Our lucky stars

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Chorionic villus sampling (CVS) involves removing and testing a small sample of cells from the placenta. It is carried out between 11 and 14 weeks of pregnancy and involves a needle being inserted through your tummy. There is a slightly higher risk of miscarriage with CVS as opposed to amniocentesis, but that is carried out at a slightly later stage of pregnancy. In terms of statistics, 1-2% women suffer a loss after CVS, so 1 in every 50-100. However, it is widely accepted that it is difficult to prove whether a miscarriage is a direct result of CVS or would have happened anyway. Bottom line, it happens.

There’s also a risk of infection, as with any procedure, or getting an inadequate sample and having to go through it again.

An agonising decision and one that we would have to live with afterwards. After so many years of trying to get pregnant, we could now be jeopardising everything. It was not something we undertook lightly. But weighing it up, we decided we needed to find out. The risk is real but relatively small when you think about it with a clear head and we would have found it impossible just to wait and see.

True to form, once we had made up our minds, I was quite sanguine about having the test itself. It helped that the surgeon was a top expert in the field with incredibly high success rates. He was just really matter of fact with us. He told us that the thresholds for what is deemed ‘high risk’ are always changing and looking at my notes, he reassured us that, in his opinion, it was my ‘great age’ that pushed us into the danger zone. That made me feel a hell of a lot better because I was a pretty fit and active 34 year old with a healthy diet and lifestyle and surely that had to count for something? Anyway, his manner put us at ease. He was confident and reassuring which is exactly what we needed.

They clean your stomach with antiseptic and give you a local anaesthetic before sticking a long thin needle into you with a kind of grabber (syringe) at the end of it. They guide it using ultrasound and it’s fascinating to watch until the thought flashes through your mind that that needle is heading directly for your baby. Like watching Jaws.

In a way, I think it was worse for T who told me afterwards there was blood streaming down all over my belly throughout the procedure. My eyes were glued to the screen watching what was going on, so I didn’t really notice or think about that side of thing as I couldn’t feel it either.

For two days afterwards, they advise you to do nothing and take it easy, with no strenuous activity for the next couple of weeks. I remember it was a really sunny week in April. So I lay in the garden on a lounger whilst T trimmed the hedge and cleaned the windows on the greenhouse. I was so incredibly careful over that time and followed all the advice not to over-exert myself. It almost felt over the top, like not carrying the grocery shopping in from the car, but we weren’t taking any chances.

Another wait. We thought we had got the hardest wait out of the way but this wait was huge, hanging over everything we did. As the sample needed to be sent to Bristol for testing, it would take several days. I think we were told one to two weeks. I remember visualising it being put in van, driven up the M5, getting to the lab…

I was back at work when the phonecall came. I took it outside. I remember standing on the grassy bank, phone sweaty in my hands, heart pounding, as I was told that we had the all clear. No Down’s syndrome, no Edward’s syndrome no Patau’s syndrome. It’s hard to describe the sheer feeling of overwhelming relief.

But, at this point, we were still in the danger zone for miscarriage. Then the two week milestone came and went. All was well and an enormous weight lifted. Joy and love. We thanked our lucky stars again and again.

It took a long while for me to relax and enjoy being pregnant, but I got there.

We never took what we have for granted.

The silver lining to the whole experience was that, just three months in, we found out that we were going to have a daughter.

The first three months

FullSizeRenderI found the first few weeks of pregnancy difficult. I felt sick all the time and threw up several times a day, particularly in the morning. I felt terrible and completely lost my appetite. I’ve never been pregnant before so I don’t know, but I wonder whether the 12 weeks of pessaries had something to do with it? Hormones going haywire. I also started to lose my hair. A 50 pence size chunk fell out at the back. Again, this is a possible side effect of the pessaries, but I’ve also got form here. Whenever I experience a stressful time, my body responds by getting alopecia. I’ve had it three times before.

But I would have put up with anything! In the great scheme of things, it was nothing. I could hide the bald patch and just accepted, for the foreseeable, that I would look and feel pretty rough. I forced myself to chomp ginger biscuits and drink lots of ginger tea. I always had a dry oatcake or a handful of nuts on the go to fight nausea. Thank god, I didn’t have morning sickness as badly as some people I know who have been completely incapacitated. It wasn’t a barrel of laughs but it was a very small price to pay for our baby. A good pick-me-up after a bout of sickness was to remind myself that at last I was pregnant, and hug that happy secret to myself.

At seven weeks, we went in for an early scan to check everything was okay. And it was. Unbelievably lovely to be going to the hospital for some good news for a change. We had our first ultrasound and saw our baby the size of a blueberry. Our first special glimpse of a tiny heartbeat pulsing away inside me.

And that was it. Big tick. Job done. We were officially released from the Ocean Suite and handed over to antenatal care.

When we started IUI, I bit the bullet and told my boss at work what was happening as I knew I’d be skipping out for hospital appointments. We also told our parents. After so long keeping it to ourselves, we found it really hard, me especially, but it had to be done. I cried when I told my Mum. I think I felt that by sharing our secret we were admitting out loud that we were a disappointment. But I had to get over it and, of course, everyone was great. Really supportive and positive. We should have done it ages ago.

We also told our parents the happy news at seven weeks, after the first scan. I was worried it was too early, not out of the danger zone yet. But as T pointed out, we took the decision to let them in six months ago, but asked them not to keep asking us how it was all going as it would add to the pressure and make it harder to handle. We would let them know when there was something to tell. They must have been waiting and wondering, dying to find out what was happening but respecting our wishes to give us our space and privacy.

At three months, everything was looking rosy. My sickness tailed off (pretty much exactly after I took my last pessary, I wasn’t sad to see the back of those) and we went in for the 12-week scan. This is the first in depth look at your growing baby and assesses the early development in the womb.

I remember it vividly. Of all our experiences, this is the one that has stayed with me the most. It was picture perfect. Just as you see it on the movies, jelly on the belly, beautiful baby wriggling inside me. Two arms, two legs. Strong heartbeat. The nurse getting our details, putting in measurements and stats. All looking happy and healthy. T sitting next to me, both of us smiling and laughing, loving the moment.

Then, the nurse went quiet and pressed, I kid you not, a red alarm button on the wall. It all stopped abruptly. A phone call was made that really put the wind up us. We were taken into a separate room, sat down, and somebody new appeared (the bad news breaker). We were told that our baby was at high risk of Downs Syndrome. We had three options and this is how they laid them out to us. 1) Have an abortion. 2) Do nothing. 3) Have a test to find out the DNA, this would be either amniocentesis or Chorionic villus sampling (CVS), but the tests come with the risk of a miscarriage.

It felt brutal, and it hit me really hard. It was the way they told us more than anything. Red alarm. Hustled into the bad news chamber. Abortion was the first thing they said to us. Looking back, it seemed to designed to maximise upset and panic, not reassure us. I guess they have to be careful not to give false hope, but to two people, who had already been through a lot to get to this point, we found the bedside manner somewhat wanting.

For the first time, after all the tests and treatments I had been through, I was in too much of a mess to go back to work. I remember just crying, sitting crying and crying in my car. Unable to pull myself together and go into the house. Life was brought into a sharp reality. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. It felt too cruel and just for a bit I let rip with the self pity.

But I did sort myself out and later on that day we phoned the hospital and booked in for CVS. We were both on the same page. After everything, we couldn’t not know. We needed to find out the facts.

Counting chickens

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Round two and the beginning of a new year. This time, the Ocean Suite got us in nice and early on day three of my cycle. I had the ultrasound, and hallelujah, we got the green light. We started FSH, according to my plan. Not counting chickens just yet, but on day eight we went in for another scan and it was still looking good. We were given the dose and exact timings for Pregnyl to dovetail with the treatment itself, booked two days after that.

How did we feel? Well, we came out of the hospital looking at each other and thanking our lucky stars. Relieved. Thankful. At long last we were going to get a shot a this. Excited and hopeful, but wary too, trying to rein it in, keep it calm and under control, just in case something went wrong.

Day ten dawned. Sample time at 12.30, IUI time at 14.00. You lie down, legs apart and the nurse name checks to be certain she’s popping the right sample up there. It took less than a minute. I barely felt a thing. Afterwards, and we’ll never forget this as it still makes us giggle, she was really confident it all went well and told us she didn’t spill a drop! How often do they spill the sperm?! I was then encouraged to lie back and ‘relax’ with a cup of tea and a biscuit. And that’s it. After all the build up, the actual deed itself was pretty non-eventful.

Roll on the mother of all waits. Two weeks to find out whether you are pregnant. Trying to switch off and act normal so you don’t drive yourselves crazy, but on high alert, searching and analysing your body for signs. We had the nurse’s positive remarks ringing in our ears. You try not to put your faith into a throwaway comment but it’s hard not to think about it. Keep busy! We went to Dartmoor for a wintry walk in the snow and a pub lunch over the middle weekend as part of our distraction technique.

The hospital warns you not to be tempted and try an early test as you won’t get a true result. We played by the rules. Part of me was wishing the time away, dying just to find out one way or the other, but the other part went into full procrastination/superstitious mode. At last there was a real chance I could actually be pregnant and I didn’t want to burst that bubble. I didn’t want to tempt fate.

In terms of possible early signs, the only thing I noticed was that a couple of days after the IUI my nipples went bobbly, or more accurately my areole. I showed T. Of course, we instantly googled it – I defy anyone in our situation to have the will power not to! We discovered that you can get what are called Montgomery’s tubercles and they are often an early clue of a first pregnancy… or it could be a false alarm.

The moment of truth. As you would expect, I’ve done a number pregnancy tests over the years. All negative. All blows. Some with T’s knowledge, some I didn’t tell him about so I didn’t get his hopes up too.

We remember exactly where we were standing when we found out. In front of the window on the landing, looking out over the back garden.

It was positive. A beautiful blue cross instead of a line. Both of us kept checking it was still there. T revealed to me later he took photographic proof.

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No further words required. Suffice it to say the nurse was right to be optimistic.

But we weren’t quite out of the woods yet.

 

And so it begins

FullSizeRenderThe way IUI works is that they take over your natural cycle so they can control exactly when you ovulate. You close down your system with one drug, Buserelin, and super stimulate your ovaries with a Follicle Stimulating Hormone, Menopur. Then, there’s Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG), the one I was given was Pregnyl, and you store it in the fridge. This drug completes the development of your eggs and triggers them for release. Lastly, there’s lots of lovely pessaries up until your pregnancy test, and for 12 weeks after the deed, if it is successful.

So, if all goes to plan, more eggs, and their release is timed exactly with the placement of a washed sperm sample (something the man in your life makes earlier). The best of his best are parachuted in right next to your eggs at the optimum moment, cutting out the need for the sperm to travel any distance, and, ultimately, upping your chances of getting pregnant.

There are a lot of injections to get your head around. We were invited to attend a workshop where you practise mixing up the various drugs, flicking the syringe to get rid of any lethal air bubbles and then stabbing these concoctions into a fake thigh you strap onto your leg. Both of you have the chance to try it. Several times. There are handouts. I took lots of notes. It’s something you don’t want to bugger up.

And it’s another surreal experience. Emotionally charged. Full of tense couples making awkward conversation with each other as you sit at a little table amidst the phials and sharps boxes. Practising something that is meant to be deeply intimate in front of strangers. Small talk is forced in an enclosed hot hospital room. Some people try to break the ice with the odd jokey (who knows?) comment. You put a lot of pressure on yourself to get it right. You feel clumsy and ill equipped to manage on your own and scared about what will happen if you can’t do it properly. It feels quite overwhelming. At one point, it all became to much for one woman who ran out in tears. It is hard. It brings it home.  Everyone is going through the same shit, or worse.

I managed the injections okay. When push came to shove, I wanted to do it my myself but I know plenty of people who got their partners to stick it in them (so to speak). It’s personal preference, and like everything, you just do what feels right for you. T did help me mix up the drugs though, especially at the beginning, as I was paranoid about air bubbles, and another pair of hands does take the pressure off a bit. You have to take them at different times of the day and you just work it around your schedule. The more you do it, the more confident you become about what you are doing. I used to work away in London a couple of days most weeks, and it was fine, with a bit of preparation.

After six days, we were called in for a vaginal ultrasound to scan and measure the follicles, check how it was all going, and find out whether we were on track.

We sat in the waiting room at the Ocean Suite, and I remember an episode of Doctors was on the TV. The story was about a couple who weren’t sure whether they were ready to have a baby so were given a crying dolly to look after. You really couldn’t make it up!

Our first round of IUI was abandoned. It didn’t work. By the time, we had our check up, I’d already ovulated. My body had responded super fast to the drugs. Nothing more to be said. The ship had sailed. Crushing disappointment – we hadn’t even made it to the money shot. Cue the long wait until you can try again. You aren’t allowed to keep doing the treatments one after another. You need to have a natural cycle in between to allow your body to recover. Then, we found out the Ocean Suite was closing for refurbishment for four weeks. Then, it was Christmas. All in all, it was about a three month wait until we could go in for round two.