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IVF warrior and jetsetter Ashley Howard-Heimbuch shares her inspiring journey of infertility to ultimately reach the path to motherhood.
On dealing with infertility.
Everyone deals with infertility differently. For me, what was really helpful and therapeutic through the two year journey was being open, honest, and authentic with our story. I started our Instagram page, as a place simply for me to document and journal our story on a day-to-day basis. That's turned to a beautiful community of women and couples going through similar journeys but don't necessarily feel that they can be open and share about their struggles and infertility issues with the people in their personal lives. Or that they're not ready to put a face to the name that they are struggling to conceive. For me, it's been therapeutic to share and let others know that you're not alone. Whether it's your first, third or sixth cycle, you're not alone and there have been other women that have been in your shoes. Thinking back and reflecting, when we found out that IVF was going to be our only way to conceive, I thought I didn't know anyone that had been through IVF. There was nobody in my personal life that came to mind. I didn't want anyone else to feel what I did. As soon as I started sharing, people from my childhood, college, work, and friends of friends started to reach out who went through it or are currently going through it.
That's been a really beautiful full circle for me. We started out feeling really empty and alone. We went through this huge cycle where I've been able to connect with and meet so many women and couples who are going through their struggles and seasons of turbulence and that we can relate, and that there is a place to share your story. That's been hugely impactful for us through the IVF journey.
On the advice for another woman or couple going through their own season of infertility.
Comparison is the thief of joy. I found myself early in our process comparing our story to other stories and blogs that I was reading. It just made me frustrated and sad. We had been going through round after round with no success, and I was seeing women find that success on their first or second cycles. And here I am clawing my way through cycle 4, cycle 5, feeling like it's never going to be our time. And yet they can do it with such great and successful results after only an IUI or a round of 2 of IVF. Once I really separated our story and realized that we are on our own path and that no two paths look the same (or should they), it really gave me a profound sense of ownership of our story. It is what it is. There's that saying, "A flower doesn't compare itself to the one next to it - it blooms in its own time." and when I really put that analogy into my life and really started cheering on those women wholeheartedly and not doing it just to do it, but really coming from a sincere place in my heart and cheering people on and being excited and happy for them, I found that that was being returned to me two-fold. I found that I was really owning who I am, our struggles, and really embracing that ugly on a day to day basis. For me, it's made all the difference in the world.
My husband Alex and I have been together for 5 years, and we had been trying unsuccessfully to start a family for about a year. In January 2018 we went to see my OB-GYN, who discovered that I had developed severe hydrosalpinx, meaning both of my fallopian tubes were 100% blocked due to fluid build-up. We were told that we had a 0% chance of conceiving on our own and that IVF would be our only option to have a child that was genetically ours.
I'm sure you can imagine that hearing that is overwhelming. After finding out that I couldn't get pregnant, those first few weeks I had such a strong sense of guilt and anger. I felt broken, and I felt like I was letting both my husband and I down. More than anything I wanted to be a mom. It definitely took some time for us to digest that we couldn't pregnant naturally and that we were going to have to seek science to give us that baby that we had so dreamed for.
It was only a few weeks after our inital diagnosis that I was calling clinics, trying to get on doctor's schedules, and that time we were living in Northwest Indiana, which meant a lot of the doctors and offices that would be available to us would be located in downtown Chicago. I knew from doing research and reading other blogs that IVF is very appointment-heavy. There was something in me that felt a little bit uneasy about driving in and out of Chicago day in and day out, so we found a clinic that had an office in Northwest Indiana. We went with that clinic purely out of convenience. We were naive at the time and thought that IVF is IVF is IVF. How much different can doctors be in this world? How much different can medication and treatments be from one doctor to the next? We went with it out of convenience and started our first round of stimulations (stims).
Ovarian stimulation 1 & IVF cycle 1: 7 embryos retrieved but an unsuccessful transfer.
During that first round of stims, it was a standard, cookie-cutter template of what our medications and protocol would look like. It was a very successful process for us in that go - we ended with 7 embryos...7 little miracles and attempts to become parents. Immediately after that stim cycle, we decided to do a fresh transfer of two embryos back into my uterus within days after the round of stims. Our excitement was quickly gone as we found out two weeks after the transfer that we had an unsuccessful cycle. So we were not pregnant and we had actually lost our 2 strongest embryos from that transfer.
Looking back, I think that first transfer loss hit me really hard. I had gotten into my head that we were going to be in the very small percentage of cycles that are successful in their first go. If you're new to the IVF world, it's pretty rare to have a successful IVF in the first round just because of your heightened hormones, and your body being thrown off in so many different ways. It was gut-wrenching. I cried for days and wondered what it was that wasn't working. After we had time to reflect and regroup on that first round, there was just something about the clinic and doctor that felt off to me. We talk about it on our Instagram page @some_assembly_required__, but there were a lot of red flags.
IVF cycle 2: another failed transfer.
We searched for a new clinic in downtown Chicago and I felt really great about seeing a top fertility doctor, and a clinic that was open to us bringing our 5 existing embryos. We were super excited, hopeful and in the right hands. Fast forward after consultations, we did our second IVF cycle and transferred two more embryos. Everything looked great and we were hopeful that it would work, but sadly it did not. We had our second failed transfer, leaving us now with 3 embryos, a little bit more of a broken heart, a lot more uncertainty, but we kept going and weren't going to give up.
IVF cycle 3: pregnancy loss.
We decided to transfer all 3 of our remaining embryos in our third cycle. They were our weakest embryos even though they were fairly good quality, but we wanted the utmost chance to have a successful pregnancy. We had some positive at-home pregnancy tests and were over the moon and so excited. We were shattered when we took the bloodwork test when the doctor told us we most likely had a chemical pregnancy. We were now not pregnant, still and had no more embyros left. This was 8-9 months from when we started our first round to the end of our third cycle. We spent close to $25,000 out of pocket and wondered where we go from here.
IVF cycle 4: ovarian stimulation and 10 genetically perfect embryos!
After our third treatment, we move to the metro-Detroit area, where I am originally from. I had been gone for over 15 years but I knew it was time and that I wanted to be closer to family and friends and to put some long-term roots down. We started looking into Detroit-based clinics, and this time we weren't naive and knew exactly what we were looking for and wanted in a doctor. We chose Dr. Hammoud from IVF Michigan for our fourth IVF cycle, which would be a stim cycle since we were out of embryos. Dr. Hammoud put together a very aggressive protocol, pretty much doubling the medications from the first time we went through IVF. This was a really good thing for us - we wanted an aggressive approach and a doctor who would think outside of the box and not treat us like a cookie-cutter case. We had a lot of success - 25 eggs (most of those were mature, fertilized, and in total 14 embryos...14 chances and double the amount from the first cycle)! We did genetic testing, and of the 14, we had 10 embryos that were genetically perfect (i.e. extremely low chance of miscarriage, no chromosomal abnormalities).
IVF cycle 5....cancelled.
When it was time, we were excited and went through our FET (frozen embryo transfer) protocol. Everything looked good - my body was responding well, blood levels were great, uterine lining was "perfect." However, another bump in the road - we found out during a procedure that I had a tumor in my uterus and had to immediately cancel that cycle. I had to go on almost 50 days of medication to control the tumor growth. My doctor got half of it out during a procedure and then after my 50 days of medication, removed the remainder of the tumor. That was a really scary time - you are never ready to hear you have a tumor. Luckily it was benign but it was another speed bump in our journey to become parents. We had to take some time, let my body heal, before we were ready for IVF cycle 6.
IVF cycle 6...some complications, but TWINS!
After we transferred two embryos, I was feeling good (albeit nautious) and couldn't wait to get my test results. Two weeks later, the nurse called to tell me that it worked! I had very high beta levels that were progressing well and we were feeling so hopeful, but with caution. We were so excited but had our spirits crushed before so we remained very optimistic, but not over the moon because we just didn't want to get our hopes too high. During our 6 week ultrasound, we found out we were having twins. We heard the heartbeats - when you hear that heartbeat it is music to your ears. Thinking back, it makes me speechless that this was finally our time. We got through the first trimester and then hit a lot of pregnancy bumps along the way. I ended up having an extremely rare condition called a uterine carceration. I had to have a dangerous five hour surgery...such a scary time. We were told to brace ourselves that we had a very high chance of losing the babies, so we went into surgery and came out. Ultimately, the University of Michigan saved our babies! I had a very long recovery - they cut me right below my breastline all the way to below my pelvic area. Had some complications post-surgery but definitely has been a very tramatic pregnancy. I'm happy to share that we're still pregnant and expecting twin boys. We could not be more excited and more thrilled to be having these two miracle babies enter into our family!