A few families got together this week at a Tamworth clinic to mark another year of IVF-related services being offered in the city. The proud mums and dads happily shared their stories with Carolyn Millet.
Sitting in a doctor’s office, Lee and Jono McClelland start to tell me about their long journey to welcoming their daughter Noelle, who is eight months old. But first they rub some antibacterial hand gel on everyone’s hands.
“Sorry, we’re just – ” Lee starts.
“– germophobes,” Jono interjects.
“– as you can tell,” Lee finishes. “You’re a little bit of a helicopter mother when you’ve waited that long.”
They chuckle during this exchange; they know some people might see their protectiveness as over-the-top. But it’s easy to understand when they tell their story.
In their late 20s the couple decided to have a family, with little anticipation of having any difficulty – like most people.
Twelve months passed. They went to their GP for investigations into their fertility, and another year later, turned to IVF.
So while people around them had babies – some planned, some accidental – and those babies had their first Christmas, turned into toddlers, started school, lost their first teeth, and became big brothers and sisters, Lee and Jono spent thousands upon thousands undergoing three operations between them, eight attempts at IVF, dozens of needles and invasive procedures, two miscarriages, one chemical pregnancy.
And finally, after nine years, one baby.
It seems glib to reduce their life-changing journey to a few numbers, but Lee says she hopes it might encourage someone else who has “that dream in your heart you can’t lay down”.
“It is a long battle but one that can be won… Nine years to conceive this little one; this is our little miracle baby.”
VISITS FROM ‘GOD’
The McClellands and other families here are all patients of Genea, formerly Sydney IVF. Its deputy medical director, fertility specialist Dr Mark Livingstone, runs clinics every two months in Tamworth. This means couples with infertility issues and a referral from their GP can have consultations, investigations and monitoring close to home, co-ordinated by nurse Rhonda Ward, with trips to Sydney only for egg collection and embryo transfer.
Mark has been an obgyn since 1991 and says he enjoys the diversity of work in IVF.
“It’s a bit of medicine, it’s a bit of surgery and it’s mostly a happy specialty; mostly an enjoyable, happy outcome – but not always.”
Mark says a critical part of his role is honesty; “[telling people] when they should have treatment and when they should not have treatment – or stop having it”.
“It’s also about being able to help people understand complex technologies.”
During the get-together, parents praise the dedication and bedside manner of both Mark and Rhonda, and even jokingly refer to Mark as “God” and their child’s “other dad”.
‘ALWAYS ON TENTERHOOKS’
One really unfair aspect of struggles with infertility is that once a couple does achieve a much-desired pregnancy, they often can’t blithely enjoy it like others can.
Suzy and Wade Lewis had their daughter Isabella (4) without help, but Suzy has also had several miscarriages. With no trouble getting pregnant but just getting the embryos to “stick”, Suzy and Wade turned to IVF.
On their third go, they had a frozen five-day-old blastocyst transferred. It was their last one. They had previously decided this was their final throw of the dice.
“We’d said this was our last chance; we knew we wouldn’t be doing it again,” Suzy says. “I was always on tenterhooks, always very much wondering if something was going to happen, especially if I didn’t feel something for a while.” Happily, that little bunch of cells and whole bunch of anxiety produced a healthy baby, Olivia.
HUMOUR IN HARDSHIP
Rachel and Neil Grayson suffered secondary infertility after having their son Benjamin, who’s now six-and-a-half. Rachel had hoped her kids would be close in age like she and her sister.
“It’s a bit of a stab in the heart when you know you can do something, and you’ve done something before and why can’t you do it again?” Rachel says.
They tried to conceive for 18 months before seeking help – but Neil had been working on a plan before that.
“Neil was probably a little bit more worried than me at first,” Rachel says.
“He was already saving by the time we got to Dr Livingstone … We were very lucky that we were thinking ahead, otherwise we would have had to save for a couple of years.
“He was an only child, so he really wanted more than one child, so that was another thing that spurred him on.”
They now have Dominic, 18 months, and they’re not sure yet whether they want another child. But they have one frozen embryo left, and that plays on their mind. “It gets your brain ticking; it could be our third boy, or it could be a little girl,” Rachel says.
And as much as no one wants medical intervention in something that’s ‘the most natural thing in the world’, Rachel says there’s at least one positive.
While waiting in the Sydney clinic, she took a photo of a screen showing a magnified image of the embryo about to be transferred into her uterus. The Graysons now have a photo of Dominic holding that photo of himself as an embryo.
Monique Cwach says she’s “very open about IVF” because she thinks something as common as infertility – about one in six couples – shouldn’t be taboo.
“When you start saying, ‘We’re infertile’, people start opening up and it’s actually surprising how many people it affects.”
At-home dad Jeff says they always really wanted children and were lucky to have access to the science to make it happen.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got our children [Lily and Anna] and they’re turning into beautiful little individuals, and we have no reason to be shy about it.”
And Saturday is certainly one to be proud about surviving the heartache and cost of infertility and IVF: the first birthday of the littlest Cwach, Anna – who wouldn’t be here otherwise.