By: Sydney Moore | Photo: Leti Kugler
Around the time I was thirteen I developed an intense fear that I was infertile. I had no rational reason for this and had only had my period for two years, but I just knew I would struggle. I made constant comments to my friends and they just laughed it off. I mean, we were 13 and just started liking boys, who in the world is thinking about pregnancy? We had plenty of time.
So, I dropped it.
Flash forward to sixteen, I was seeing a doctor for teens and they scheduled me for an ultrasound because my lower abdomen just didn’t seem quite right. Convinced I had appendicitis, we rushed to the children’s hospital next door. I cried as they pushed down on my abdomen. I had one thought—something is wrong with my ovaries. I’m not sure how or why but something is wrong.
A few hours later after nervously waiting in the ER, they finally announced I could go home. No need for an appendectomy; everything was fine. I asked frantically if it was my uterus and the male doctor said oh, your lady parts are fine; don’t worry. A few weeks later I was told the opposite. I had lots and lots and lots of ovarian cysts that had ruptured over the years and had left significant scarring and the only way to protect my fertility was to go on birth control as soon as possible. My friends pointed out that I didn’t need to be afraid anymore, and I would be fine. We still had plenty of time.
So, I dropped it.
I had lots and lots and lots of ovarian cysts that had ruptured over the years and had left significant scarring
Last fall, at age twenty-three, after some stomach issues I had a CT scan and when I got the results there was a line that said “possible unicornuate uterus.” My boyfriend at the time told me that I should not google it and just ask the doctor about it at my next annual. Less than 3% of the population has it; there was no need to worry. But I ignored that advice.
29% chance of full-term pregnancy were the first words I saw.
I convinced myself that the radiologist was just wrong and I was perfectly fine. I had plenty of time.
So, I dropped it. Again.
Then this March, my gynecologist confirmed my worst fears were well-founded—I had an abnormality that made my chances of having a child naturally slim. My specific “uterine malformation” or “congenital uterine abnormality” is called a unicornuate uterus. As I was developing as a fetus, one side of my uterus didn’t grow correctly so it is smaller than normal and one of my ovaries and Fallopian tubes don’t connect to the uterus at all, making natural conception difficult, if not impossible.
Did I feel validated for having my crazy fears? Yes. But then did I have an absolute meltdown? Yes.
I immediately went back to the Internet and frantically searched anything and everything about this rare issue. What I found were hundreds of women who didn’t find out until their late 20s, 30s, 40s, and only found out after three to six miscarriages in a row. Due to its rarity and the fact it develops in-utero means that no doctor would check for it before ruling out other issues and there’s not a way to fix it. I was terrified. Newly and unfortunately single with no idea if I even wanted a relationship soon or ever, and I had just learned I may not ever be able to have a baby. I joined every Facebook group related to uterine abnormalities I could find. I needed to know what to do. This time I did not “have plenty of time.”
The first blog post I read during my frantic search for answers and community was about a young, newly married woman who had six miscarriages at the age of 26 due to her unicorn uterus. Six miscarriages within a year or so. At 26. I was a month away from turning 24, just two years younger than this woman. Twenty-four was young, but for those with reproductive issues like mine, young doesn’t always mean possible. Being young only would help if I was to start trying tomorrow, not five years down the line when I’m emotionally and financially ready, but facing the possibility that my fertility was starting to decline. In fact, I was seeing through my research that it could be impossible to have a child without medical assistance or intervention for my particular issue at any age.
Six miscarriages within a year or so. At 26.
I Knew That Time May Not Be On My Side
I’ve always wanted to be a mother. Always. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say “a mommy” with big eyes and an open heart only to immediately get told to find a “real job” with actual “aspirations.” Being a mommy wasn’t a career.
As the idea that what I want may never happen turned over and over in my head, I remembered that my fancy job at a large corporation had amazing benefits—including fertility treatments. So, I decided to freeze my eggs. Maybe I couldn’t carry a baby, but someone could for me.
When I first told people that I was thinking about freezing my eggs I was immediately greeted with one of a few responses:
You are barely in your 20s! You shouldn’t be worried about that now. You have plenty of time.
How will you pay to keep them frozen??
And my favorite:
Why don’t you just adopt? There are enough people in the world already. Why do you think your genes are so great that you want to add to the crippling overpopulation issues? That’s just selfish.
So, I tried to drop it once again.
But I couldn’t really drop it this time. Instead, I spent months calling friends and family having meltdown after meltdown about my predicament. And no one knew what to say but I kept calling anyway. In my heart, I knew “plenty of time” was just made up. Unfortunately, we all have a ticking clock and with my newly found abnormality, I knew that time may not be on my side.
Finally, I had an interesting conversation with my aunt. As she explained it, the women in my family have some “issues”–such severe issues that she, at 25, had to have a partial hysterectomy and my great grandmother died at 37 from “women’s troubles.” The next week, I called the fertility benefits manager and said I wanted to give it a go. Decision made; no more dropping it.
I asked every person in my Facebook groups about their experiences. I pulled out my thesis that just so happened to be on artificial reproductive technologies and read through my research from years before. I read all the articles (fun fact: there’s practically nothing on egg freezing but thousands on In vitro fertilization (IVF)), made more calls to family and friends, and then looked at the costs.
A typical egg freezing procedure alone can cost up to $10,000. Medications can range from $1,000-$5,000 per vial in some cases, with most people needing 10-30 vials. And constant ultrasounds and bloodwork add up pretty quickly too.
I am very lucky to work for a corporation that paid the majority of these fees. I only had to hit my deductible then pay 20% coinsurance until I met the out of pocket expenses. In total so far, I’ve paid less than $1,000 for everything and won’t pay more.
I will say that this is not the norm. At all. Most people pay upwards of $20,000 for IVF and that’s only if they need one round. Not everyone responds well to the medications and thus has to try it again and again and again and again… meaning they are spending more and more money. Some people may even have to travel as there are areas with few fertility doctors or lack adequate storage or other issues. Without my company’s aid, I couldn’t have been able to afford any of the medication, doctor’s visits, or the procedure itself.
Now, a typical egg freezing cycle works like this.
- Step One: consultation with a reproductive endocrinologist to learn the basics about fertility.
- Step Two: preliminary labs and ultrasounds–this is where they see the size and shape of the uterus, ovaries, and Fallopian tubes as well as testing your hormones to see which medications they should put you on to have the best results.
- Step Three: if hormones and reproductive organs look alright you get your fertility calendar (a calendar that lists which medications to take when and how much and when the retrieval will be), including a few days of prenatal vitamins to prepare your body.
- Step Four: for seven to ten days a patient will take pills and shots filled with various hormones to increase the number of matured eggs produced. Normally, we only have one (sometimes two) a month–the hormones can produce fifteen or more. Each day begins with a doctor’s visit for labs and ultrasounds to make sure everything is progressing correctly.
- Step Five: After taking all the shots and pills, around day ten or more days later, it is time for the trigger shots. These shots are used to prevent a rare occurrence called ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), in which the ovaries are too stimulated and the person can get violently ill. This doesn’t happen often but is more likely to happen to younger people.
- Step Six: After the hormone shots and trigger shots are done, it’s time for the retrieval. This is done with a transvaginal ultrasound probe that has a needle on it, and the doctor retrieves the eggs directly from the ovaries.* A person is under “conscious sedation” during this procedure so not quite awake, not quite asleep. Post-op is used to recover from the sedation.
*I like to describe this to people as the ovaries are a cup of Boba tea and the eggs are the Boba… but people don’t love that comparison for some reason.
Step four was the worst for me. I am terrified of needles. I cry when I get my flu shot; it’s embarrassing. To be told that for seven or more days, two-three times a day I had to poke myself with a giant needle. I freaked out. A lot. In the “homework” the doctor’s provided videos of how to inject the needles. I may have turned off my computer immediately upon seeing such large needles that I was expected to use on myself daily. I almost didn’t do it solely for that reason.
To be honest, doing this alone was scary and is not the best choice for everyone. Couples who go through fertility treatments have it much differently than I did. Partly because for them they are trying to get a baby in nine months and failure can be devastating, but they also have each other to depend on. Although I wasn’t trying to have a baby and so the fear of failure wasn’t as heightened, it was still an emotional experience. I had an in-depth conversation with my therapist before going through everything just to make sure I was doing this for the right reasons and to make sure that my mental health would stay stable. I had to reflect on what I would do with my eggs if I never used them: donate or destroy? I had to sort through my personal beliefs on conception and life. This is often done with the help of another person. I didn’t have that comfort. But I did have friends and family. While I survived doing this as a 24-year-old single woman who lives alone, to do this alone or in a relationship, there is a need for a support system to get through it. Without that, the numerous doctor’s appointments, insurance calls, shots themselves, and the utter fear of failure, can get too overwhelming.
I had to reflect on what I would do with my eggs if I never used them: donate or destroy? I had to sort through my personal beliefs on conception and life.
I sobbed to multiple friends and they said they would call me for every shot, come over to do them for me, or just listen to me freak out because as they reminded me at the end, I could get what I always wanted: a baby. It was going to be worth it. I just had to go through it.
And while I didn’t call them for every shot, every time the hormones were too much–I was nauseous, dizzy, or sobbing over a pastry on the The Great British Bake Off—my friends were there. And there were lots of those moments; without them I don’t know if I could have gone through it. To have these supportive people rallying behind me, the decision became easier and I was able to push out the naysayers and my anxieties. The constant reassurance was vital.
I had many people still question why I was doing this. To them, I was a child, barely in her twenties, worrying about an issue for “real adults.” For others, mostly my guy friends, I was just being silly and overdramatic for talking about it so much. I needed support because to the world I was doing something reserved for older people who had tried and tried to have a baby on their own and couldn’t. I was too young. Too naive. I had plenty of time. Some people were more understanding, but only after I explained my health. To me, the choice was always for me, by me and my health and age shouldn’t have had a role in that choice. I wanted to give myself options. So, I did.To me, the choice was always for me, by me and my health and age shouldn’t have had a role in that choice. I wanted to give myself options. So, I did. - S. Moore Click To Tweet
The First Few Days Were the Hardest
The first few days were the hardest. I cried every shot and sometimes had to call my grandma just to get through it. Every daily visit to the doctor was terrifying, what if this wasn’t going to work? By day five none of my pants fit comfortably around my body and I looked about five months pregnant. I could barely put a seat belt on without wincing a bit. The medications caused bloating, exhaustion, nausea and so many other side effects. Every part of my body, from head to toe, was sensitive and angry with me. And I was anxious as hell that it wasn’t going to work. But for me, that bloated look I saw every time I walked past a mirror, though annoying and somewhat painful, was comforting. This is what I get to look forward to, making a little human to love and dote on one day.
By day three, I had already gotten ten eggs on my right ovary alone and I was hopeful that maybe this would work. On day four, the ultrasound wasn’t quite as positive.
We discovered which side of my uterus had the disconnected ovary when the technician couldn’t find my left ovary for ten minutes. It was horrifying and painful. Luckily, she eventually found it hiding behind my other ovary, and two days later it was hiding behind my uterus.
Many women in my group assured me that, for us, this was normal even though it felt unnatural and painful; the enlargement of the ovaries due to so many additional mature eggs causes the ovary to move around to find more room. That feeling of my organ moving around in my body was almost unbearable. The frustration I felt was only exacerbated as the days went on. The doctor noticed that the floating ovary wasn’t performing as well as the connected one, so I had to add an extra day of shots. I cried in the car leaving the doctor’s office. But again, my friends and family reminded me that this had a purpose and reason: a baby. So, I wiped the snot and tears running down my face, took a deep breath, and told myself to suck it up.
This situation at times was unbearable due to the exhaustion, emotional impact, and discomfort but in the end, it was worth it. And I needed to remind myself that constantly.
After twelve days of pain from shots and a bruised stomach to the point of numbness and exhaustion, I finally went in for the procedure. It was simple and quick and uneventful. When I went home later that day, physically I just felt tired from the medication. Emotionally, I was freaking out about how many eggs I got. While I knew they had retrieved around 15-20, the doctor still had to make sure each egg was healthy and mature enough to freeze and later fertilize.
The nurse called the next day with the best news: I ended up with 21 eggs.
The amount of relief I felt after that was insane. For the first time in my life, I knew that the prospect of having a baby was better than ever before. And I didn’t have to stress about it any longer.
I gave myself options. I gave myself hope.
I Gave Myself Hope
Often, women are told to not let their biological clock run out because we would regret not having children. But also told to focus on our career because we are more than baby machines. We are told to make the choice: career or family. Never both. And society shames us for either one. For me that was no longer a choice I have to make; I can have both. I can spend the next five to ten years focused on myself and my career or building a relationship with someone I love or not or traveling to faraway places. I have control over my body and my future as much as a man does. My reproductive organs no longer confine me to a specific timeline. I can do what I want when I want without the fear of jeopardizing my dream of a family or my desire for a successful career.We are told to make the choice: career or family. Never both. And society shames us for either one. For me that was no longer a choice I have to make; I can have both. - S. Moore Click To Tweet
Egg freezing is not a guarantee. There’s always a chance that the eggs don’t thaw correctly, that the sperm doesn’t fertilize the egg, that the embryo has genetic issues, that implantation won’t work, the chance that there could be a miscarriage and so many other issues. But it does give people a chance they may never have had.
For most of human history, infertility wasn’t discussed because there was no way to fix it. Infertility equaled no possibility for pregnancy, no chance to have biological children. Period. Assisted reproductive technologies, such as egg freezing, changed the way we view and handle reproduction and pregnancy. These technologies give people who may not have been able to have children naturally a chance. They give those who go through chemotherapy before they are ready to have children a chance. They give people like me who have abnormalities or a family history of reproductive health issues a chance. But they also provide people who may not be ready to be parents some time.
At two and a half years old, I remember seeing my mother pregnant with my sister. I didn’t understand it but I knew there was a little person in there. One that my mom had created. A new friend for me, a new child for her, a new human with thoughts, feelings, and ideas who was filled with possibilities. And I knew I wanted to do that one day; I wanted to make a person that was a bit of me–to teach, to love, and to watch grow up. Having fertility issues was/is not going to stop that. I knew what I wanted and using science to make that happen was a great decision for me. I know that there is some risk that I won’t be able to have a biological child, but maybe, just maybe a chance.
If you liked this, you might also like: Easing the Anxiety Around Female Fertility