**Disclaimer** This long overdue post will contain these words: sperm, infertility, ovulation, embryos, eggs, uterus, follicles and of course... vagina. (Andrew's Note: Ew.) If we were your former teachers, or friends and references to bodily issues bothers you, I recommend staring at the above picture. It's happy isn't it? Makes it seem like getting pregnant is just a piece of cake.
Here is our story:
In our first seven years of marriage, Andrew and I got our fair share of questions from overly inquisitive colleagues and friends as to why we hadn't had kids yet. Our standard response was that we loved our jobs and our "band kids" were our kids. And it was true! How the heck could we have been good parents when putting in the night and weekend hours we did with our respective jobs? When we had kids, we wanted me to be able to stay home full time to raise them. That was one big component in our decision to move to Saudi Arabia, I would be easily able to stay home and raise kids without any financial strain. Win-win right?
After 9 months of no success with trying to get pregnant, my OB/GYN suggested an extensive round of testing for both myself and Andrew. Mine came back perfectly fine. A few weeks later, right around the time we came back to the USA for Christmas, we received some initially devastating news: Andrew has a sperm count of zero - a condition known as "azoospermia". I cannot begin to describe how completely, heart-wrenchingly devastating hearing this news was. At this point in our process, we didn't know what the cause of the "no-sperm" diagnosis was. Is it curable? Are there sperm inside but just aren't making it out? Can surgery fix it?
So many, many questions. We went from being those people who were looking forward to being parents to being told flat out by multiple doctors:
"You will NEVER be able to conceive naturally".
This was our emotional state when we arrived to Houston at Christmas. At this point, we hadn't told anyone, we were just trying to get our heads and emotions around such devastating news. To make matters harder, when I visited the place I used to work, I had 8 different colleagues ask my when we were going to have kids, why we hadn't had kids yet, or what was taking us so long to have kids. I know they weren't trying to be insensitive, but each of those comments was really hard to keep smiling through. If there is one major thing I've learned from this infertility journey, it is that I will never ever ask a couple when they will have kids. None of us really knows each other's stories. Some couples don't have a happy ending like we did, some couples try for years to conceive, unless they confide in me with their story, I will never ask probing questions again!
When we came back to Saudi Arabia after Christmas, we started talking to our doctors about our options. Doctor's did more extensive scans of Andrew and we found out that he had an unexplained blockage on both sides of his body preventing sperm from moving in the correct direction. (I had hernia surgery a few years ago...we thought it might be from that, but it wasn't.) And while we still didn't know if there were sperm in his body, this news was good because it pointed us in the direction of what was next.
If you had asked me 5 months ago what I.V.F. was, I would have had to googled the term. (Hint: It's not International Video Federation. Well, it is, but choose the first few options on Google, don't scroll down too far.)
Suddenly all our doctors were telling us that our only option to achieve pregnancy was to use IVF with ICSI. (Not the Institute of Company Secretaries of India in this case, although that is the first Google entry.)
IVF is in-vitro fertilization. This is when an eggs are removed from the female body and put together in a petri dish with lots of sperm to achieve fertilization. Once fertilized, the newly formed embryo(s) is/are placed back inside the female uterus to begin growing. ICSI is a specialized procedure for patients like us with severe male infertility where instead of just lumping eggs and lots of sperm together, an individual sperm is injected with a very tiny needle into an individual egg. This ensures a higher success rate of an embryo forming when the male's sperm are an issue. This whole process is outrageously expensive, costing (in the USA) anywhere between $18,000-$30,000 per procedure. Overseas, it is significantly cheaper, and some countries even include it as a free benefit for infertile couples! Thank goodness for it being cheaper over here!
As you can imagine, this was overwhelming to us. Compounding the problem was that Aramco medical covers all the medicine for IVF, but they don't perform the actual procedure. There are places in Saudi that do IVF, but when looking for an IVF clinic, you have to look at their success rates for live births. We started searching, and narrowed it down to Dubai, United Arab Emirates or Doha, Qatar. Both locations are very close by and are an easy and cheap plane flight, additionally, the costs compared to IVF in the USA were downright cheap. We ended up choosing Dubai and Fakih IVF clinic. The success rates are incredibly high for someone my age (60-65% success), most clinics in the USA average a 30% success rate! They specialize in male infertility. I called hoping to get in with in the next year or so. They said they had an opening in 2 weeks, near the end of February! Wow!!
So we flew into Dubai for the day at the end of February. We were told we were excellent candidates for IVF with ICSI due to how young I am. They then told Andrew they could check to see if he had sperm right then and remove them that day if he was interested, preventing him from having to fly back to Dubai at another time. ("If I'm interested" is not the right term here.) After a swipe of the credit card he was whisked off to the operating room for a supposedly painless procedure. This was a scary moment for both of us because we still didn't know if there were actually sperm inside, we just knew there was a blockage.
("Supposedly painless" is also ridiculous. The anesthesiologist didn't want to give me too much juice because I had no choice but to drive us the hour and a half from Bahrain back to Ras Tanura that evening. Wouldn't want a lady behind the wheel -that's haram, of course. Anyway, not much anesthesia + big needles + rough handling = OW.)
After an hour or so, I got a call to the back where the Dr. Fakih met me in the hallway and announced that they found lots of very very active sperm!!!! All the nurses clapped and hugged me! It was the first positive news we had received in a few months! This meant they would freeze his sperm for later use with my eggs. We were thrilled! We could have our own kids without having to consider using a sperm donor or adoption! We had nothing against these options, but to be able to conceive and raise your own flesh and blood was what Andrew and I most desired.
We flew back to Saudi, Andrew with ice between his legs, (Seriously.) and had another appointment with Aramco's top infertility speciality. We gave her the list of medications we needed, about $2500 total, and she gave use a brown paper sack filled with fertility drugs to stimulate my ovaries to make lots of eggs at once. Free medical coverage and prescriptions is a BEAUTIFUL THING. Also, nurses taught Andrew how to give me injections in my stomach.
|This isn't everything BTW. There are about five more stacks of the "Cyclogest" not pictured here.|
These hormones injected into my body on a nightly basis for a few weeks do quite a number on your body. Women have all sort of side effects from the sudden increase of synthetic hormones being pumped into their bodies. I was no different. I would cry at the stupidest commercials on TV. (NO MORE SARAH MCLAUGHLIN!) It was lame. Poor Andrew had to deal with me as well as stab me with a GINORMOUS needle everyday. (That actually was therapeutic at times.) My stomach began to look like a pin cushion, little red dots all over the place and one or two bruises.
|Here is one of the needles. You load it everyday with new medicine. |
Yeah.... my first thought when I saw it was "Holy S&*#!"
|The other type of needle. On the first injection I had to tell him not to close his eyes. |
Also, my flat stomach.... that changed pretty quickly BTW.
So lots of injections to stimulate my ovaries to produce lots of eggs. During this time I was also undergoing blood tests to check hormone levels and ultrasounds to check the growth rate of the follicles/eggs every couple of days. Aramco refused to supervise these tests, so I had to go to a local Saudi hospital, one of the most opulent hospitals I've ever seen, and get blood tests/ultrasounds. Not being local citizen of Saudi Arabia made enrolling in one of their hospitals one of the most comical things I've ever done. No joke: I literally walked up to a radiologist and talked him into giving a few ultrasounds. I also found a random doctor in the building and talked him into scheduling a few blood tests for me. There are definite perks of not being in the USA when you need something, referrals are for chumps, people. I would then email the results of each scan and test to the clinic in Dubai.
Everything was growing perfectly. My stomach started to swell just a bit, indicating growth of follicles which held a (hopefully!) large number of eggs. After a few weeks, I flew to Dubai to have my eggs harvested and fertilized! (Alone, sadly. I'm not allowed take days off for things like this - she was AMAZING for doing this basically by herself. Think about doing this alone in your normal home country, and she did it in not only a foreign country, but an unfamiliar city. (!!!))
I contacted a former colleague from Houston Christian High School, Shirly Ralston, who used to live in Dubai and she hooked me up with her good friends, Julie and Brad Edlington, to stay with during my stay in Dubai. This couple and their daughters were amazing to me, taking a complete stranger in and praying with me before and after treatments, driving me to and from the clinic. Brad even bought me a pregnancy magazine after one of my procedures! (God bless you guys - we'll never be able to thank you enough!!)
The timing of these treatments in Dubai when your egg harvest was critical. IVF patients give themselves one last "trigger shot" which makes the eggs fully mature and release from the follicles. Doctors have about a 4 hours window to harvest the eggs in a surgical procedure. The night of my trigger shot, 10 minutes before I was supposed to inject myself, I noticed something was wrong with the injection. It didn't look right. At 7 PM, I called the clinic and was told to immediately rush in so they could inject me with a replacement trigger shot. I had to get a taxi across downtown Dubai, it was stressful and scary and not having Andrew with me made it worse. The timing is so crucial that I could have lost ALL the eggs if I didn't get the trigger shot at the right time. Compounding my problems was that I had severely cut myself on one of the medicine vials, so me and my profusely bleeding hand sped towards the IVF clinic in a taxi. Luckily, they gave me another trigger shot, and pushed my surgery the next morning back about 30 minutes. All was okay, except for my hand. I still have a gross scar.
|All by myself ready to have my eggs harvested. |
You can't see it, but I am in a lot of pain from how swollen my stomach is with lots of follicles.
|Trying to be positive! Hoping for lots of high quality eggs! (You look like Wolverine.)|
|Those pesky nurses took a pic with my phone when I was out. (BAHAHAHA!!)|
I woke up from my egg harvesting and was told INCREDIBLE news, they had harvested 25 eggs!!! 25!!!! Holy frik! This is great news because it means we could freeze extras for another round of IVF to try to have more kids in the future. Wow!! Prayers answered!!
The embryologists at the clinic would then take my eggs, and Andrew's thawed sperm, and individually inject a certain number of eggs with sperm. The embryos, as they are now called, are allowed to grow in a very special environment for EITHER 3 days OR 5 days. I was with Julie and Brad at the Dubai Mall when I got a call from the clinic on day 3, "come in within the hour, we are going to implant the embryos into you"!!
Can I just say how weird it is to be told.... "come over in 20 minutes so that we can impregnate you".
There are just no words.
We raced to the clinic both excited and terrified. It was so nice to have new friends with me as Andrew was not allowed to take off work to come and see me "become" pregnant. Julie and Brad were just as excited as me, I think they will be pseudo-grandparents to this baby forever because of the way they helped and supported me!
|This is my last few moments not being pregnant. I was so excited and scared!|
|As ready as I can be to get embryos put back into me!|
|Beautiful Julie was there through the enitre proceudre ! (Yaaaaaay Julie!!)|
This procedure I was awake for, which was mildly humiliating as a large group of people: nurses, doctors, embryologists, were there to not only see me become pregnant, but also to see everything from my waist down. ( >:-0 ) You lose all sense of dignity with IVF. Trans-vaginal ultrasound? I've had 8 of those. People I don't know sticking my future babies up me while I'm in stirrups, mostly uncovered on an operating table? Bring it on. Also comical is the amount of times they ask you your name and your husband's name. Allison Redmon? Are you Allison Redmon?? Me: Yes. And your husband is Andrew Redmon? What you don't want them to say is that your husband's name is Ahmed Zalwhari. That's bad. 9 months later your children will have very black hair.
Despite the utter lack of dignity, seeing the beginnings of life being transferred to your body and knowing the exact moment you become pregnant is a pretty FREAKING INCREDIBLE EXPERIENCE. Also, I love being able to say that we didn't actually have sex to get pregnant. Ha! ( >:-0 )
And guess what, I have a short video of the 3 embryos being transferred and me becoming pregnant!!! Thanks Julie for shooting the video on my iPhone and keeping the video very very G rated, as believe me, from my end, it wasn't!
Brief explanation of what you'll see in the video.
You will see a screen with 3 embryos, then a large needle suck up the embryos. Then the camera swings to another screen where the needle/catheter is put up into my uterus (you'll see a very very tiny white movement on the screen).
If you listen REALLY CAREFULLY, you'll hear Dr. Fakih say, "and now your pregnant!!"
After the procedure they make you lay flat for 30 minutes and they give you your first picture of your embryos.
|See that little white spot? That's our embryos! We are pregnant!|
Now, before your freak out and ask if we are having triplets.... we aren't. (Sorry, Sandra, Patricia, and Elizabeth :-). The chances of triplets is 5% with implanting 3 embryos The big thing at this point is that the embryo has to attach to the uterine wall, if it doesn't, the pregnancy isn't viable and it just comes out, as would happen naturally. Each women who does this has to wait an excruciating 2 weeks until being able to test to see if she is 'actually' pregnant. It's the worst two weeks of your life as you are already exhibiting signs of pregnancy due to the insane amount of hormones you've been injecting into yourself. Additionally, you're dealing with the side effects of the hormones. A swollen belly is one... check out my belly 5 days after this procedure. Most women don't look like this until 20 weeks pregnant! It was painful!
|Swollen IVF belly. |
I am pregnant here, but this isn't a pregnancy related belly.
After two weeks we had a blood test and got some pretty awesome news! We were pregnant!!! Here is the at home test we took.
|Best looking blue lines I've ever seen!|
We found out a few weeks later that one embryo had survived! Pregnant with one, how blessed are we! Such a huge huge answer to all our prayers!
|Somebody, cough... Andrew, had something to do with this board. (I did no such thing)|
By the way, my tiny belly is leftover from IVF, that still isn't a preggo belly.
We went in for our usual appointment and everything check out normal. Got a great shot of the little thingie:
|This is 8 hours before I was put on bed rest. |
I don't like this picture too much.
We went home devastated. Not having control over your own body is infuriating, on top of the fact that we had already gone through so so much to get to this point. Were we really going to miscarry? We began praying. We texted our family to pray. They texted their friends to pray. When we are powerless God is powerful. We prayed for a miracle.
I continued to bleed and spot for 2 more weeks, but stayed on modified bed rest. I could get up to use the bathroom and shower, but stuck to the couch most of the rest of the time. Bleeding continued, but it was a good kind of bleeding, old blood, not new blood. Every time I moved I feared another huge gush of blood. Living your life in constant worry and fear sucks. 5 days after the blood gush, we had another more detailed ultra sound, and the heart beat was still there. Again, thank you God. We are blessed.
My birthday had all my friends come to our house where we celebrated with me on the couch. Andrew made Thai food.
|Bed rest sucks. Birthday pie doesn't!|
And now we are mostly caught up to the present. 2 weeks ago I miraculously stopped bleeding! But I developed the first urinary tract infection, evidently pretty common in pregnancy. Lots of drugs later it seemed like it was better. Then it came back, even worse, and I had to have a permanent IV placed in my arm with nightly visits to the ER for IV antibiotics for 7 days.
|Me and my 7-night standing date with the ER. (Candy Crush time!)|
Here is a 7 second video of one feisty little bean at 11 weeks,
notice how he/she punches and kicks!!
|11 weeks! |
I see at least 1 leg.
So we are now 12 weeks and I am feeling great. As long as I can get in an average of 2 naps a day, I'm a happy camper. (So then not much different from before.) Andrew has been a trooper through this whole insane process, I love him and really hope this bean gets his uniqueness! (I have to add here that, while I so appreciate that, it's ridiculous. I have done NOTHING here - you did all the work, all the physical pain, and a huge part of the emotional turmoil. Stuff like this really shows what a person is made of and I could not be more proud of you - you're a brave, amazing girl.)
I hope we haven't offended or grossed you out too much with how detailed we were about this whole process. As soon as we realized how large the infertility community is, especially online, we realized how sad it is that our society rarely talks about this aspect of reproduction. It's like it's taboo. Which is sad because it makes people like us feel like we are so alone in the process. Then we get online and realize, infertility.... both male and female.... affects a huge percentage of couples! Getting pregnant is truly a miracle! We hope our story will help someone else know there can be hope.
We are also so thankful to be living in Saudi Arabia and working for Saudi Aramco right now. If we had gotten this new when we lived in Houston with our previous jobs, we would not have been able to afford to do IVF and would be talking adoption or going into serious debt. In addition, we just found out last week that our health insurance through Aramco is covering almost 80% of all our IVF bills! WWWWOOOWWWW!!!! We got the check this week! Again, we feel so blessed and realized this is a huge confirmation for us moving overseas. I really believe this is a big reason why God had us uproot our lives.
Pray with us that this pregnancy will continue to be safe. Living overseas means lots of travel! Pray our little bean grows strong and healthy and that no more bleeding occurs. And thanks for reading if you've made it this far! Thanks also to the many of you who prayed for us, we literally felt a sense of peace come over use going into appointments. We know that type of peace only comes from God, and we are thankful for so many of you who prayed for us and prayed for us to have a sense of peace.
More updates to come! Little bean is due December 17th and will be born in Saudi Arabia!