Heather Erickson shares how having to pause her IVF treatments is impacting her struggle with infertility.

By Heather Erickson as told to Faith Brar
April 28, 2020
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Heather Erickson

My journey with infertility began long before coronavirus (COVID-19) began terrorizing the world. After years of countless heartbreaks, from failed surgeries and unsuccessful IUI attempts, my husband and I were at the brink of starting our first round of IVF when we got a call from our clinic telling us that all infertility procedures had been halted. Never in a million years did I think the pandemic would lead to this. I felt angry, sad and a slew of other overwhelming emotions. But I know I'm not the only one. Thousands of women around the country are stuck in the same boat—and my journey is just one example of why this virus and its side-effects have been physically, emotionally, and financially draining for everyone undergoing infertility treatment right now.

How I Learned About My Infertility

I've always wanted to be a mom, so when I got married in September of 2016, my husband and I wanted to have a baby right away. We were so excited to start trying that we considered canceling our honeymoon to Antigua because suddenly, Zika had become a serious concern. At the time, doctors were recommending that couples wait three months after returning from a place with Zika before trying to conceive—and to me, three months felt like forever. Little did I know that those few weeks should have been the least of my concerns compared to the trying journey that lied ahead.

We truly started trying to have a baby in March of 2017. I was tracking my period cycle diligently and using ovulation test kits to help maximize my chances of getting pregnant. Given the fact that both my husband and I were young and healthy, I figured we'd conceive in no time. But eight months later, we were still struggling. After doing some research on our own, my husband decided to undergo a sperm analysis, just to see if something was wrong on his end. The results showed that his sperm morphology (the shape of sperm) and sperm motility (the ability of sperm to move efficiently) were both slightly abnormal, but according to our doctor, that wasn't enough to explain why it was taking us so long to conceive. (Related: New At-Home Fertility Test Checks Your Guy's Sperm)

I also went to my ob-gyn to get checked out and learned that I had uterine fibroid. These noncancerous growths can be super annoying and cause painful periods, but my doctor said they rarely interfere with conceiving. So we kept trying.

When we reached our year mark, we started feeling even more concerned. After researching infertility specialists we booked my first appointment in April 2018. (Find out what ob-gyns wish women knew about their fertility.)

Heather Erickson

Infertility testing starts with a series of tests, blood work, and scans. Rather quickly, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a medical condition that causes women to have menstrual problems (usually irregular periods) and an excess of androgen hormones (hormones that play a role in male traits and reproductive activity) surging through their body. Not only is it the most common endocrine disorder, but it's also the most common cause of infertility. But by no means was I typical when it came to PCOS cases. I wasn't overweight, I didn't have excess hair growth and I never really struggled with acne, all of which are characteristic of women with PCOS. But I figured the doctor knew best so I just went with it.

After my PCOS diagnosis, our fertility specialist came up with a treatment plan. He wanted us to undergo IUI (Intrauterine Insemination), a fertility treatment that involves placing sperm inside your uterus to facilitate fertilization. But before starting, the doctor recommended that I get my fibroid removed to make sure my uterus was as healthy as possible. (Related: Anna Victoria Gets Emotional About Her Struggle with Infertility)

It took us two months to even get an appointment for the fibroid surgery. I finally had the surgery in July, and it took until September for me to fully recover and get the all-clear to start trying to conceive again. Even though our specialist wanted us to start IUI ASAP after recovering from the surgery, my husband and I decided we wanted to try to conceive naturally again, hoping that maybe the fibroid had been the issue all along, even though our doctor said otherwise. Three months later, still no luck. I was heartbroken.

Starting IUI

At this point, it was December, and we finally decided to start IUI. But before we could begin, my doctor put me on birth control. Turns out your body is particularly fertile right after getting off oral contraceptives, so I went on them for a month before officially starting IUI.

After getting off birth control, I went in to the clinic for a baseline ultrasound and blood work. The results came back normal and the same day I was given a 10-day round of injectable fertility drugs to help stimulate ovulation. These meds help your body produce more eggs than you usually would in a given menstrual cycle, which increases the likelihood of conception. Usually, you're tasked with administering these shots at home, and TBH, learning to poke my stomach with a needle wasn't the issue, it was the side-effects that really sucked. Every woman reacts to ovulation stimulating medication differently, but I personally struggled with terrible migraines. I took days off of work and some days I could barely open my eyes. Plus I wasn't allowed caffeine, since it can inhibit fertility, so migraine pills were not an option. There wasn't much I could do but suck it up.

By this point, I had started to feel really down. Everyone around me seemed to be starting a family, and it made me feel isolated. Being able to conceive naturally is such a gift—one that many people take for granted. For those of us who're struggling, being bombarded with baby photos and birth announcements can make you feel incredibly lonely and I was definitely in that boat. But now that I was finally going through with the IUI, I felt optimistic.

Heather Erickson

When the day came to inject the sperm, I was excited. But about two weeks later, we learned that the procedure was unsuccessful. So was the one after that, and the one after that. In fact, we underwent a total of six failed IUI treatments over the next six months.

Desperate to figure out why the treatment wasn't working, we decided to get a second opinion in June 2019. We finally got an appointment in August, trying naturally in the meantime, albeit with still no success.

The new specialist had my husband and I undergo another series of tests. That's when I learned I didn't actually have PCOS. I remember feeling so confused because I didn't know whose opinion to trust. But after the new specialist explained the discrepancies in my previous tests, I found myself accepting this new reality. My husband and I ultimately decided to charge forward, putting this specialist's recommendations in place.

Turning to IVF

While I was relieved to hear that I didn't have PCOS, the first round of tests with the new specialist found that I had a low level of hypothalamic hormones. The hypothalamus (a part of your brain) is responsible for releasing gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) that triggers the pituitary gland (also located in your brain) to release luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Together, these hormones signal an egg to develop and be released from one of your ovaries. Apparently, my body was struggling to ovulate because my levels of these hormones were low, my doctor said. (Related: How Your Exercise Routine Can Affect Your Fertility)

At this point, since I'd already had so many failed IUIs, the only viable option for me to have a biological child was to start Invitro Fertilization (IVF). So in October 2019, I began preparing for the first step in the process: egg retrieval. That meant starting another round of fertility meds, and injections to help stimulate my ovaries to produce follicles that help release an egg for fertilization.

Heather Erickson

Given my track record with fertility procedures, I emotionally prepared myself for the worst, but in November, we were able to retrieve 45 eggs from my ovaries. 18 of those eggs were fertilized, 10 of which survived. To be safe, we decided to send those eggs off for a chromosome screening, t0 weed out any that could potentially end up in a miscarriage. Seven of those 10 eggs came back normal, which meant they all had a high chance for successful implementation and to be carried to full term. This was the first good news we'd gotten in a while. (Related: Study Says the Number of Eggs In Your Ovaries Has Nothing to Do with Your Chances of Getting Pregnant)

More Unexpected Complications

For the first time in a long time, I felt a sense of hope, but again, it was shortlived. After the egg retrieval, I was in a lot of pain. So much so, I couldn't get out of bed for a week. I could feel that something was wrong. I went in to see my doctor again and after some tests, I learned that I had something called Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS). This rare condition is basically a response to the fertility medication that causes a lot of fluid to fill up in the abdomen. I was put on meds to help suppress ovarian activity, and it took me about three weeks to recover.

When I was healthy enough, I underwent something called a hysteroscopy, where an ultrasound scope is inserted in your uterus through your vagina, to determine if it's safe to proceed with implanting embryos during an IVF transfer.

However, what was meant to be a simple routine procedure showed that I had a bicornuate uterus. No one really knows why this happens, but long story short, instead of being an almond shape, my uterus was heart-shaped, which would make it difficult for an embryo to implant and increased my risk for a miscarriage. (Related: Essential Facts About Fertility and Infertility)

So we went through another surgery to fix that. Recovery lasted a month and I underwent another hysteroscopy to make sure the procedure had worked. It had, but now there was an infection in my uterus. The hysteroscopy showed little tiny bumps, all across my uterine lining, which were likely because of an inflammatory condition called endometritis (which, to be clear, is not the same as endometriosis). To be sure, my doctor went back into my uterus to retrieve some of the inflamed tissue and sent it to be biopsied. The results came back positive for endometritis and I was put on a round of antibiotics to clear the infection.

Heather Erickson

At the end of February 2020, I was finally given the all-clear to start on hormonal meds to prep for the IVF transfer again.

Then, the coronavirus (COVID-19) happened.

The Impact of COVID-19

For years, my husband and I have suffered disappointment after disappointment throughout our infertility journey. It's practically become a norm in our life—and while I should be well-seasoned on how to deal with bad news, COVID-19, really threw me in for a spin.

Anger and frustration don't even begin to explain how I felt when my clinic called me and said they were suspending all treatments and canceling all frozen and fresh embryo transfers. While we'd only been prepping for IVF for a few months, everything we'd gone through over the past three years—the meds, side-effects, countless injections, and multiple surgeries—had all been to get to this point. And now we're told we'd have to wait. Again.

Anyone who is struggled with infertility will tell you that it's all-consuming. I can't tell you the number of times I've broken down, at home and at work over this grueling process. Not to mention struggling with feelings of immense isolation and emptiness after coming up against innumerable roadblocks. Now with COVID-19, those feelings have intensified. I understand the importance of keeping everyone safe right now, but what I can't understand is that somehow Starbucks and McDonald's are considered "essential businesses," but fertility treatments are ultimately not. It makes no sense to me.

Then there's the financial issue. My husband and I are already almost $40,000 deep into trying to have a baby of our own since insurance doesn't cover much. Before COVID-19, I already had a preliminary check-up with my doctor and had started on ovulation stimulating injections. Now that I had to abruptly stop taking the meds, I will have to repeat the doctor's visit and buy more medication once the restrictions ease up since the meds expire and cannot be returned. That added cost still doesn't compare to some other procedures like the egg retrieval (which set us back $16,000 on its own), but it's just another financial setback that adds to the overall frustration. (Related: Is the Extreme Cost of IVF for Women In America Really Necessary?)

I know not all women endure the complications I'm struggling with on my infertility journey, and I also know that many more women even go through more along the way, but no matter what the road looks like, infertility is painful. Not just because of the meds, side-effects, injections, and surgeries, but because of all the waiting. It makes you feel such an immense loss of control and now because of COVID-19, many of us have lost the privilege of even trying to build a family, which just adds insult to the injury.

All of this is to say that everyone joking about having coronavirus babies while stuck in quarantine and complaining about how tough it is to stay at home with your kids, remember that many of us would do anything to switch places with you. When others ask, ‘Why don't you try naturally?,’ or 'Why don't you just adopt?' it only festers the negative emotions we're already feeling. (Related: How Long Can You Really Wait to Have a Baby?)

So, to all the women who were about to start IUIs, I see you. To all of you who've had their IVF treatments postponed, I see you. You have every right to feel whatever it is you're feeling right now, whether that's grief, loss, or anger. It's all normal. Allow yourself to feel it. But also remember that you're not alone. One in eight women is going through this too. Now is the time to lean on each other because what we're going through is painful, but here's to hoping we all get through it together.

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