So when, at the age of 31 and married for one year to my husband, we decided it was time to start trying for a family, I wasn’t too worried. Save for the wrangle between my GP and the endocrinology clinic as to whose responsibility it was to get me ovulating, we were good to go.
Testing for male factor issues
But before we could even get started with the ‘trying’, our journey towards parenthood was cut short. Prior to ovary stimulation, doctors insisted on a semen test for my husband, to rule out any male factor issues if we failed to conceive. Two ‘abnormal’ results and a trip to the fertility clinic later, we were dealt the crushing blow – there’s no sperm in the semen, and it was unlikely to be down to a fixable blockage.
How could it be? It was me who had the fertility issue all these years – getting pregnant was just a case of a few injections, or pills, or whatever it was they’d explained to me back in my early teens.
With the matter-of-factness we’ve become accustomed to throughout this experience, the doctor gave us two options – adoption or sperm donation. And a referral to the andrologist to see if there was anything he could do, though he didn’t sound too convinced, and warned that if he was somehow successful, we’d risk passing fertility issues onto our offspring.
Despite this, we tried to remain optimistic. From a great deal of googling we learned that non-obstructive azoospermia, which my husband has, is in many cases treatable, and that sperm could sometimes be found in the testicles. And when we did come to visit the specialist andrologist he identified a varicocele – an enlargement of veins in the testicle – a possible cause of the problem.
So ensued a varicocelectomy, an operation to remove the varicocele, which has the potential to return sperm to the semen. Sadly, this wasn’t successful and we pinned our hopes on the next best thing, Micro-TESE, where surgeons attempt to find and remove sperm from the testicles to inject into an egg. I can’t describe the heartbreak we felt when the andrologist visited my husband’s bedside to give us the results – nothing found.
We were devastated. This was it, our final chance to have a biological family together. A gruelling few months followed, during which we spoke to a lovely counsellor, took a restorative trip to Berlin and reassessed our options.
Something to be said for this whole experience is that it has demonstrated the strength of our relationship, rather than negatively impacting it. This is ‘our’ infertility, rather than my husband’s alone, though he has had to put up with the vast majority of testing and surgery. What matters more than anything else is that we have one another and that gives us hope during the darker moments.
18 months on
Determined to leave no stone unturned we’ve since visited a leading andrologist in London who prescribed some hormone-stimulating drugs which did, we thought, produce positive results according to blood tests. The phrase ‘renewed hope’ was even used at one stage – this has been nothing if not a rollercoaster of emotions. Alas, another investigative operation (‘fine needle aspiration’ this time, different to micro-TESE) failed to yield results.
Almost three years from the beginning of this process, none of which has involved actually ‘trying’ for a baby, and we face the options originally offered to us by the fertility clinic – sperm donation, adoption or childlessness. I don’t regret for a moment the efforts we’ve made to try to have a child together though, the costs of private clinics and the pain and grief we’ve felt at each stage.
As anyone dealing with infertility can understand, it can be extremely isolating, with friends around us announcing new pregnancies and everyone else in our lives seeming to have experienced straightforward paths to parenthood. But, of course, we now know this isn’t the case for every family, and what this ordeal has told us is that there are many people out there struggling with their own fertility challenges.
One thing I’ve questioned during this time is the apparent lack of exploration into the causes of infertility in men. At one point we were told ‘the tissue just looks unhealthy’, another ‘it’s down to environmental factors’, with no offer to investigate further. I am aware that this is a growing field of study and that new discoveries are being made all of the time. Perhaps it’s just a little too late for us.