Happy, positive Shawna was pushed low by years of trying for a baby. Then the team at TFP Belfast Fertility helped her conquer her anxieties.
“How long do you keep waiting to see what happens?”
Shawna, 33, and husband Dan, 35, who live near Belfast, felt as if they’d been trying for a baby forever.
“My mental health was all over the place,” says Shawna. “When you have a journey like this and you see everyone pregnant all around you, it is a long battle.”
After three or four years of trying, they started to investigate their fertility, but the waiting lists for NHS services were long.
“Everything was taking way too long for my anxiety,” says Shawna. “Even just the semen analysis seemed to take months to organise. So, at that point, we decided to have private tests.”
Dan had four separate tests on his semen. The results were wildly variable.
Test one found no semen and tests two and three found low levels.
Test four came back as completely normal.
“Meanwhile, people were asking whose fault it was that we weren’t pregnant,” says Shawna.
“That is not an OK question. You can’t choose what your path is going to be or how your body is.
“Finally, when my tubes and hormone levels had been checked, and when all the tests were complete for both of us, our infertility was officially described as ‘unexplained’.
The fluctuating sperm levels didn’t explain our long period of infertility.”
The couple agreed that it was time to go ahead with IVF.
Sperm quality includes volume, shape, and swimming ability. For all men, it can change day-to-day and over months, though it’s not fully understood why. Factors include stress, certain infections, fever, and how often and how recently you’ve ejaculated.
“I was size 8 and still technically overweight”
Shawna and Dan hadn’t committed to private fertility treatment at this point.
Although they’d reached out to TFP Belfast Fertility for information, they’d also been signed up with NHS services for several years.
But there was a problem. Shawna needed to lose 5 lbs in weight to meet the target BMI to qualify for NHS fertility services.
Shawna says, “I was eating healthily for three or four years and in the gym four times a week.
I’m five foot one and size eight and I just couldn’t seem to change my weight.
“I was always five pounds over my target. I just couldn’t carry on like this, so we decided to go private.”
To have NHS-funded IVF, you need a body mass index (BMI) of 19-30, or 19-25 in some regions. BMI indicates if you’re within a healthy weight range, but can be misleading in people who are very short, very tall or have high muscle mass. Private IVF clinics may set different BMI criteria for IVF.
“I’m terrible at names – luckily the receptionists were lovely”
Shawna recounts that her anxiety was ‘all over the place’ when she first visited TFP Belfast Fertility.
“But the welcome from everyone on reception was lovely and suddenly I felt in control,” she says.
“I thought, we’ve got this. We are doing this for a purpose, and it will all be OK now. It was the first time in years that I had chilled out. All my friends noticed.”
Shawna says the clinic staff were supportive at every stage. “They always asked me how I was doing, and it felt good,” she says.
Shawna and Dan were ready to start their first IVF round – and Shawna was feeling nervous.
“It was the thought of the injections and particularly the egg collection procedure, as I’d never been sedated,” says Shawna.
“But once the clinic team walked me through the processes, things felt a lot better. My head had built all this up to be much worse than it was.
“And friends had warned me the medication would make me hormonal, but I was the most happy, positive and chilled out that I had been for a very long time.”
A nurse showed Dan how to inject Shawna, and then the couple were up and running.
“It was 26 injections in two weeks – that’s a lot of poking. But it was truly fine,” says Shawna.
“I was all over the place when I woke up from the egg collection”
The TFP Fertility team suspected that it may be challenging to retrieve eggs from Shawna’s left ovary, due to its position.
But when she came round from her sedation, she was told they had successfully gathered ten eggs.
“My husband has a video of me waking up and I’m clearly in a high state,” laughs Shawna.
The embryologist used ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) to inject the best quality sperm into each egg and then each day phoned Shawna and Dan with a progress report.
After five days, there were four embryos. Two were healthy and two were growing too slowly.
In the end, there was one top-quality embryo to transfer into Shawna’s uterus and one to freeze.
Shawna and Dan found the embryo transfer process surreal.
“You could watch on the screen. I kept calling this little dot a ‘she’.
She was our tiny shooting star and we watched as they popped her in there,” remembers Shawna.
Finding it impossible to wait the ten official days before doing the pregnancy test, Shawna tested on day five and saw a ‘teeny faint line’ on the stick.
She repeated the test daily and the lines grew darker and darker.
On day ten, the official testing day, the pregnancy test revealed the clearest line yet.
“We had a breakdown. The wait was over. We were pregnant,” says Shawna.
"I’m usually such a happy, positive person”
“I felt so lonely at the start of this journey,” says Shawna.
“I’m a makeup artist and I started talking about it on my Instagram page. Many people messaged me with so much support and talked about their own experiences- others asking me for advice who were maybe at the start of their journey.
“Even though I now have my baby girl, Ivy, because of what we have been through, I can still find it hard to be happy for people who announce they are pregnant.
“Scan photos can be so triggering. Something so happy should be celebrated but can make people struggling with fertility feel so alone.
“Being on a more difficult path to start a family and seeing others become pregnant so easily can make you so negative - I am not that kind of person.”
Shawna recalls one particularly difficult day at work. She says, “I remember a day in the salon when everyone was pregnant or had a baby and it felt so personal. This was a day I really struggled.
“The entire conversation was about babies. It went on for hours. It felt like they took it all for granted and didn’t realise how lucky they were.
“If I had any advice to share - it would be not to get so hung up on it. But that is so much easier said than done.
On this journey, whilst there is so much uncertainty, anxiety and depression can take hold of you,” she says.
“My husband said please get help. I just refused and went into my own little self.
So, please, if you are going through this, don’t wait. Ask for help.
“Your mental health is so important: don’t fixate on the negatives and the horrible hand you know you’ve been dealt - and know that it will get better and you will get your little miracle.
“Get your investigations and if IVF is the route for you, don’t be scared.”
She concludes: “Enjoy your life. Don’t stop living. This struggle does not define you.”
How Shawna helps others on social media
Shawna has shared her fertility journey with others through her Instagram and TikTok accounts.
She aims to conquer the taboo that surrounds infertility.
“This is not your fault. This is not your partner’s fault. These things are out of your control and many couples go through this. Why do we feel so ashamed of telling people about it?” she wonders.
“I spent years not talking about it, and sitting in silence while people asked me when the baby was going to arrive.
“When I finally opened up on social media, the response I got was amazing. I found a community.
“People who had gone through fertility challenges gave me support, and people who felt the same sadness as I did reached out, asking how I coped.”
She says, “I’m so happy to be there for people who are feeling scared and lost. I’ll sit at home with all these messages from women I don’t even know, and I always reply. I will one hundred per cent be there for them.”