I nearly died last week. Ironically at the same time as my scheduled post about a cemetery went live on here. In hindsight I can see the funny side.
I write this blog as a travel blog, and it was never intended to be a personal blog. But when something so traumatic happens to you, it’s hard to pretend it didn’t and hard to keep writing about nice weekends away.
If you’re here just for the travel content then this post won’t be for you, and I completely understand that not everyone will want to read this. I am not even sure about posting it for fear of reactions, but just hope that in sharing my story, it might help one person know they’re not alone, or help one person learn something that might help them or someone else in the future. It’s important to talk about things sometimes, and important to acknowledge that life doesn’t always work out how you might want, life isn’t always society’s version of what it ‘should’ be. Sometimes life can suck really, really badly.
So….welcome to my infertility war.
Last Monday I turned 6 weeks pregnant.
On Tuesday I had agonising cramps. I was at home alone so I called my friend and she found me passed out on the floor and took me to A&E. I was vomiting and in severe pain so I couldn’t walk. After a 6 hour wait in A&E, my blood test results came back that my pregnancy hormone, HCG, was super high – meaning the baby seemed healthy. They looked at my cervix and it was closed, indicating no miscarriage and the baby was still in there.
But I was still in agony. So I had to have a scan, 14 hours after admission. The sonographer told me not to worry, the baby was fine. And then she went as white as a sheet.
‘I’m sorry to tell you Hannah that you have two babies. One is in your uterus, and one is growing in your ovary. The ovary has ruptured meaning you have so much internal bleeding that it’s in your pelvis, your bowels, your abdomen and your ovaries. You need life saving emergency surgery right now. I’m so sorry we missed this’.
20 minutes later and I was lying in theatre. There were 5 surgeons and 3 anaesthetists. I was given a 30% chance of death, lost 42% of my blood, and was in surgery for over 4 hours. I had to have both babies, my ovary and tube removed.
What I had was an ovarian ectopic pregnancy. Ectopic pregnancies are when a baby grows outside of the uterus – it happens in around 1 in 90 pregnancies, normally in the tube. Ovarian ectopics make up about 0.5% of all ectopics so basically there is a 1 in 180,000 chance.
Ectopic pregnancy is the leading cause of death in pregnant women. I had all the symptoms but despite talking to 4 different doctors in 3 weeks, none of them thought it was anything for me to worry about. Symptoms of ectopic pregnancy include light bleeding, sharp shooting pains, shoulder tip pain, chest pain and vomiting. If you have any of these symptoms in combination in early pregnancy – please go to the doctor and insist on a scan. I wasn’t given one until it was almost too late.
I’m alive. I will not be a mother and I will have to deal with that in time. My story didn’t end how I would have wanted it to, but I have life. I don’t know yet how I will visit friends with babies, or go to baby showers, or deal with someone telling me they’re pregnant and they weren’t even really trying. In time I know I’ll be OK because my sadness doesn’t mean I am not able to be happy for others. But for right now it’s too hard, and I’ll just say thank you for life.
The early days
How did I end up where I did last week? I’ll start at the beginning.
In 2016, I went for a cervical smear. I had abnormal cells. I went for a scan. At 27, a very nice doctor told me I had cervical cancer. Thankfully it was super early stage and they were able to biopsy me and remove the cells by cutting out part of my cervix. Whilst they were there they also found an abnormal number of cysts, which I then also had removed. I was told it would have no bearing on my future fertility, but to this day I can’t prove or disprove that.
After that, we decided it was the right time to start trying and I spent 3 long years trying naturally, culminating in multiple miscarriages over the period. Miscarrying is a heart breaking process, and at the time I didn’t know anyone who had been through it. None of my friends had any issues conceiving and most all had children within a few months of starting to try. I didn’t talk about it.
In 2019, after multiple miscarriages, the doctors finally did some tests. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me, so I headed to a fertility clinic.
At my first appointment I was so nervous. They put a wand up me which scanned inside to observe my uterus and follicle count, as well as run multiple blood and genetic tests. Everything was normal. My partner also had tests and again, everything was normal there too.
I then had to have a check to make sure my tubes weren’t blocked. This was a gory procedure. In the stirrups I went; an egg shaped device was inserted, and opened up, and then a catheter was fed through it up in to my ovaries. They then released some dye and if it flows through and down, the tubes aren’t blocked. If no dye comes out – you’re blocked. The dye filtered down just fine, but unfortunately something happened which meant I also bled pretty uncontrollably all over the floor for about 15 minutes. It was painful. It was undignified. Procedures like that take a little piece away from you as they are so violating.
We were diagnosed with ‘unexplained infertility’.
I spent hours and hours googling it, hours looking at what could be causing it, only to realise that the science just isn’t advanced enough to explain to us why this is happening. As we were undergoing these tests, I had more miscarriages.
By the time we got to 2020 it felt like all our friends had had children, while we were still trying to crawl at a snail’s pace to having a viable pregnancy. As the doctors said there’s nothing medically wrong with us, they recommended we try a procedure called IUI.
On day 3 of my cycle, I had to start injecting a drug called Gonal-F. The injection is fairly easy – the needle comes pre-filled so you just set your dose on the pen, and then grab a bit of fat on your tummy and inject it in. This stimulates your eggs so instead of 1, you grow 2 or 3 to increase your chances. About 7 days later, you’re back in stirrups getting the wand again to see how many follicles are growing, and all being well you then trigger ovulation to release the eggs with another shot and go back to the clinic 36 hours later for the sperm to be placed in there too.
And then you’re just sent home to wait 2 weeks (along with some lovely suppositories which you have to put twice a day up where the sun doesn’t shine), and do a pregnancy test in 14 days. Our test was negative.
We did this 3 times. Every single one was negative. The one straight before mother’s day really sucked.
Time for IVF
People say the word IVF and I think there are some misconceptions. 1) That it always works and 2) That it’s not that bad. It’s awful, and it doesn’t always work. In fact its success is actually only around 30%, even in perfectly healthy women under the age of 35 like me. For those over 35, it’s only about a 10% success rate, at best.
On the third day of my cycle, I had to start injecting Gonal-F again, but this time a much higher dosage (about 5x the amount that I used for IUI). This is because now I’m trying to make as many eggs as possible to be ‘harvested’. Again on day 6, I got the wand, and again on day 8, which showed I had 24 follicles. Some of them were quite big, so they told me I then had to take another drug so that I didn’t ovulate naturally.
This is where the mind-screw comes in. Cetrotide, the anti-ovulation drug, is a devil. Firstly, there’s no pre-filled pen here, you have to mix it yourself. You get a powder in one bottle, a solution in another, a mixing tube and an injection needle. You have to mix the powder until it disappears – no particles allowed, fill your own needle to the correct dosage, get the air bubbles out and THEN inject the absolutely horrific, huge, awful needle.
Honestly I nearly vomited. My stomach had already hit 8 days of stimulant injections, now this as well. So for 5 further days, in the morning I had to inject Cetrotide to say ‘don’t ovulate’ and in the evening I had to inject Gonal-F to say ‘grow eggs ready to ovulate’. Imagine filling a cow’s udder with milk and then not milking it….that’s how I felt. My insides felt like they might just burst.
The scans eventually showed I was ready to trigger ovulation, and 36 hours later I was back in stirrups having my eggs taken out. The pain is pretty awful – that catheter is back up in the ovaries again, collecting the fluid from every follicle. Within the fluid is the eggs, which once they remove from the body they can see under a microscope and separate out.
I got 14 eggs. A pretty good haul (or so I thought). Of my 14, only 8 were genetically normal and able to be fertilised and become embryos. The scientists then grew the embryos to 5 days old to become blastocysts, but only 2 of our embryos survived, meaning from 14 eggs we got only 2 healthy 5 day old blastocysts ready to be transferred. That’s a much lower rate than is normal, meaning our likely cause of infertility is my egg quality.
We went through this IVF process a number of times, and none of the transfers worked. Ultimately, one embryo did decide to implant, and 6 weeks later I nearly died.
Not only are fertility treatments invasive, degrading, violating, heartbreaking and not guaranteed to work – they are also expensive. We paid almost £70,000 in total over the course of our treatments for me to nearly die. We have no baby. We are left with only physical and emotional scars as our memory of trying to start a family. I close the door on trying with 11 miscarriages, 3 failed IUIs, 4 failed IVFs and a near death ovarian ectopic pregnancy over the course of 6 long years.
Some people say ‘don’t give up’ or ‘try x,y and z’. I’d like to say I am not giving up, we just can’t do this any more. 80% of people get pregnant naturally within 1 year of trying -so we’ve already chosen to do much, much more than an average couple trying to conceive. I turn 34 soon and I know that if having a baby hasn’t worked from the ages of 27-33, the likelihood of it working in my mid to late 30s is virtually nil. There comes a point where our own mental and physical health is more important.
I am still left with the questions of why? Why me? Why am I infertile? Why did this happen to me? I’ll never know the answers to my questions, I can only learn to accept in time that it just wasn’t meant to be.
I’m sorry to write an essay. I hope I’ve raised some awareness, I hope I’ve managed to talk sensitively about a topic which is often taboo, I hope if you’re childless (by choice or not), you know you are still seen, still worthy, still a complete human despite society’s often narrow minded, family focused narrative. And mostly, I hope if you’re in the midst of struggling you know you’re not alone.
I’ll be all about the travel again from next week, and am looking forward to a 2022 focused on adventures rather than clinic trips. Stay safe everyone.