I was honoured recently to speak on the same platform as Geeta Nargund, Founder and Medical Director of CREATE Fertilty. Organised by City Parents, a network for professional parents, the lunchtime event was attended by both men and women struggling to conceive. I was asked to talk about my personal journey through IVF. Geeta was then to discuss natural and mild IVF, which I personally had never heard of until that day.
In preparation for meeting her, I'd watched Geeta's recent TED Talk, and had been mesmerised. I was struck not only by how she'd spoken engagingly for twenty minutes without notes, but by the fact that she was advocating fertility education in schools. Again, for me this too was a new phenomenon, and yet watching her speak it seemed so logical, so obvious.
As first up to the podium, I spoke about my experience with IVF fifteen years ago. I have written previously in these pages about the four cycles of IVF which produced our daughter, who is now a teenager. However, it was the first time that I had spoken in public about our subsequent attempts to create a sibling for her.
She was eighteen months old when we tackled our fifth IVF cycle - the usual self-injections, general anaesthetic, then the dreaded two-week wait. I bled just before that was up. No point even testing, I thought, so prolific was the bleeding. I drank quite a bit of wine to drown the old misery, and planned to go back in there as soon as possible, which is what you do when obsessed by the need to conceive. But two weeks later I was still bleeding heavily and I called the clinic. 'You could be pregnant,' they told me. 'Do a test.'
The pregnancy test screamed blue at me, the thickest line I'd seen after peeing on so many of these sticks. Later that day, our first scan showed a heartbeat, robust and emphatic. I stopped drinking wine, we went on a planned holiday, where I relaxed - well as much as you can around a toddler and a swimming pool. The bleeding took a while to cease, but eventually it did. On our return, at eleven weeks, I was scanned again and we saw not only hands and feet, but toes and fingers. Our foetus was already the size of a Brussel sprout - or a fig if you prefer that sweeter visual image.
And then, at twelve weeks, I returned from a playgroup with my daughter one lunchtime to find that I was bleeding again. 'Come in to the clinic,' said the wonderful sonographer, 'and I'll scan you.' I left my daughter with a neighbour and tubed it into London. The woman took me in immediately for an ultrasound, and she was forced to share the dreaded words she no doubt uttered several times daily, 'I'm sorry, Diane, the foetus is no longer alive.' We both shed tears.
And what do I recall from the aftermath of that incredible sadness? That I took a cab home, that I knocked on my neighbour's door, and that I wanted only to hold my little girl, to scoop her up and hold her in my arms. I was truly blessed to have one child and that mattered most.
Sharing this part of my story with the room was the only time when talking in public that I've ever faltered, ever welled up. While we endured a further two IVF cycles, interestingly neither my husband nor I can recall a single detail. At the age of 42 we stopped trying and I'm so happy that we did. After all, we are among the lucky ones, the ones who got there.
After I'd told my tale, Geeta took the floor to discuss the natural and mild IVF treatments undertaken within her clinics. Natural IVF apparently involves no drugs to stimulate egg production. The cycle relies on the development of a woman's single egg and the treatment is completed within her own natural menstrual cycle. Mild IVF, Geeta told us, falls somewhere in between this and traditional IVF, aiming to produce very few eggs with smaller doses of drugs over a shorter period.
Having self-injected a multitude of drugs, which I still suspect have left their malevolent mark on me in some way, I was bewitched by the fact that there is today another way. Yes perhaps the odds of success may be somewhat lower, but as Geeta said to her audience, all born before Louise Brown, the first test tube baby in 1978, 'We are all of us sitting here today, the product of natural conception.' We made it to life. If I had been able to meet Geeta all those years ago I would certainly have tried it her way and potentially have avoided the unnatural process we put ourselves through, and with it some of the physical and emotional distress.
Oh, and as for teaching girls and boys about their own fertility, arming them with information which can help them make choices (which may included egg-freezing) this surely is the way forward? It may seem odd to be building awareness of their limited fertility span among an age group we are simultaneously encouraging to avoid pregnancy! But still, I for one genuinely believed I'd be safely fertile until my late thirties. As did Cat, the protagonist in my novel Moondance about a couple struggling to conceive. In actual fact, female fertility reaches its peak at 21, has begun to decline at 25, and by the age of 35 it drops steeply. Check out Geeta's TED Talk and see what you think.