Friday, July 31, 2020

Origin Story

There were five people in the room when I got pregnant and not one of them was my husband.

It was a sweltering day in Sacramento in August of 2019 and I lay, legs splayed, on a stiff table in a nondescript treatment room. An obstetrician I'd just met peered into the depths of my uterus – ideally shaped, I’d been told during a previous procedure, indicated by a black triangle on an ultrasound screen, an image that reminded me of Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon album cover, but upside-down.

Now, after a month-plus of preparation that involved a counterintuitive regimen of birth control pills to shut down my menstrual cycle, daily Lupron injections in the abdomen to induce medical menopause, and estrogen patches to pump up my endometrium, plus a few huge syringes of progesterone plunged into my thighs to help sustain a potential pregnancy, I was ready. I had what the sonographer called a "miracle lining," primed for an embryo to burrow into.

That embryo – a five-day, grade-A blastocyst, otherwise known as our baby-to-be – was perched on the end of a long, thin tube in the hand of the embryologist. Our still unnamed “embaby” was the result of two anonymous people who procreated in a petri dish. She was a petite yoga teacher and married young mother of two with Scandinavian roots; he was a tall, dark, and handsome business student with German and Salvadoran ancestry. Both were in their early 20s and in perfect health. The embryo was a girl – we knew because we chose her gender, one of the few perks of assisted reproductive techniques (ART).

When I first learned that ART could be used in cases like ours – a couple that is not infertile per se but has diminished fertility – I dismissed the practice as too “sci-fi.” Over time, and as we ran out of other options (which I'll address in future posts), I came to see it as a solid baby-making option, allowing us to bypass months and months of fruitless attempts at natural conception or more invasive (and expensive) IVF protocols with our own gametes.

There were other advantages of using a donor embryo. Our embaby would be spared the genetic imperfections – big and small – that had plagued our families. No anorexia, no breast cancer, no depression, no high cholesterol, no Parkinson’s disease, no crooked teeth or acne.

True, our embaby wouldn’t inherit any of our attributes, but she wasn't missing out on much in that department, save for my oft-complimented strawberry blonde hair, which I inherited from my dad. Did hair color really matter? At this stage in the game, health was more important than appearance.

We didn’t have access to pictures of the donors, but I did get a picture of the embaby, a black and white image printed on glossy paper. It looked vaguely like an egg, mid-fry. The embryologist enumerated its strengths, much of which I didn’t understand, despite hours of watching FertilityIQ videos while sweating on a creaky Elliptical in the garage in the months leading up to transfer day.

I was told the embryo had been frozen but endured the thawing process well. The clinic has used a procedure called “assisted hatching” so the embaby would have an easier time embedding in my endometrial lining.

Transfer time arrived. All the months of research, appointments, procedures, medications, and number-crunching had come down to this. It was the Olympic Games of conception. Sink or swim.

My bladder was uncomfortably full (per the clinic’s instructions, as it helps push the uterus into a more conducive position) but I felt no pain as the doctor inserted a catheter into my cervix, guided by a nurse who rolled an ultrasound wand over my pelvis. We all watched on a screen as the doctor plunged the embaby into my womb. A brief burst of white light, like a shooting star, traveled across the screen. “There she goes!” someone said cheerfully.

The nurse reminded me that the clinic considered me pregnant from this moment on, but it would be 10 days until it was confirmed with a blood test. My treatment coordinator hugged me and showered me with congratulations, but I couldn't meet her level of enthusiasm. I was cautiously optimistic. My reproductive history was a coin toss: miscarriage, baby, miscarriage, baby with disappearing twin. The clinic claimed the success rate for its donor embryo program was between 65 and 75 percent, but I wasn't counting my embaby until it hatched.

Ten minutes later, I wheeled my suitcase out of the clinic and into the sultry Sacramento afternoon. An Uber waited at the curb to shuttle me to the airport, where I'd catch my flight back to Minneapolis. To the outside world, it looked like I was traveling alone, but there was a new being inside of me – and we were going home.

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