As part of National Fertility Awareness Week’s focus on mental health awareness, support and fertility in the workplace, TFP Wessex Fertility spoke to Sam and Alan about their fertility journey.
Samantha, an IT specialist, and her husband Alan, a self-employed gardener, met in 2008 when Samantha was 27, and they got together soon afterwards. The couple, from Portsmouth, got married in 2012 and thought about starting a family about a year later.
“I always knew I wanted a family someday, as did Alan” explains Sam. “But neither of us had found someone we wanted to start a family with. I also repelled the idea of tradition and the pressure put on couples from everyone asking all the time once you are married 'when are you going to have children?'"
However, after years of no success and 3 failed cycles of IVF, they were grateful for the support and understanding they received from those closest to them whom they shared their struggle with.
After trying for 18 months with no success they sought help with their GP. They underwent several tests and investigations to try and find the cause of their fertility problems but were diagnosed with the very frustrating term ‘unexplained infertility’. As Sam was reaching her 35th birthday, the cut-off age for IVF funding in Hampshire, they progressed quickly through the funding process.
“That part of the process was very daunting and we felt quite anxious,” recalls Sam, “We were given 15 minutes to decide whether or not to go ahead with IVF but were ultimately very grateful to have a funded cycle. We were very overwhelmed, we didn’t know what to expect and were worried about the clinical processes.”
Sam and Alan went for fertility treatment at another fertility clinic in the South. At that point in their journey, Sam and Alan didn’t know much about fertility treatment, the options or the possible outcomes so decided to seek information and support from others in similar situations. Although the clinic offered counselling, Sam felt that, for her and Alan, this was more beneficial for support after cycles and chose the support of other patients to help her understand the processes to better prepare herself.
“I just wanted to speak to those who had gone through it before so I joined some groups on social media. That’s how I found my support. There was a lot of terminology we didn’t understand and so I could ask the others what it all meant,” remembers Sam. “It is so nice to know you’re not alone in this when we had felt so alone before that when we were trying to conceive.”
Sam feels passionately about raising awareness about fertility issues, getting support and trying to ensure that fertility isn’t a taboo subject. But she feels it isn’t just about support but about education too, for children in schools but also for employers.
“Education is so important,” states Sam, “we spend our youth being told about not getting pregnant, from teachers, parents and health workers, but nobody tells us that we shouldn’t leave it too late to try for a baby, nobody tells us about what can go wrong and how our fertility declines with age. It never occurred to me that I might not be able to have a child. Our lifestyles are different now and women have so many more options from a career perspective than they did a generation or 2 ago and so many people don’t realise that they can’t wait too long, because they’ve never been told.”
Sam feels that if she had known then what she knows now about fertility then she could have done things differently.
When it comes to fertility awareness in the workplace, Sam knows that she has been a lot more fortunate than many.
“I have been with my company for 13 years,” Sam explains, “it is a really male-dominated industry I work in, so it was difficult to talk about my fertility struggles and treatment openly at first. However, I was really lucky that my boss was so supportive of me. I did feel sad that I couldn’t talk about it beyond my boss, but I do know I’m lucky that he was really good about it. There were times when it did impact my work, including once when I became ill and needed time off. I think if you didn’t feel you could speak to your employer about it then it would add so much more stress to an already stressful situation.”
Sam recalls that at first she struggled to talk about her fertility problems with others, especially when they didn’t have any experience of that themselves.
“But when I did open up and talk about it people were so kind and supportive, it restores your faith in human kind.”
Sam feels that there should be a proper process and policies in place to support and protect people struggling with fertility or having fertility treatment.
“There are processes in place for maternity and adoption, but nothing for people going through fertility treatment. It is a real shame as so many people are affected by it. I was very lucky with my work. From what I’ve heard from others, it is quite unusual.”
Sam and Alan’s first cycle of IVF was a short cycle of medication which resulted in 3 eggs being collected.
“This was really upsetting,” remembers Sam, “we knew that the ideal number of eggs was 10, so it was a real blow right away. We had 2 blastocyst embryos and had 1 transferred but unfortunately the other embryo was not suitable for freezing.”
Sam took her test 2 weeks later and had a positive result, the first positive pregnancy test the couple had seen in their years of trying. However, a blood test the following day showed that the pregnancy was not viable and Sam and Alan were left devastated.
“It was so hard to cope with,” recalls Sam “we couldn’t believe our luck when we had the positive test, that it had worked first time. To have that taken away from us so soon was devastating. I received the phone call with the blood test results whilst I was at work and I just sat in a meeting room and cried. I grabbed all my stuff and drove home and Alan and I sat and cried together.”
Sam had to have many appointments over the coming weeks to check whether the pregnancy was an ectopic pregnancy and whether Sam was going to miscarry naturally.
“It was a pretty horrendous time. In the end, I miscarried naturally but I was quite poorly with it from a nasty infection so needed to take some time off to recover, both physically and mentally. When I look back now, I wonder how we kept going following such a devastating first cycle but I’m glad we did.”
Their second, this time self-funded, IVF cycle resulted in 5 eggs being collected but with no good quality embryos the couple had a day 3 transfer of the best embryo and again had none to freeze.
“I just knew it wasn’t going to work when we had the transfer and wasn’t at all surprised, but of course still very sad, to see a negative result. We decided to have another try but by then my ovaries had stopped responding to the stimulation medication and the cycle had to be abandoned.”
It was then that Sam and Alan were given the news that there were no other options to use her own eggs, that it would either be a choice of using donor eggs or adopting. “This was the hardest blow, so we had to assess our options.” We decided to take some time out, focus on us and do things we had been missing out on like go on a holiday, have some days out, enjoy time with our family and friends.
The couple decided to try another clinic and came to TFP Wessex Fertility in 2019.
“It was instantly so much less stressful, more relaxed. The people are so lovely and supportive. I think this is hugely important as I feel stress has a lot to answer for in us not getting pregnant before.”
Sam and Alan did a lot of research on the topic, and decided to go ahead with using donor eggs with Alan’s sperm and joined TFP Wessex Fertility’s donor egg waiting list.
“It took me a long time to get my head around using donor eggs,” admits Sam, “but I’m so glad we decided to go for it. I think donors are incredible and so brave. We can’t thank our donor enough; even though we don’t know her, we know she is amazing. We had a really short wait to be matched with a donor. It was incredible to get to proceed with our treatment as quickly as we did. One of the worst parts of having fertility problems is the constant waiting game; waiting to take a test each month, waiting for diagnostic tests, waiting for referrals, when you are conscious of time passing by and you getting older.”
Sam and Alan’s donor had her eggs collected and then, in June 2020, Sam had a frozen embryo transfer procedure and had a single embryo transferred. Two weeks later Sam took a pregnancy test and they were elated to see that they were pregnant.
“We were absolutely delighted. It felt different this time, I really felt like it had worked, even before I took the test. We are so excited and everyone around us is so excited for us. We couldn’t be more grateful, to the clinic, to our wonderful egg donor but also, most importantly, to those around us, and those on social media groups, who have helped with words of support, with hugs (pre-covid hugs), with explanations of confusing medical terms. Thank you.”
Sam is due in March 2021 and is now halfway through her pregnancy and still feels shell-shocked. They have chosen to keep the gender a surprise as an added extra to look forward to.
After their three failed cycles, Sam felt it was important for her to share her story in the hope that she could help raise awareness and support others like she has been supported online.
“There still seems to be a level of shame for people talking about their fertility, especially to people who haven’t experienced any problems with fertility, it is still seen as taboo sometimes and it shouldn’t be."
Sam has set up Facebook (Rain 2 Rainbow) and Instagram accounts (rain_2_rainbowuk) telling her story and speaking to people with different fertility issues. Talking about her social media accounts Sam states,
“This is about being able to share my journey with you all, the struggles I have faced, in the hope that my journey will be relatable to some of you out there and provide some comfort and support in knowing you are not alone.”
We wish Sam and Alan all the best for the rest of their pregnancy, and we can’t wait to meet their baby.