How does an embryologist come to terms with her own infertility?
It’s not easy.
Being an IVF lab director is a great career choice for me—most of the time. I’ve always loved research and helping people. But when I was dealing with infertility, I found myself seesawing between the comfort of knowing the science behind my embryo issues and the toxic emotions associated with seeing my embryos fail despite all I knew of the science. Here’s my story.
I did my PhD in my home country of England then moved to the United States to pursue postdoctoral studies in early embryo development. Research had been my passion for many years until I began to feel that I wanted to make a more immediate impact on people’s lives; exploring genetic pathways just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.
I began doing IVF lab work in Boston. As an embryologist I could directly guide people’s precious gametes on a path to become embryos and then, eventually, beautiful babies. Helping others achieve their dream of parenthood was the “instant” gratification that I was craving.
As I reveled in my ability to help others, I began to question my own fertility. At first, I thought that my concern was my falling prey to the common syndrome when medical professionals self-diagnose with the disorders they are studying. But when my husband, John, also a scientist, and I looked at the data (what embryologist doesn’t love data!), it had become increasingly apparent that we were not getting pregnant—despite our best efforts.
John and I had started trying for a baby before we got married (sorry Mum, it’s true). We became engrossed in our new life together and new careers and, before we knew it, two years had passed and no baby: not even a whiff of a baby. I started casual conversations with one of the physicians that I worked with. That led to official consultations.
I remember thinking: Do I really want to do reproductive treatments where I work? Should I go elsewhere? But, ultimately, convenience and comfort trumped all and I stayed at the clinic where I worked at the time. It was the right choice: I could just pop down the hallway every other morning for a blood test or a quick ultrasound. But I left myself exposed in so many ways. Yes, physically (you know what I mean!), but also emotionally. I began seeking more and more people’s opinions on my case and I started to compare myself to other patients coming though the clinic: Would I end up like patient x, y or z?
At work, I was handling and grading other people’s embryos; at home I was obsessing about my own.First, I went through three rounds of IUI (all unsuccessful) and then moved to IVF. My own eggs and my husband’s sperm were going to be sitting in an incubator right in the lab where I worked—hopefully developing into an embryo. Right next to me, within reach. And reach for them I did.
I assessed them, I moved them from dish to dish, I looked at their morphology and I critiqued them. When I say critiqued, I really mean that I criticized them. Man, did I produce some ugly embryos! That’s not me being self-deprecating; that’s a fact. My embryos did not grow the right of number of cells and were highly fragmented—all of them, every single one, in all of the six IVF cycles we did. (Better Day 3 embryos have eight plump round cells; my embryos had fewer, misshapen, and disorganized cells.)
After the third IVF cycle, I changed how I was handling things. I forced myself to stop looking at the embryos, so one of my colleagues did it. This was the point that I realized that knowing too much about embryology was harming my mental health. It was incredibly hard to separate work from life. We all know that work-life balance can be skewed at times, but this was taking it to the extreme. At work, I was handling and grading other people’s embryos; at home I was obsessing about my own.
My husband was fantastic throughout this whole ordeal; he applied his own science mind to the data, helping to decipher our “insufficiencies,” while also being supportive during such a difficult process.
Ultimately, my six IVF cycles did not give us the baby we were working towards. So there I was…the embryologist that couldn’t get herself pregnant. On a data ratio: I was zero for four—my “skills” as a female, an egg provider, a human incubator—all had failed. And I also felt that my skills as an embryologist had failed.
What I perceived was that every other patient’s embryos were growing beautifully whereas mine were sitting there, stalling in a dish, needing a jump start on life, but unable to get it.Granted, I wasn’t the only embryologist involved in my care, but that’s not what I felt at the time. What I perceived was that every other patient’s embryos were growing beautifully whereas mine were sitting there, stalling in a dish, needing a jump start on life, but unable to get it. That’s when being an embryologist was really tough. There was no separation of church and state.
We decided to give up fertility treatments entirely and started to discuss adoption. Fast forward a few months and against all odds, I got pregnant spontaneously, then again a couple of years later. We now have two happy, healthy kids. What a journey, but what an ending.
Even with all of my knowledge of science, I don’t know what changed in my body for me to suddenly get pregnant. That’s the unsolved part of my story; I would love to know what the fix was.
I remember people saying to me after we concluded our sixth IVF cycle, “You never know, just relax, it could happen naturally.” I really hated when people said that.
They didn’t know what to say, so they would fill the silence with anecdotes of their brother’s wife’s best friend’s niece who got pregnant spontaneously after two IVF cycles. That’s not helpful, people. It filled a lull in the conversation but it didn’t fill my soul.
Going through all of this has, ultimately, made me a better embryologist and IVF lab director. I absolutely get what it means and feels like to go through IVF. It has given me a renewed appreciation of what we embryologists do on a daily basis. Every time we sit down at a microscope to do ICSI, evaluate embryos, biopsies, it means so much to people. It’s their potential baby that we are working on, their life changing event.
I’m on some of the calls with my physicians to patients, both the happy calls and those in which we deliver disappointing news. They are humbling and reinforce on an emotional level what our common goal is: to deliver a healthy baby to our patients.
Every success is a joy and the failures drive us to refocus on our work to help people bring a precious child into the world.
Bec Holmes, PhD, is the East Corporate Laboratory Director for CCRM, a network of fertility clinics. She grew up in England and obtained her doctorate in genetics from the University of Oxford before coming to the United States for postdoctoral studies. She and her husband met and worked at Cornell University before moving to Boston in 2008, where she pursued her career as an embryologist. She trained and became board certified in Boston to direct IVF labs in 2013.
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