The hardest part of IVF

The hardest part of going through in-vitro fertilization (IVF) isn’t the physical part. It isn’t the daily injections that you have to give yourself, or having blood drawn every couple of days. It isn’t the sometimes severe abdominal bloating from the multiple grape-size follicles growing in your ovaries (if you’re lucky enough to grow multiple follicles). And it isn’t even the surgery to retrieve the eggs from the follicles, which involves an IV (I hate IVs) and a fairly substantial needle puncturing your uterine wall from the inside (you’re welcome for that visual).

It’s the waiting. And waiting…and waiting.

In the special case of donor egg IVF, there’s additional waiting before you can even start the process. We’re still waiting to hear if our egg donor, Marie, passed her genetic tests. In the meantime, we got special permission from our favorite Belgian egg donation nurse, Bernadette (voilà!), to do my test-run with the new hormones (the so-called ‘try-cycle‘) before actually getting the results. Luckily, I passed that test on the first try — I think perhaps the first thing that’s gone ‘right’ in this whole process…? I may not have any eggs, but I can still grow an endometrium LIKE A BOSS.

We got even more good news this week: our case was presented at the bi-monthly staff meeting, and Marie was approved as our egg donor! I wasn’t too worried about this part — as her in-person screening appointments didn’t seem to raise any red flags — but it’s still nice that it’s official. However, her approval is contingent on her genetic tests, which are still not back from the lab…

Why is this a problem? Well, because we’re trying to get the actual donation cycle done over Marie’s summer break, our timeline is rather tight. We have tentatively planned Marie’s first ultrasound for 9 July, which would get her back home before she starts teaching. We even bought the flights(!), though with cancellation insurance of course. But to make this timeline, I need to have an injection on 26 June that they will only give me if Marie’s genetic tests are ok. And can you guess when those test results are due back? On 27 June…exactly one day too late.

Apparently this process can’t be rushed, at least at our clinic. However, Bernadette worked her magic on the lab technicians and convinced them to send the results by 25 June — two days earlier. That means we should find out if this cycle is a ‘go’ in time, but only at the last possible minute. Because obviously this whole process isn’t suspenseful enough already.

That brings us back to the waiting. In the best case scenario, the test results will come back on 25 June, and Marie will be fully cleared as our donor. Then I can have my injection on 26 June, and Marie will fly out in early July with both her kids (who I like to think of as ‘Model A’ and ‘Model B’). We will all drive to Belgium on 9 July for her first ultrasound. If everything looks good there, then we can move on to the next of at least eight more distinct stages of waiting. Because that, my friends, is IVF in a nutshell.

Our egg donation IVF test run

Back in April, my friend Marie volunteered to be our egg donor to help us try to get pregnant. Since then, she has undergone a battery of blood tests to check her hormone levels/rule out STDs/screen her for genetic diseases, and she and her husband flew over to Europe from the US in a whirlwind trip to have their in-person screenings. Assuming that she gets approved (which we’re still waiting to hear…), the actual egg donation IVF cycle still won’t happen until mid-July at the very earliest.

So why does it take so long? Well, unlike normal people who only have to get drunk to procreate (or so I’m told), there are about a gazillion steps we have to go through for this whole process, and we’re currently only on step #8,341 or so: the test cycle. Some clinics (including ours) require you to do a ‘try-cycle’ before the actual egg donation cycle to make sure that your body responds well to the drugs. “But wait…”, you’re probably thinking, “…Didn’t you already do three IVF cycles?” Yes. Yes I did. (#ivfwarrior). So why is it necessary for me to do another?

The thing is that an egg donation IVF cycle is very different from a ‘regular’ IVF cycle. In a regular (i.e. non-donation) cycle, you grow your own eggs within follicles in your ovaries, and that process itself is actually what stimulates your endometrium (aka uterine lining) to grow. In an egg donation cycle, nothing grows in your ovaries, because your donor is doing that part for you. In fact, they even give you medication to turn off your ovaries entirely, just to make sure that nothing jeopardizes the donation cycle. That means they need to give you other medication (estrogen, basically) to grow your endometrium. And that’s the part they want to test, because it’d be a huge bummer if your donor goes through all the work of producing eggs for you, and then your uterus isn’t in prime condition to receive one.

It’d be like: after years of getting the recipe wrong, the dough is finally ready, but you forgot to turn the oven on.

How often does the test cycle fail?

I asked our Belgian egg donation nurse, Bernadette, how often the egg donation test cycle shows issues, and she guesstimated about 40% of the time. They test this with a vaginal ultrasound to look at the thickness and structure of the endometrium after 12-14 days on the estrogen pills. If it’s not thick enough, or if it doesn’t show the desired ‘triple-line’ structure in the ultrasound, then you have to wait and test again, possibly with some changes to the medication. That obviously sets the schedule back even further.

I’ve been on the estrogen pills for 10 days now — three times a day — and I’ve scheduled my ultrasound for this coming Tuesday — right at the 12 day mark. We’re really hoping everything looks acceptable, because then we might still be able to do the real egg donation IVF cycle (mostly) over Marie’s summer teaching break. Then we can move on to steps #8,342–8,344 of the process: five days of another new medication for me; then waiting for my cycle to start; then (this one will surprise you) the very non-intuitive step of taking birth control pills. Because if we could just use our intuition to get pregnant, we wouldn’t be in this pickle!