By Kirsten McLennan
On 5 July 2019 at 11.49 am, our beautiful son Spencer John Wilson was born through surrogacy. It had been a long journey and like most things worth fighting for, it had been a hard one
I once counted how many times I had injected myself with artificial hormones: 700 times. And that was the easiest part. The injections didn’t come close to the heartache and unrelenting disappointment that followed.
By the end we had sixteen failed IVF transfers; four failed IUI transfers; seven egg retrievals; three miscarriages; and two international surrogacy experiences.
But we now have our beautiful son Spencer. So I would do it all again.
My husband Ryan and I married in 2011 and we always wanted a family. Being in our early thirties then, we naively thought it would be easy. But after a year of failed pregnancy tests, we knew something wasn’t right.
And so, our infertility journey began
After failed Clomid and IUI cycles, we started IVF. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”, one friend warned me early on. How right she was. For me, IVF was a roller coaster of emotions. Some weeks I felt despair, anger, and guilt – Why can’t I do the one thing women are supposed to be able to do? Other weeks, I was optimistic and full of adrenalin. Those contrasting emotions, for years, were mentally and physically exhausting.
It was hard to know who to confide in. At first, we only told a handful of close friends and family. But it was difficult to hide something which consumed our life. And then it dawned on me, Why on earth should we hide it? Whenever a friend has an illness, they often share their news. They rely on their friends and family for love and support.
The World Health Organisation defines infertility as, “A disease of the reproductive system defined by the failure to achieve a clinical pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse”. A disease! Yet we hide it?
Once people knew outside our close family and friendship circle, the insensitive comments started to emerge
People were either uncomfortable or impervious. They just didn’t get it. In a misguided way, they were trying to help. Sometimes I would challenge people with the medical facts. Other times, I stayed silent. If there is one big thing I regret, it’s the times I stayed silent.
After several failed and cancelled IVF cycles and also a ‘Pregnancy of an Unknown Location’, the issue became clear. As one specialist put it, “You need healthy and thick soil for a plant to grow”. My endometrium lining was too thin to fall pregnant or carry a pregnancy.
We changed to a specialist in implantation issues. At our first appointment he hit us with the hard truth, “Only approximately five per cent of women have thin linings and we rarely know the cause”. He then told us surrogacy was our best chance of success. We didn’t know too much about surrogacy then, but it seemed overwhelming. And in my heart, I wasn’t ready to give up on being pregnant.
Accepting our decision, he made another suggestion: a stem cell procedure (day surgery) to help invigorate my blood flow and nourish my lining. It ‘somewhat’ worked. My lining slightly increased and while below the average measurement, we pushed ahead.
I had received the brunt of bad news phone calls, so Ryan took this one. I got Ryan’s text when I was at work, “We’re pregnant!!! Call me as soon as you get this!!!!”. The high was enormous.
For the next 24 hours, Ryan and I celebrated. We talked about our due date, the hospital where I would give birth etc. But the exhilaration was quickly followed by perpetual anxiety.
We were petrified of something going wrong
We had our first scan at 7.5 weeks. I’ll never forget the look on the nurse’s face: deadpan, not a shred of emotion. She told us the baby was measuring too small and its heartbeat was too slow.
On the drive home I felt numb. Not sad, not angry, just numb. My mind was grappling with what had happened, trying to make sense of it. We had had a ‘missed miscarriage’, which is why I hadn’t had any bleeding or cramping.
Later that week, we had a follow up scan. Silence. There was no longer a heartbeat. The nurse then told us I could let my body expel the baby naturally, which could happen any day or take a few weeks, or have a D&C. We chose a D&C.
Shortly after the miscarriage, our specialist called with the biopsy results. We had transferred a PGS embryo (Pre-Genetic Screening) so it wasn’t a surprise when he said the baby (a girl) was genetically normal and perfect.
I was the problem though
But it was then that I knew for sure. It wasn’t the embryos that were the problem. It was the carrier. It was me.We tried IVF one last time. Another crushing failed cycle. We decided to give surrogacy a go.
We started surrogacy in Canada with Julie, a selfless woman who simply wanted to help us. We flew from Melbourne to Toronto for the transfer. A long flight (18 hours) but we were eager to meet Julie in person.
What happened next still haunts me
We arrived at the clinic where Julie was already waiting. Having a half full bladder for the transfer, she prayed we would be called up next. As if hearing her bathroom cries, a nurse miraculously appeared and asked if Ryan and I could go to the back area to meet our specialist.
He came into his office, slowly sat down behind his desk and with a grave face he told us the container of embryos we had transported over was empty.
That one word screamed in my head: Empty.
With a pounding heart and almost breathless, I kept asking him the same questions over and over, “What do you mean by empty? Who can we call?”. I remember the pity in his eyes, the sadness in his voice. No, we couldn’t call anyone. There was no one to call. They had opened the container to start the thaw process, only to discover there were no embryos inside.
The embryos were gone. And any chance of having a baby was gone as well
Throughout our infertility journey, this was undoubtedly my lowest point. There is always something about the unexpected that can be impossible to understand. Transporting embryos is standard practice so what happened was extremely rare. Our lawyers and fertility clinics in Melbourne and Toronto had never heard of this ever happening.
We then faced a critical choice: keep going or stop. We decided to keep going. We pushed ahead with three surrogacy transfers in Canada. All failed. With heavy hearts, we knew it was time to move on.
Scarred with Canada, we pursued surrogacy in the United States, our last hurrah.
Through Skype, we had an instant bond with our beautiful US surrogate Leigha and her husband Josh.
I will always be in awe of how someone can do surrogacy. How someone who doesn’t even know you, hears your story and feels compelled to help you. How they are willing to go through fertility treatment, pregnancy and then birth to help give you the greatest gift of all, a child.
Our first transfer sadly failed. But our US specialist had some good insights and the second transfer was a success. We were ecstatic
With excited anticipation, we heard the heartbeat at our eight-week scan, and we all felt at peace. For the next two weeks, we drifted by in a blissful fog.
Two of the most genuine and decent people you will ever meet, on a call one night, Leigha and Josh invited us to stay at their home in Gunnison, Utah for the birth. We were humbled by their generosity and we couldn’t think of a better place to stay.
Our 10-week scan was at 3.00 am. Given everything had been tracking along so well and Leigha’s hormone levels were high, we decided not to Skype in. Josh would video the scan and we would call them once we woke up.
I woke up at 6:00 am that morning and checked my phone. No messages. With a ball of anxiety aching in my stomach, I checked Ryan’s phone. There was a message on his home screen from Josh, “I’m so sorry but we’ve lost the baby…”.
At the 10-week scan, our baby had already passed. We were shattered. It was gut wrenching for all of us
Our obstetrician later told us Leigha is the only person he’s ever known to have been crying so hard while the general anaesthetic was taking effect. He had tightly held her hand at the start of the D&C and right up to the second before she fell asleep, she was sobbing.
At this point I resigned myself to think we would never have a child. I wanted to scream and cry and be done with the whole thing. With every set back, I had faith. I was determined to fight. But this time the fight had vanished. I felt defeated. I was struggling to move past the fact that we were here again.
But we had a handful of good embryos left and Leigha was willing to try again. She was determined to see this through. I also knew Ryan desperately wanted to have one final try. He reiterated everything our specialist had said to us about what had caused the miscarriage – it was rare and highly unlikely to happen again. He convinced me to try one last time.
Nine months later, our beautiful son Spencer was born
Michael Jordan once famously said his late father taught him to always, “Take a negative and turn it into a positive”. I think MJ is onto something.
And the greatest positive? Spencer of course. And the immense gratitude and love we have for him.
For the first six months of his life, not a day went by when I didn’t cry every morning when I picked him up out of his cot. Overwhelmed with emotion, the tears always fell. The poor kid probably didn’t know what to think as I saturated him with my salty tears. But I couldn’t believe that he was actually here. That he was ours. That we had finally been blessed with a child. Our own little miracle.
Infertility can be brutal, raw, and often lonely. It’s frequently misunderstood. But for anyone struggling with infertility, you are not alone. I know I felt that way. But there are many of us out there. Find those people. Talk to them. Lean on them. Surround yourself with love and support. Don’t suffer in silence.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Jimmy Fallon, “Just hang in there, try every avenue, try anything you can do, ’cause you’ll get there. You’ll end up with a family and it’s so worth it. It is the most ‘worth it’ thing.”
Huge love to Kirsten for sharing her incredibly tough journey. If you would like to share you story, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org