Building and Overturning an Adults Only Life
Ellisa is a previous coworker of mine. We were both going through our own individual fertility journeys privately, and shared pieces of our stories with one another after finding we were pregnant at the same time. At work I knew Ellisa to be very diplomatic and realistic, which she is highly respected for. These traits served her well in her personal life as well and helped fuel her persistence on her journey to fertility and family.
Ellisa’s fertility journey goes back to her high school days, when her OB told her she would have trouble having kids. She recalled, “at the time I didn’t know what they were talking about, I didn’t ask questions, I was in high school. I never really thought about it until I got married and even then, it was in the back of my mind.” Since the beginning of Ellisa’s menstrual cycles, she experienced painful cramps, as well as intense shoulder pain. Throughout her twenties, Ellisa saw a number of doctors, had smattering of tests and x-rays, but no one was able to pinpoint the problem or suggest a diagnosis. Ellisa took matters into her own hands and started doing a lot of online research. The recurring theme that kept coming up was endometriosis, which is a disorder where the tissue that normally lines a woman’s uterus grows outside of the uterus. She knew this was a possibility, but also knew this was an assumption that could not be validated without a surgical laparoscopy to evaluate her abdomen. Time passed, and Ellisa continued to experience painful menstrual cycles and shoulder pain, but didn’t take further action until her personal life accelerated.
Ellisa met her now husband Steven in her late twenties. They decided to get married and have a destination wedding on a gorgeous beach in Aruba in 2012.
“I got married when I was 30 and Steven was in his mid thirties and I knew we were going to start trying right away. We weren’t trying and we weren’t not trying. We weren’t concerned about [the potential endometriosis] at the time but I did think about it.”
Ellisa and Steven tried to get pregnant for over a year unsuccessfully, and at the one year mark, they sought out an OB and began a fertility assessment, including infertility blood tests, an ultrasound, and an MRI. The MRI revealed a uterine septum, which is a uterine abnormality where a longitudinal septum extends into the uterus and can cause infertility and an increased risk of pregnancy complications. Ellisa recalled, this septum must have been what her OB was referring to many years ago when she told Ellisa it would be difficult for her to have kids.
Taking the advice of the OB, Ellisa and Steven decided to move forward with a surgery to remove the uterine septum. In hindsight, Ellisa wished they hadn’t waited a full year before going in for infertility tests, especially after age 30. But, at this point Ellisa felt okay, she was hopeful that the septum removal would help them get pregnant. Unfortunately, coming out of the septum removal, their OB told them it looked as though Ellisa likely did have endometriosis and recommended they do a subsequent surgery to remove as many of the lesions as possible. Ellisa and Steven agreed, and they moved forward with scheduling the endometriosis removal surgery. They felt like if they could get all these surgeries done, they had a shot at getting pregnant. Ellisa had to be on the pill for 6 months between surgeries to allow the uterus to heal after the septum removal. She told me how devastating this period of her journey was,
“It was frustrating - during this time was when all my friends were having babies. And you’re just impatient. I was so tired of waiting and waiting. I had waited a year before we even attempted to do any of these tests, and now I’m 6 months after that and I still have to endure another surgery. And I’m not even trying because I’m on the pill.”
Eventually, the day came for Ellisa’s endometriosis surgery. They had waited 6 months following the septum removal, and were eager to have the uterine lesions scraped off so they could start trying again. The OB performed a laparoscopy; however, she was unable to scrape away any of the lesions. The OB discovered that Ellisa had stage 4 endometriosis, which meant she had lesions on every organ in her body, not just her reproductive organs. The following week Ellisa and Steven had a post op scheduled with her OB. At the last minute Steven got pulled into a work meeting and Ellisa had to go alone. Her OB told her that getting pregnant with stage 4 endometriosis would be difficult and unlikely. She recommended Ellisa go on a drug called Lupron to treat the symptoms of endometriosis and ultimately reduce the associated pain, but this would not help her get pregnant. Ellisa asked about other options, such as IVF, and her OB told her that in her situation, due to the endometriosis, IVF would most likely fail. Ellisa recalled, “After that I was mad, frustrated and just crushed.” Ellisa recounted her conversation with the OB to Steven. After getting a second opinion with a similar evaluation, Ellisa and Steven decided they needed to try to find a way to be okay with a childless future.
“My mom was my nightly call on my way home from work where I would just cry. She was very supportive, mostly listened. She understood what a heartbreak it was. She was heartbroken for me.”
And so, Steven and Ellisa slowly started to change their mindset and build an adults only life. They bought a house on a lake 45 miles outside the city with plenty of land to ride ATVs and run around with their dog Bella. Ellisa said they decided, “We’re never going to have kids. We are going to live on our dream lake, and who cares if we’re close to anything because we’re never going to have kids. And so we moved out there.” As they continued to build up this new life, Ellisa would say to herself, “Is this it? This is it?”. She still wanted a family - she was trying to make peace with a life without kids, but she wanted more.
“I became really distant from my girlfriends. I stopped going out. I stopped wanting to hang out. Had I made that choice [not to have kids] and wanted that choice my whole feeling about people having kids would have been different. But because you can’t, due to things out of your control, you get very crabby about it.”
During this same time, Ellisa decided to tackle her endometriosis. She was tired of being in pain, and wanted to find a sustainable solution to lessen the pain. She went to acupuncture, saw a naturopath, and changed her diet - she was willing to experiment, try many different schools of thought, and most of all she was persistent.
“I decided to take matters into my own hands. I just wanted to feel better. I started reading a lot about anti inflammatory diets and cases of endometriosis where people got it to go away by eating better. I became obsessed with it. I did no dairy, gluten free, and only fruits and vegetables for over a year, I felt amazing.”
Her severe cramps subsided, but her shoulder pain remained. Ellisa had regained the control she felt like she had lost over the past couple years waiting for surgeries and being beholden to the recommendations of her OB. She felt better physically and felt emotionally empowered. She started reading about a new endometriosis procedure where doctors remove each lesions rather than scrape them off, and she made an appointment with a local specialist to see if she would be a good candidate for the procedure. The specialist asked Ellisa what her goal was - did they want to have the lesions removed to potentially lessen the pain associated with her cycle, or was she interested in the procedure in hopes of having children. Ellisa and Steven told the doctor they wanted to have kids, and he told them that IVF was a viable option for them. He also said they were just as likely to get pregnant via IVF as the person sitting next to them, despite Ellisa’s stage 4 endometriosis. Steven looked at Ellisa and told her, “We can’t ever regret not doing it. We’ve got to try”.
The specialist referred them to an experienced IVF clinic, and within a week Ellisa and Steven were having an initial IVF consultation. They decided to move forward and did a couple more tests to confirm they would be good candidates. The clinic validated Ellisa’s endometriosis, discovered one blocked fallopian tube, recommended and removed the blocked tube, and started Ellisa on the necessary hormones to prepare her for the egg retrieval process.
Ellisa and Steven decided to enroll in the IVF’s clinic warranty program. Enrollment is only offered to women who begin the process prior to their 35th birthday - luckily, Ellisa was 34 at this time so they were eligible. This program allows you to pay a set price that gives offers up to three IVF attempts to get pregnant. The first attempt is done using a fresh embryo from the recent egg retrieval, the second attempt (if needed) is done using a frozen embryo from that first egg retrieval, and the third attempt (if needed) is done with a new fresh egg retrieval. If things go well and you do get pregnant you have already paid the set price for up to three tries, and if things don’t go well and you don’t get pregnant, you get a full refund.
“I went into the whole thing thinking it’s not going to work. The three tries made the whole thing less stressful. I knew if the first time didn’t work I still had two more chances and it included all the medication and everything. It was basically here’s the cost and you don’t have to pay for anything else out of pocket and I think that part of it took a lot of the stress out of it for me.”
Things moved swiftly once their IVF process began. Ellisa compared her IVF experience to her fertility journey to date, and said, “Everything had been such a waiting game, and starting IVF was the opposite”. Ellisa responded well to the hormones and shots; Ellisa and Steven ended up with a few well rated embryos. When the day came for the embryo transfer they followed every recommendation to the utmost degree. Ellisa remembered the doctor told her to keep her feet up so she kept her feet elevated for 12 hours that day. Nine days later Ellisa went in for a blood pregnancy test and she and Steven knew they would be getting a voicemail from the clinic to let them know if they were pregnant or not. They met at home after work that day, sat on the couch, and called in to listen to the voicemail. Ellisa was shocked to hear the nurse congratulate them and tell them that they were pregnant.
Throughout their journey, Ellisa felt like she was the one in the driver's seat pushing to pursue a family, more so than her husband Steven. Once they found out they were pregnant and Ellisa saw how excited Steven was, she asked him why he didn’t show how important a family was to him in the past. He told her, “I didn’t want you to feel like this is the only thing I wanted from you or to feel like if it didn’t work that I would be disappointed.” Contrary to their journey of trying to get pregnant, their pregnancy progressed normally, and their daughter Rose was born on October 6th, 2015.
When I met with Ellisa to share her story, about two years after the birth of her daughter Rose, their family was preparing to move out of their remote lake home and the adults only lifestyle they had tried to build up and find peace with years earlier. Ellisa and Steven are excited to be moving into a new suburban subdivision with lots of kids and families, biking paths, and a community pool within walking distance to their new home. Ellisa explained, “Now I feel relieved that we’re moving while before I felt anxious. It feels like it’s the right thing to do and before it felt like we were settling.”
I asked Ellisa if she and Steven have any plans to continue to grow their family. She said that they had another well rated embryo following her egg retrieval that the IVF clinic holds for a year after the birth of a child, as part of the warranty program. Once you hit the year mark, they require you to decide if you want to pay to keep them frozen for potential future transfers, anonymously donate them to others trying to conceive, or donate them to medical research. Once Rose was a year old, Ellisa and Steven felt like their family was complete and they chose to donate the embryo to others hoping to start a family. Although they may never know when or to whom their embryo may go, they could be giving another family one of the greatest gifts - the privilege of becoming parents.