I had done it all — finished college, completed grad school, traveled the world, had a successful career, and bought a house. Just shy of 40 years old, I still hadn’t found Mr. Right. But I didn’t want to give up on my dream of becoming a mother. So I decided to do it on my own.
I’m not alone in that decision. CDC birth rates among unmarried women in the U.S. ages 35-39 have shot up 48 percent since 2002, and have risen 29 percent for women ages 40-44 in the last few years.
Determined to make my dream come true, I made an appointment with Dr. Angie Beltsos of Fertility Centers of Illinois. My initial consult was positive, and it was determined that IUI would be the best place to start. Next, I did IVF. I was pregnant twice — the second pregnancy led to a heartbeat, but the embryo did not develop normally and I had to abort at 11 weeks due to a “lethal condition incompatible with life.” It was after this experience that I chose to use donor eggs.
I had a lot of success getting pregnant because I was using healthy donor eggs and sperm. In total, I was I pregnant six out of seven times, and we even saw heartbeats on several of my pregnancies. But around the seven or eight week mark of pregnancy, I would lose the baby. It was heartbreaking.
After testing, we confirmed that the embryos and “products of conception” were healthy. We did further tests and tried a different medication, but without success.
As far as discipline, I was a model patient. Each medication was measured correctly, shots were taken at the right time, and I carefully followed every instruction.
Dr. Beltsos believed that there were different medical factors at play, and sent me to see reproductive immunologist Dr. Joanne Kwak-Kim. After giving 19 vials of blood and undergoing a 90-minute ultrasound, I was sent home and told that results would be ready in two weeks.
I could not have imagined the news that awaited me.
I was diagnosed with nine immunological issues, including an imbalanced thyroid, elevated natural killer cells, elevated testosterone, elevated T cells, compromised blood flow to the uterus, increased Homocysteine levels, Factor XIII mutation, HPA-1a mutation, and a Beta-Fibrinogen mutation. The elevated natural killer cells couldn’t discern the difference between a harmful tumor or a developing embryo, and were attacking each pregnancy.
With the diagnosis, I felt overwhelmed but also relieved. It was more than I was expecting, but now we finally had a road map. After the heartbreak of losing so many pregnancies, having this information was the only reason I was able to try again. I knew that I had to find the strength to continue if I wanted to become a mother.
I put some time into learning more about immune problems and infertility, and found that this wasn’t as uncommon of a diagnosis as I had thought. According to Fertility and Conception: A Complete Guide to Getting Pregnant by Zita West, “about 40 percent of unexplained infertility and 80 percent of unexplained pregnancy loss (miscarriages that aren’t the result of chromosomal defects, hormonal imbalance, or abnormalities of the uterus) are probably caused by immunological dysfunction.”
Before I could pursue fertility treatment again, it took months to prepare my body. When I underwent the next embryo transfer, which resulted in a twin pregnancy, my team was prepared. I had IV medication every week or every other week until delivery. It was similar to an infusion given to leukemia patients, but the medication was directed toward keeping elevated natural killer cells and T cells balanced. Sadly, one baby did not survive, likely due to a lack of blood.
As each month passed in the pregnancy, my hope began to grow. After six pregnancies with four different egg donors, and several heartbreaking miscarriages, I was both cautiously optimistic and steadfastly determined.
When the delivery time arrived, I endured another challenge. My uterus ruptured in two places, and I needed to have an emergency C-section. If I hadn’t been with a high-risk OB practice that made the call for a C-section, I may have bled out.
But at long last, on August 1, 2014, my son Jack came into the world. (Exactly five years and one month after my first meeting with Dr. Beltsos.)
Jack spent his first night in the NICU while I recovered from major surgery. The next day, I was finally able to hold him for the first time. I didn’t truly believe I was really a mother until I held him in my arms. Immediately, every setback of the past five years was forgotten. It felt surreal. And it finally started to sink in, ever so slowly. I did it. I am a mother.
I would not have been able to have Jack without the help and support of Dr. Beltsos, Dr. Kwak-Kim, their teams of nurses and sonographers, my OB, and my family and friends. Once you meet the right doctors and become a part of the right practice, you know they are on your team and they are your partners. It’s important to find people you trust and get the answers you need.
I wanted to share my story because in our society, not many people do. Conversations about infertility and “unexplained” infertility are still not common. But if you find yourself willing to share and ask for help, you will be humbled by how much people care. Not everyone believed in what I was doing, but the people who stayed with me on my journey offered an incredible support network. Surround yourself with positive voices and the right team, and believe that in time, your dream will come true.