When my elbow swelled like a tennis ball from a minor scratch, we knew something was wrong. I had undergone an intralipid intravenous infusion to gently shut down my immune system in the hope that my body’s overactive natural killer cells wouldn’t destroy my own embryos, and I would finally become pregnant. But suddenly my body couldn’t heal a small cut. My dad, a physician, cupped my face in his hands: “Baby, it’s time to stop.”
Multiple fertility doctors had already told me it was time to stop, and not always in such a caring way. Some came right out with it: “You will never get pregnant.” But there was always another clinic, another doctor who promised a miracle. A new protocol, an experimental drug, testosterone, human growth hormone, DHEA, stronger immune system suppressants to calm killer cells, even Vietnamese cinnamon (sprinkled on my oatmeal daily).
We had an open tab at our fertility clinic. Tens of thousands spent on medications, ultrasounds, procedures; we lost track. “Put it on our tab,” we joked with the receptionist on our way out the door, the shame stuffed so deeply within us humor came easily. Over 1,000 blood tests, hundreds of self-injected stomach shots; then sometimes we advanced to the next level like in a video game — the more difficult, painful intramuscular shots in my backside that my husband had to administer, or my dad when my husband was traveling. I would go home to my parents’ house and lie face down on my childhood bed, in a pile of stuffed animals, and ice my butt while my dad prepared my shot. “Is this weird?” I would ask. “I’m a doctor,” he would say.
There were shots I gave myself at work, quickly and secretly so my staff wouldn’t notice, a Sharps medical disposal container stowed in my purse. There was excusing myself from the table at restaurants, slipping into public bathrooms to inject, then rejoining the party before the next course. And there was the unexpected wet warmth between my legs triggered by the drugs and the slinking away to clean my pants that I had stained like a 13-year-old getting her period for the first time.
I turned 40, the neon “high risk” sign flashing on the approach. We sat in our doctor’s office, excited to hear of a tweaked protocol, a new drug combination, a vitamin. He glanced at his watch. “You’re reaching the end of the road,” he said. “There’s only so much you can put yourself through.”
“Whatever,” I muttered to my husband in the elevator. I was healthy and fashionable. Kids loved me. How could this be? The discouraging blood test results — low numbers that should be high, high numbers that should be low; the ultrasounds exposing empty ovaries; the fruitless ejaculations; the “1 to 2% chance” of pregnancy; the years that passed like flushed tampons — clearly there had been a clerical error. So onward I descended down a rabbit hole of magical thinking and alcohol swabs.
The discouraging blood test results — low numbers that should be high, high numbers that should be low; the ultrasounds exposing empty ovaries; the fruitless ejaculations; the “1 to 2% chance” of pregnancy…
I flew to a clinic in Denver, the elusive motherlode where reality TV stars went and came home with baby bumps. I spent a menstrual cycle at the Four Seasons —“Enjoy a little getaway,” my husband insisted – me and my personal pharmacy of vials, needles, pills, and gauze pads spilled on the hotel bed. I set my alarm for hours before my appointment. I waited in the parking lot of the clinic, alone in my rental car, for two hours. I called my mom. “There’s a great mall here,” I told her, trying to assure her I was just fine. “I’ve already bought two pairs of shoes.”
I followed my protocol like a diligent schoolgirl, checking in regularly with my coordinator. Finally in the doctor’s office, he looked at my ultrasound printouts for what seemed like the first time, leaned back in his chair, crossed his ankles on his desk, and smiled. “I think you’d be a perfect candidate for an egg donor,” he said.
I traveled all the way here for you to tell me this? I thought, staring at the bottoms of his shoes. “We have a fantastic database here at the clinic,” he continued. “Really great girls.”
I called my husband. He could barely understand me through the tears, but he knew to get me on the next flight home. “We’ll figure this out,” he said.
Fertility protocols are similar wherever you go, I learned the hard way. You take your problems with you. Getting a stash of needles through airport security need not be involved. So we resolved to continue locally.
I doubled my workouts. Breathed the positive in and and the negative out. Stopped wearing jewelry, to avoid heavy metals. Rid myself of toxic people. Asked the universe. Changed my shampoo. Five years. Six years. Girls I babysat were having their second kids.
My husband joked that my bruises would impress a heroin addict.
I visited an acupuncturist, an elderly Chinese woman I hardly understood. The smell of roasted moxa mingled with my estrogen withdrawal headache as I imagined her stroking my hair and promising me pregnancy with help from a million Chinese grandmothers.
“What color is your feces,” she grunted.
“Your poop. What color.”
I cried in my car, a care package of unopened herbs on the seat next to me.
One more clinic, and then I would stop, I promised my loved ones. This time, a sympathetic doctor, who put his hand on my back and sighed after an ultrasound revealed just three lonely eggs. I wanted to curl up on the exam table, in fetal position. We walked back to his desk to make a plan. He scribbled on a piece of paper, a uterus with some arrows. I heard the part about getting off the drugs, transferring just one embryo, working with my body’s abilities, starting over. I could tell that behind his sweet bifocals was a mad fertility scientist who had for some reason hitched himself to my derelict train
“I want to get you pregnant,” he laughed, biting his nails. “You’ve done a lot. More than most. I’m not going to be the one to tell you to stop.”
He limited my injections to understand my natural cycles. I had maxed out on hormones but not hope — my doctor, my husband, and me, a trio of gamblers convinced we could beat the odds. We went all in: a single embryo.
During the two-week wait, I decided to sell my business. The decision alone helped me relax. Had negligent stress management been destroying my fertility? Too many drugs? Or too many embryos vying for vacancy in my 24-hour motel?
When it was time to take the pregnancy test, I procrastinated. The disappointment was already bearing down, surely a pain worse than childbirth.
The word winked at me through my splashing urine. “It says YES,” I shouted from the bathroom.
“Are you sure?” my husband shouted back.
“I don’t know.”
“Let me look.”
I brought him the stick. “It looks like YES,” he said. “How trustworthy are these things?”
We went to CVS and bought every pregnancy test on the shelf. I peed on them all. “YES.” “Pregnant.” Dozens of double pink lines assuming position like tiny soldiers on my bathroom counter.
“I think you might be pregnant,” my husband said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “There are blood tests.” “Those usually come back bad.”
Tonight, as our daughter falls asleep in our bed, her arms slung carelessly around my neck, I don’t dwell on our long, jagged journey to motherhood. Because the road ahead is longer.
“I will make sure she knows how much you went through to have her,” my husband says.
She knows I won’t stop.
Devin Alper is a writer and user interface designer who has brought to life many popular web sites. She is also the owner of American Cupcake restaurant, bakery and carnival lounge in San Francisco, which she closed to nurture a miracle pregnancy after struggling with infertility for seven years. She can pretty much do her own ultrasounds.
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