Mum admits she was ‘living on knife’s edge’ as she repeatedly went through IVF treatment before eventually giving birth to baby Jacob
- Credit: Archant
Getting pregnant is something most people think will happen easily and naturally.
So when it doesn’t, there can be a range of emotions to deal with - everything from shame to guilt and anger. During National Fertility Awareness Week, Sheena Grant reports on a subject that is all too often difficult to discuss openly.
Little Jacob Tookey is the apple of his parents’ eyes.
In the family’s Haverhill home, preparations are under way for his first birthday next month and subsequent Christmas celebrations.
Ria and Lee’s “happy, bubbly baby” is so much part of their lives now that it seems hard to believe that for 10 long years the dream of becoming parents at times seemed almost unattainable.
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Along the way they endured two heartbreaking miscarriages, one of which coincided with the sudden death of Ria’s mum.
The couple married in 2001 and Ria, then 21, came off the pill to start a family. But the years ticked by and nothing happened.
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“I returned to university, our careers developed and, on turning 30, I realised we needed to do something,” says Ria, now 34.
The couple went to their GP, who referred them for hospital tests. Investigations revealed Lee had a low sperm count and it was suggested they have IVF treatment.
They picked Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge from a list of specialist centres, partly because it was home to the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, and because they didn’t like the idea of having to travel all the way to London for treatment.
After an initial consultation in September, 2012, they opted for a surgical procedure whereby sperm would be retrieved directly from the testicles, even though they were told there was only a slim chance of success.
“We went in with our eyes open and wanted to try and see if we could have a baby that was genetically ours before considering other options,” says Ria. “It was very disappointing that they couldn’t find any sperm.”
The next option was to use donated sperm from a list of donors, each of whom prepares a short, anonymous pen picture of himself which is given to the couple, along with details of height, build and colouring to help them select a good match. Several vials of sperm from the same donor are reserved for the couple so they can have a number of IVF cycles and perhaps siblings, if required.
In February, 2013, Ria began a course of injections in preparation for the couple’s first NHS-funded IVF treatment.
“April was tough,” she says. “My mum suddenly died two days before I was due to have my egg collection and then after becoming pregnant I later miscarried.”
Having decided they wanted to try again, the Tookeys returned in October for a second cycle of IVF, again using frozen donor sperm. Although an initial home test revealed Ria was pregnant, her seven-week scan showed there was no baby.
“It was heartbreaking,” she says.
The couple decided to wait until after Christmas to try one last time.
For their third and final NHS-funded cycle it was decided to change Ria’s drug regime and also to continue with medication through the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy to improve the blood flow to the womb.
“When I was told at the first scan that I had a ‘healthy pregnancy’, it was such a relief that I cried, but I was also concerned in case I lost the baby again. I felt like I was on a knife’s edge during those first few scans,” says Ria.
“The Bourn Hall staff were so supportive and easy to talk to and when I saw our little baby’s heart beating at the 12-week scan it was such a good feeling.”
The rest of Ria’s pregnancy went smoothly and on December 11, 2014, Jacob was born.
“It took us a lot longer to get where we are, with our happy bubbly baby, but once referred for treatment the process was surprisingly quick,” says Ria.
“We now couldn’t imagine life without Jacob. Lee phones every day from work to check how his son is doing ? it was well worth going through all the ‘hoops’ to get him.”
Ria and Lee had the support of a network of family and friends to help them cope with the stress of fertility treatment. Like all Bourn Hall patients they were offered counselling but felt they could get by with the back-up they already had.
“It is stressful,” says Ria. “I remember at the very beginning, when we were trying to get pregnant, thinking things like ‘Is it me?’ and ‘What are we doing wrong?’ Once we started to talk about it openly and went to the doctor it felt better, like we were finally doing something about it. I really wanted a baby. My sister had children and a lot of our friends were having children. We tried to focus on them but it was a little heart-breaking every time someone told us they were pregnant and I wasn’t. You try and be positive and happy for them, and think ‘It will happen for me next’, but it is hard.
“We kept it to ourselves initially but when we knew we would have to go through IVF we did tell selected, trusted people. Counselling was offered to us but I’m very close to my sister and we discussed it, as I did with friends and my mum too before she passed away. Had we not had such good support, it is something I would have taken advantage of. It’s not the kind of thing you can go through with just yourself and your partner. It can become all-encompassing, focusing on injections, treatment, retrieval of eggs and then thinking about pregnancy and scans.”
Independent counsellor Victoria Parkin, who supports Bourn Hall patients at its Colchester and Wickford clinics, says many feelings are universal among people having fertility treatment.
“Individuals who learn they are infertile often experience the distressing emotions common to those who experience any significant loss ? including shock, grief, depression, as well as loss of self-esteem and a sense of lack of control over their destiny,” she says. “A huge number of people also feel a sense of guilt and shame ? for something that they feel they ‘should’ be able to do easily and naturally.
“The pressure is huge. Unlike other traumas they might experience, they are often unable to support their partner as they are only just able to keep their own head above water.”
The free, specialist counselling Bourn Hall patients are offered can include devising coping strategies before and during treatment and help to move on after unsuccessful treatment ? perhaps to be a parent in other ways or embracing a child-free life.
“Infertility is an intrinsically private matter,” says Victoria. “This means a person can be very isolated. Coping strategies can lift the pressure.”
If treatment is ultimately unsuccessful, counselling is even more important.
“Grief in infertility can take a person by surprise. There is nothing concrete to grieve, people around them don’t understand and there is a subtle pressure to get on with things. Having their feelings validated can be the starting point of the grieving process. By offering unlimited counselling, patients are not put under pressure and are able to work through the grieving process.
“If a patient has been successful then it is easy to say a clinic is excellent, but if they still see it as excellent even if they don’t have a baby, that says a lot about how the clinic cared for their emotional wellbeing.”
Victoria trained as a general counsellor but now specialises in fertility issues.
“Although I have two boys I had trouble getting pregnant myself and I suppose that is what made me particularly interested in helping others,” she says. “I realised how awful it was. This subject is often so private and not spoken about, and unless you’ve been through it yourself you just don’t ‘get it’ in the same way.”
Some people might feel they don’t need counselling or are afraid to take it in case it appears they are not coping, but if they can overcome the stigma still attached to reaching out for help, in Victoria’s experience they are always glad.
“Counselling gives people strategies to cope, to realise they do matter and they can decide not to go to the 93rd baby shower party they have been invited to,” she says.
Many of Victoria’s counselling sessions take place over Skype when people have limited time and, she says, they work almost as well as face-to-face sessions.
Sometimes she sees people as a couple but she finds that men and women often deal with things in different ways.
“Often men will want to talk about it once and then not again, but women might want to talk more,” she says. “Once people have had one counselling session they tend to want more. It makes a difference.”
And Ria’s advice to others in the same situation as she once was? “Just keep going,” she says. “And make sure you’ve got someone to talk to.”
As for her and Lee, they may like a sibling for Jacob one day but, whatever happens, they’re grateful for what they’ve got.
“A friend of mine said having a baby is the only blind date you’ll ever go on where you know it will be love at first sight,” she says. “And they were absolutely right.”
National Fertility Awareness Week is organised by Infertility Network UK