occasions altogether if I thought it would be too hard on my mental health – and that is normal. But I have discovered that there are actually more people than you realise struggling with fertility issues and I now actively offer to share my experience as a way of supporting friends who are unable to get pregnant. I think if you can make yourself emotionally available to people who are struggling it really helps.”

Claire and Alex are keen to have a sibling if possible for Robin and have already returned to Bourn Hall for further treatment with their frozen embryos. Unfortunately their FET treatment was unsuccessful but the couple plan to have a further fresh cycle of treatment.

“Robin worked with a fresh cycle so that is the hope,” says Claire. “We don’t feel like we are done yet.

“Everyone at Bourn Hall always seems genuinely happy and excited to help us succeed on our journey, it is a lovely feeling.”

“Yes, they are a class act,” says Alex.

Read Claire and Alex’s tips on how to help each other through the fertility journey.

Claire, Alex and Robin with Louise Brown, the world's first 'test-tube' baby
Claire, Alex and Robin with Louise Brown, the world’s first ‘test-tube’ baby