“You come to the Agora Clinic as a patient and leave as a friend”
That is the message from Carole Gilling-Smith, medical director of the Agora Clinic, based in Brighton.
IVF babble had a wonderful chat with Carole to welcome her as the latest fertility expert to join us to support the LGBTQ community.
Carole founded the Agora Clinic in 2006 with colleague, Sam Abdalla. She was previously the director of the Chelsea and Westminster IVF Clinic and Mr Abdalla, the founder and director of the Lister Fertility Clinic, both based in London.
She has worked for many years to inform and educate people on fertility, whatever their sexual orientation. She has been a pioneer for HIV patients and began a programme 20 years ago to help dispel the myths surrounding positive patients wanting children – something that has been a huge success.
Carole also campaigns for more funding for fertility preservation to support cancer patients.
The clinic was set up to support anyone who has a desire to have children
Carole said: “We were well aware that a large number of patients were commuting up from Sussex for their fertility treatment in London as treatment options locally were so limited. Driven by the desire to reduce commuting stress for our patients, we created a unique, state of the art clinic in Brighton.”
The clinic is proud to be situated in the unofficial capital of the LGBTQ community and embraces diversity in every sense of the word.
Carole said: “We are passionate about opening our doors to everyone whatever their sexual orientation, embracing the latest technology and opening our hearts to their stories.
“Four out of five couples may never remember the moment their child was conceived, the other one, who needed to seek fertility advice, almost certainly will.
“At the Agora our ethos is to ensure that each and every prospective parent, whether they are a couple or an individual, has a journey to parenthood, which leaves only a truly positive memory.”
The clinic is the largest provider of NHS funded treatments in Sussex and when patients don’t qualify for funded treatment they are offered the same privately at a competitive price.
“We proudly open our doors to everyone, whether they be single or in a relationship, heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or have a viral disease such as HIV or hepatitis,” Carole says. “We also have a rapid access fertility preservation service for patients who have received a diagnosis of cancer as well as a social egg freezing program.”
What makes the clinic unique?
“Where we really make a difference is on the human side. As many have said, you come to the Agora as a patient and leave as a friend. Luckily, we are a small enough team to make that possible and patients can bond with us within a short space of time. We love seeing them during the pregnancy just for a chat or to show us how their ’bump’ is progressing and again once their baby is born.”
How do you see your role as a fertility expert?
“One very important aspect of my role as a fertility expert is the educational one. I’m a firm believer that patients empowered with knowledge view their diagnosis and treatment in a completely different light to those that are blindfolded to what is actually going on in their bodies.
“My educational role reaches beyond the clinic to help dispel myths and progress understanding in wider society. I launched the HIV fertility programme nearly 20 years ago in London. Until then, society had a dim view on patients infected with HIV attempting to conceive because they had no understanding of the disease and the progress that had been made to treat it. There was a huge stigma attached to being infected with HIV and those infected were having to stay silent and made to feel like lepers were in days gone by. Through our HIV program we demonstrated that these patients were conscientious, responsible adults who wanted to have children safely by turning to assisted conception and using techniques such as sperm washing to prevent HIV being passed to their partners of children.
“Our role as experts should be to open people’s eyes to the issues some individuals face, the options that modern day IVF can offer and the positive outcomes that can be achieved for parents and children alike.”
One area Carole has noticed an increase is more transgender patients coming through for fertility preservation before gender re-assignment.
“Sadly I sense only a few get as far as a fertility clinic as they are given so little comprehensive information about the choices they can make and how to take those first steps,” Carole says. “We also have seen a rise in the number of lesbian women coming through for partner-to-partner egg donation.”
The clinic offers all assisted conception treatments, including IUI, IVF and ICSI and egg donation with partner or donor sperm and this year they began a surrogacy programme.
Another option is social egg freezing to give choice to women who want the choice of becoming pregnant when it’s the right time for them.
What campaigns or initiatives are you involved in when it comes to infertility?
Carole said: “We are partners with and support Fertility Network UK, Fertility Fest and now IVF babble. All focus in different ways on supporting infertility patients. On a personal level I have done a great deal of work with viral positive patients, dispelling myths and pioneering treatments to reduce transmission risk. Currently I am working on a National level with Virologists on the U = U (undetectable equals untransmissible) campaign to educate and inform.
“I’m really invested in increasing NHS funding for the LGBTQ population as well as for fertility preservation. I campaign locally for access to NHS funding not only for those with cancer but for those suffering from the late effects of childhood cancer, transgender men and women and those with chronic illnesses that we know can impact on fertility in the longer term.
Why have you decided to become an IVF babble expert?
Carole said: “A patient made me aware of IVF babble and I immediately identified with what this organisation was setting out to do on so many levels. I love the concept that there is now a place to talk about what has been for so long a taboo subject, a place where patients can get answers before attending a clinic and above all a network of patients supporting each other.
“I have a lifetime of knowledge to offer the community and I’m excited about helping to facilitate support both internationally and locally.
“I am also one of the very few women worldwide that has founded a fertility clinic and yet is also a wife and mother. The fulfilment achieved through family life is deep rooted in me which is why I am so passionate about helping others create a family of their own.”
What message would you give to anyone who may be experiencing fertility issues?
“There are so many different people out there each with their own story – one message won’t work for everyone. Everyone with a fertility need should have an expert assessment and be given proper information to guide them in their next steps.
Stress and anxiety can be very detrimental to fertility, so try to find an expert who can explain things simply but clearly, and a clinic that cares about you as an individual and not just a statistic.”
If you have any questions for Carole, she would love to hear from you. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get in touch with Carole via the Agora Clinic.