PART ONE: One journey ends, another begins
I was lying on my back, legs spread wide with feet in the stirrups, feeling the goose bumps multiply on my legs and wondering what was taking so long.
The doctor was slowly moving the ultrasound wand back and forth inside me without saying a word. Seconds passed. Then minutes.
He had that puzzled look on his face, the kind you get when you are trying to find something you’ve misplaced.
I didn’t know what was up.
I continued watching the same small blurry green monitor the doctor was staring at. To me, the image looked like the inside of the lint trap in my clothes dryer.
What was taking him so long?
There was obviously a baby inside me. I’d been feeling seasick for weeks, ever since the pregnancy test stick came back with two pink lines.
Then again, I was pretty ignorant about female reproduction, even my own. I had glossed over those pages in my high school biology class — the Krebs cycle, the menstrual cycle, who could keep the cycles straight?
I watched sex education films in junior high school and truly believed periods happened to other girls. I grew into a woman who knew about choice and knew what she wanted to choose.
Raised in a shack of a house on Long Island, N.Y., by poor parents who scraped by with four kids, I believed it was kids who made the difference between the good life and feeding the family fried-eggplant sandwiches for dinner.
So early on, I decided I would choose financial stability first, and children later. I took the career path. I picked journalism. What’s more stable than a daily newspaper? (Well, a lot, but that’s a different story.)
My choice took me to Spokane for my first real job. Then, after 10 years of reporting, I got the itch for a change. I wanted something more. Maybe that was my body sending me clues that it was time to reproduce. But instead of looking for some good DNA, I returned to school and switched careers.
That meant putting children on hold. Again. Wasn’t that really the right thing to do? I reasoned. After all, I needed to feel satisfied with my career goals, or risk wreaking my regret upon a child.
I also needed to find the right husband and father. Someone like Peter Verhey — the perfect man, really. The kind of guy who you could take shopping, but one who also could rewire the kitchen.
All of this career pursuing, career switching and right man finding took time.
There was plenty of time.
It never occurred to me that waiting would interfere with reproduction.
Lots of women in their 40s get pregnant, and I was just going to be one of those.
That’s the way I figured it.
I had nearly lost my patience with the silent treatment the doctor was giving me and was about to ask, “What’s up, doc?” to break the ice, when he finally spoke up.
He couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat.
So I said, “And that’s bad, right?”
Sit up, he told me.
He helped the nurse wheel the machine away, promised he would be right back and left the room.
I was confused. Stunned, really. I must have looked like Wile E. Coyote after chasing the Road Runner over a cliff and suddenly finding himself dangling in midair, legs wheeling.
I turned to look at Peter. “What the hell just happened,” I asked?
As a biologist, Peter is my resource in these matters. Sometimes that’s frustrating, especially when I need comfort, not calculations. He’s a rock-hard pragmatist with an analytical way of looking at things.
This time, Peter stammered for something to say and looked worried. I wasn’t sure if he was worried for himself or for me. He looked as if someone had died.
The doctor returned and started talking, carefully choosing his words. I tried to follow it all.
In women 35 and older, miscarriages happen, and at higher rates the older a woman gets, the doctor said. It was no fault of mine … nature sometimes intervenes … something about my body rejecting this baby naturally … surgery … abortion.
Wasn’t I just pregnant?
A few minutes ago, we’d been figuring out baby names, piano lessons and the kid’s first tricycle.
Peter and I had been trying to get pregnant for more than a year. Just a few weeks earlier, on Independence Day 2000, we’d been sitting on a grassy knoll in Mount Vernon watching fireworks when I told him the news. Now the doctor was telling me this baby was gone, and I had to prepare to have it removed.
I dressed. Peter walked me out to my car. I had to get back to work. I had a story to cover. I shed a few tears in the parking lot, but I thought we’d just get pregnant again. This was just a sad delay.
I soon found out how wrong I was about that, too.
PART 2: Let the treatment begin
Go home, drink a glass of wine and have sex within the next 24 hours.
That was the nurse’s unusual prescription during our first visit after starting hormone drug therapy.
During that visit, it became clear to me that Peter and I now would have our most intimate moments regulated by visits to the doctor.
There was no other choice if I still wanted to get pregnant. We’d been trying for more than a year, but I’d lost the baby in the first few weeks when I finally did get pregnant.
We decided to get more aggressive and use fertility drugs. With every passing minute, I was growing more frustrated that the pregnancy wasn’t coming quicker. If only I’d tried to get pregnant when I first met Peter, things might have been different. I didn’t really understand then that the rush was already on.
When we first met, I was headlong into my 30s and in the middle of my second career. I didn’t immediately think of babies. I was in love, for the first time finally and truly. The two of us were having fun, taking trips, buying things. We also had our life together to get in order.
I’d left journalism a few years earlier and had come to miss writing, the adrenaline rush of deadlines, the creativity. I wanted to get back in, but that took a certain amount of coordination because I needed a reporting job near a river, specifically the Columbia River, where Pete worked studying salmon.
We compromised on Hermiston, Ore.
We bought a beautiful house by the Columbia River and brought a Pembroke Welsh corgi puppy named Angus into the family. We swam in our pool. I wrote for the local paper.
About two years went by, and we wanted a baby. We tried and tried, but I couldn’t get pregnant.
Then, after 10 years watching the same fish, Peter began looking for new challenges. And after three years in Hermiston, I desperately wanted out of the windblown desert of eastern Oregon, or, as I liked to call it, the surface of Mars.
We sold our house. Peter got a job with the state. I finally got pregnant.
I told Peter the good news on July 4, 2000. By the end of the month, the doctor had performed an abortion to remove the 8-week-old fetus, whose heartbeat had stopped.
Afterward, Peter and I met with the doctor for the “what happens now” talk. It focused on older women and my aging egg reserve. The doctor talked about the various tests women could take to see if they have any good eggs left. The doctor recommended we take that course.
It sounded like a lot of blood tests to me. I also wondered if I would be strong enough to bear the results if they turned out to be bad. (Sorry lady, you’re out of Grade AA eggs.) As my mind began to wander with the possibilities of what was ahead, I heard the doctor say three magic words: “take-home baby.”
That got my attention.
Take-home baby. That’s what couples ultimately want, of course, no matter what path they take to get there. Just because a woman gets pregnant, that doesn’t mean a couple will have a baby whom they can take home from the hospital.
So, at that meeting, Peter and I decided to achieve that take-home baby.
I took my first blood test to see whether I had any good eggs left. I scored positive. I was cleared to take Clomid.
The race was on.
Clomid was dispensed in tiny 50-milligram pills that I took once a day for five days in a row. The pills tell your body that not enough estrogen, the female hormone, is being produced.
When the brain hears that, it alerts your body to make more follicle-stimulating hormone, or FSH. This spurs the growth of eggs.
Clomid comes with side effects. I steered clear of most of the physical symptoms such as dizziness, bloating and nausea.
Unfortunately, I made up for that in mood swings. Actually, I swung into one mood and stayed there: I felt angry all the time. Really angry. Like premenstrual syndrome with road rage.
I was not winning the Miss Congeniality award from my co-workers. At home, I invoked the clause of the marriage contract that specifies the “or worse” part.
After my first five days on Clomid, I went back to my doctor so he could check how mature my eggs were.
The doctor measured one at an impressive 20 milliliters.
Now I was ready for a shot of human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG. The hormone stimulates the eggs to release, thus ensuring ovulation. The key to this treatment, of course, is that the egg meets up with some sperm.
They met up, all right. Again and again. But they never really hit it off.
PART 3: The Clomid rollercoaster
Hormone therapy really put a kick in our marriage.
After my first shot, I felt ridiculously emboldened and was ready for Peter to make me pregnant as soon as I left the clinic.
I was also ridiculously naive.
I didn’t realize — until the nurse told me — that the hormone shots to my rear end had to be taken daily for four days. So I had to go back to the clinic for another shot the next day, the day after that and the day after that. I also learned that Clomid treatments weren’t cheap. It would cost $400 for each month I took the drugs and got the shots.
I didn’t care.
I was thinking about the outfit I’d wear to bed that night. When I got back home, I was ready to rumble.
I didn’t know that this was just the beginning of what women have dubbed the “Clomid roller-coaster ride.”
It wasn’t until months of treatment had passed that I figured it out. At the start was a climb and a euphoric rush of confidence. At the top was the thrill of hope before getting the test-stick results.
Then came a gut-wrenching plummet over the brink when the stick failed to reveal two pink lines and I wanted to scream my head off.
That’s the ride Peter and I took.
At the start, I madly drove back and forth from Everett to the doctor’s – 45 minutes one way — to get my shots, making time usually during lunch hour, eating something in the car.
It soon became clear that the added stress of my trips to the clinic was not helping our cause. So Peter, a farm boy who had grown up taking care of livestock, began to give me my shots at home.
That relieved some of the stress, but I still had to make frequent trips to the clinic for ultrasound exams to see if an egg was ready to release, signaling the time to get my shots and have intercourse.
After several Clomid treatments, there were no longer any lacy teddies in bed. During the four days I was ovulating, Peter and I did it with all the frequency, efficiency and romance of porn stars.
Afterward, I’d start climbing on the Clomid roller coaster, clicking off the days from intercourse: one, two, three, sometimes four days. Each day without my period would build my hope: Maybe this time it worked. Maybe this time.
I became obsessed during ovulation. My world revolved around pills, needles and pregnancy test kits.
At one point, I bought a $200 ovulation predictor because I thought I needed a backup to the ultrasound. I went to the drugstore and had to have the predictor THAT DAY.
The pharmacy only had a display model on the shelf. I panicked.
So I took the “display” tag off the box while I waited in line to pay. Great plan. Except when I got home, instead of an ovulation predictor there was a block of wood, placed there to ensure the box didn’t cave in.
In January, I got violently ill, with sneezing, coughing, cold sweats and no appetite. I produced no eggs that month. I had no period. My doctor told me I might be sick. Or it could be the early onset menopause.
I couldn’t believe it. I stayed home from work to cry.
A later blood test revealed that I still had a viable egg reserve, and it was probably my illness that caused my period to stop.
So Peter and I took the doctor’s advice and switched to a new drug, Letrozole. It’s normally used to treat breast cancer, but was also recommended for infertile women who’d had no success with Clomid.
Unlike Clomid, Letrozole didn’t compromise the uterine lining, meaning the lining stayed strong to provide a better chance for the egg to implant.
I liked the idea of a new drug. New meant hope. New meant cutting-edge.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I discovered that our first attempt at Letrozole had failed. My period had arrived.
On top of that, I had a tumor.
The fibroid tumor was discovered on my uterine lining during an ultrasound. The doctor mentioned that tumors during Clomid treatment could happen. He said he was sure it was harmless.
After seven wasted months of fertility treatment and more than $2,800 down the drain, Peter and I would have to try something else. We weren’t getting a take-home baby this way, and I wasn’t getting any younger.
So I lay in bed with my tumor and my period and no baby. I couldn’t sleep.
I saw the infant in my mind’s eye — a boy too young to walk, but still he walked. He was walking away, waving bye-bye.