Crossing the Finish Line of My Infertility Journey
An embryo transfer is an uncertain finale to Kate Schelter's infertility struggle. She brings us with her as she wonders if she has the strength for one final procedure.
- Written By
- Kate Schelter
What does it feel like when the day you've been waiting for finally arrives? On a bright frosty Monday in January, I found out. I'm 42, in stirrups, laying on a vinyl OBGYN table in midtown, awaiting my first and only attempt at an embryo transfer. This is it. It all comes down to my two "golden eggs." Will I get pregnant, or will all of this be a waste?
All of this is my dream to have a baby. There have been a million small steps towards each major milestone—failed IUIs, failed IVFs, and egg retrievals that produce five embryos. At the end of five years of infertility, I hold two frozen embryos, aka my two "golden eggs," which are thawed and ready to insert in my cervix any minute now. I face the uncertain finale…or is it the beginning?
Confronting the uncertainty at the end of my five-year fertility struggle was the bravest step in the process–the transfer unguaranteed to work, possibly devastating and possibly life-making.
Confronting the uncertainty at the end of my five-year fertility struggle was the bravest step in the process–the transfer unguaranteed to work, possibly devastating and possibly life-making. Persevering helped me hold on to my dream, teaching me over and over to let go of what I could not control. My timid hopeful heart beats on survival mode, trying calmly to claim my confidence. Rattling up 8th Avenue in the back of a black Toyota Corolla Uber on my way to my transfer this morning, I'd thought, Today's the day. This is it.
Alone on the procedure table with crinkly white paper, wearing a hospital gown with my camel cashmere cable-knit sweater underneath, I'm naked below the waist. My bare legs are dangling in disposable socks, my hand holding a picture of my two embryos on a piece of 8.5x11" letter paper. Gazing at the photo, I squint and pull it closer to my face, rotate it clockwise, turn it upside down like trying to read a map with no North, comparing the two shapes. Two arrows indicate which embryo is which (EMB 5AB; EMB 4BB) drawn in thin blue ink by a nurse.
Basic instinct for a baby has pulled me through this anguishing process. I thought I'll fix it myself. I'll work harder. I'll get through it. I'll meditate myself to a pregnancy. I thought I could solve anything with hard work, effort, and sheer will. But I couldn't. Infertility has gone on, and on, and on. I'm tired. But a baby—or, rather, not trying everything possible to get a baby—is not something I am willing to regret in my life.
To my left is a small opening to the embryology lab—like an immaculate stainless steel McDonalds drive-thru window. "Hi, Katherine. How ya doin' today?" she said. "I'm Karin, your embryologist." She smiles at me through the porthole like a character on Sesame Street, poking her head through the sill. I look back at my feet next to an ultrasound machine with a Dairy Queen swirl of clear gel lube pre-loaded on the wand.
"We've got your two beautiful embryos right here," she said. "Day-5 embryos from October and December." Standing on my right, by my head, is a nurse with a top bun beneath her blue surgical cap who says, "Squeeze my finger if you get nervous–I'm here for you." She holds out her left index finger, long colorful nail. I gently wrap my right hand around it, testing it. I smile, comforted. Then I lay in, grasp it with might, and release. She smiles. It helps.
Busyness and action seep under the door and into the room. I hear Dr. Luk's voice in the hallway. My heart beats faster. Her voice gets louder like she could open the door. I'm next.
"Ooooh, hi, Katherine!!!" (She pronounces it in three syllables Kath-er-ine). "Dr. Luk is here!!!" (She refers to herself in the third person). "Today is the day!!!" she said. "Ready to go? Exciting!!! Everything looks good!!!"
Her enthusiasm is pregnant with possibility. I feel alive, part of my own pep rally, rising like the train that slowly climbs the mountain, one switchback at a time, chanting I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. She greets the room, looks at me, and places her hands gently on my bare knees. She knows this moment is pivotal, and I must be nervous. We have worked very hard to prepare for this day.
"Yes, I was born for this moment. Let's do it," I said.
I lied. Smiling but still scared. I keep thinking, Most natural thing in the world—get pregnant and have a baby—failed. I'm a failure. I'm worthless. A scientific miracle will be attempted in my body, while I watch LIVE—I will remain awake for the procedure (plus half a Valium) because I need to see this to believe it.
I squeeze the nurse's finger, squeeze my eyes shut, open them to peek, close them again. I imagine a circle of warm hands holding me in their palms like the slumber party game Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board— my IVF cheerleaders—lift me, like a stork, delivering a neat package of assurance and courage. I am not alone, I think to myself.
Emotions multiply, scatter like fallow milkweed—my chest reflexes into a series of shallow, fast breaths. What if my embryos are no good? What if IVF doesn’t work? What if I can’t make a baby? What if, what if, what if… I close my eyes…inhale… exhale... When I open my eyes, I look at my doctor seated on a stool facing my pelvis and realize: No more What Ifs. This procedure is the end of the uncertainty. In two weeks I will have a result: pregnant or not. Summon the bravery to take this step and face the answer. You have done everything in your power to have this baby, Kate. You have done your best, Kate. When we are truly done, we have exhausted every option and we have no more questions; Only answers.
Live, on-screen, my two embryos appear magnified under the microscope, like a high school overhead projector. One frozen-thawed oocyte is circular, enclosed; the other is circular with a burst in the outline, hatching, like a cross-section of a peeled orange. The embryologist maneuvers them slightly on their glass plate. Keep going, Kate. You can do this.
Suddenly, a long thin shape like a raw spaghetti noodle—the catheter—enters the screen and delicately draws in both embryos—two soft sips.
"Katherine, feet up." Dr. Luk said. "Scoot forward, more, more, little more, couple more inches, relax, open." My thighs release, and I let my knees open wide. Stomach and shoulders brace for impact. Transfer catheter, loaded with both embryos, is gently handed from the embryologist to Dr. Luk, who takes it and slowly feeds it through the speculum into my cervical canal, watching the sonogram camera to guide her careful handwork—swallowed in a black and white abstract fuzz on the screen.
"See? Here? That little dot? That's the first embryo. There's the second. Here they go. There, see—there they are. Those two dots," she said.
Oh. My. God. I squint and focus. Those are the two in my picture. My October and December. She withdrawals the catheter and hands it to the embryologist, who inspects it for retained embryos.
"We make sure we got both of them. Nothing left," Dr. Luk said.
It's Completed, I think. Speechless. I. DID. IT. My heartbeat explodes through the finish line like a runner's through the tape. I linger on the nurse's finger, squeezing it in pulses. I hold it for an extra beat. I bend my left elbow and hold my arm close to my torso to hug myself and remain quiet. The nurses congratulate me and wish me luck. I stay in the room for a little while by myself.
Calm excitement sprouts graceful wings. Pride gently flutters through self doubt. Struggled and struggled; no more struggle. This is it. A f*cking fertility miracle. Thawed embryo inserted. Pregnant with baby? Let it go. I did it. Did my best. Did the work. Whatever it took. Never gave up. No matter what.
Twenty minutes later, the finger-squeeze nurse comes to check on me, helps me down, walks me to the recovery chair where I snuggle for an hour, feet up, under blankets and heating pad, snacking on juice box, and Lorna Dune cookies. I hand her my iPhone and ask her to take a picture of me: smiling, holding up the photo of two enlarged blue embryos, now inside me. I sent it to my husband, sisters, and mom. Caption: "It's done."
Kate Schelter is an artist, designer, author, and all-around creative, whose work has been featured in numerous publications including The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Town & Country, and House Beautiful. Schelter is the bestselling author of Classic Style. She holds a BA from Rhode Island School of Design and their European Honors Program in Rome and lives in Pennsylvania and Cape Cod, MA. This is an excerpt from her forthcoming book.