Catherine Richards delves into the heart-breaking world of couples who can’t conceive – and shares her own story of hope and despair.
MORE couples are struggling today with infertility than ever before. The fast-paced modern world we live in, high levels of stress, the role of women in the 21st century and diet impact on fertility.
Infertility is when a woman under the age of 35 years has not been able to conceive in a 12-month period. If the woman is older than 35 years, she should seek help after six months.
Gynaecologist Dr Danie Botha, from the Dalmeyer Fertility Unit at St George’s Hospital in Port Elizabeth, has noticed an increase in patients over the past few years.
“In Western society, advanced age of the female is the one reason for infertility and with modernisation of society, more women are career orientated, thus leading to delayed pregnancy.”
Botha agrees that stress and diet have an impact on fertility.
“High levels of stress lead to anovulation due to the central effect on the brain hormones responsible for controlling ovulation. Regarding diet, both excess as well as starvation, have negative effects on natural conception as well as assisted reproductive outcomes.”
Health and lifestyle coach Tanya Wyatt says many processed, chemical-containing foods and pollutants that people are exposed to regularly can cause hormonal imbalances.
“If the immune system isn’t supported by foods that provide high nutrient levels, it cannot function optimally. Stress in particular can result in low levels of progesterone. All of this can lead to infertility.”
At the clinic, which has been running for about 30 years and named after Dr Paul Dalmeyer, a retired pioneer in the field, specialists investigate the man and woman before treatment is started.
“Fertility treatment is the only field of medicine, except for the management of the pregnant female, where two patients are present with one problem: the inability to conceive,” said Botha, who has been at the clinic for eight years.
The female factors include age, polycystic ovarian syndrome (resistance to ovulation), endometriosis, tubal factors, obesity and lifestyle.
The male factors include obesity, lifestyle, drug use/and or infection and genetic factors.
After a diagnosis has been made, the clinic will suggest a course of action. The first step, depending on the diagnosis, is ovulation induction.
This is then followed by artificial insemination (AIH).
The man has to provide a semen sample on the day of the procedure. The laboratory then washes the sperm and the doctor inserts it into the woman’s uterus. This procedure costs between R3 000 to R5 000.
Another course of action is when the clinic retrieves the eggs from the woman and the sperm is introduced to the eggs either by using IVF (in vitro fertilisation), where the eggs and sperm are added together, or ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), where one sperm is chosen and injected directly into the egg. This can cost anywhere between R36 000 and R42 000.
Discovery Health research and development head Alain Peddle says medical aids do cover some forms of treatment for infertility that are considered part of their prescribed minimum benefits.
“This includes diagnostic testing to exclude infections and other treatable conditions that may lead to difficulty in falling pregnant. Infertility-related treatment that is covered under the prescribed minimum benefits does not include IVF,” Peddle said.
The clinic’s clientele is largely from the Eastern Cape, particularly from Mthatha and East London, Botha says.
“We also have overseas patients who originally hail from Port Elizabeth and come here for treatment due to the decreased cost of IVF in terms of the exchange rate as compared to the UK and the US.”
Botha’s passion for fertility treatment started many years ago when he was a general practitioner witnessing patients’ heartache as they struggled for years to conceive.
“I wanted to be able to help couples achieve their dream of having a family. I then specialised in gynaecology followed by a sub-specialisation in reproductive medicine.”
Happy new parents embark on family life
FERTILITY struggles can put unnecessary pressure on any relationship, but couples who have been through the process say that it is worth it in the long run. A couple who have been through a difficult journey of infertility are Grant and Veronique Beets, who now have beautiful twin girls Grace and Rebecca.
“After nine months of trying, I was referred to see Dr Danie Botha. I was 29 then,” physiotherapist Veronique, 33, said.
Grant, 33, branch manager at CIM Chemicals, said, “It certainly wasn’t a walk in the park! Bearing in mind that you have already been trying to conceive naturally for a few years, these things start wearing you out emotionally. Of course it puts strain on both of you. The longer it takes, the harder it becomes as the emotional anxiety eats away at you when you realise you still do not have a quick fix.”
Veronique said initially it was hard as she struggled to accept that she needed fertility treatment. “Once we got to the stage of IVF, I had handed the reins to God and the doctors.
“It was almost a relief that the burden was not solely on my shoulders.”
The IVF worked first time for the Beets and they were overjoyed when they received the call that they were pregnant.
“I really thought that they were joking when I got the call. Once it sunk in, I felt truly blessed,” Veronique said.
The Beets now have their hands full with the twins but they would not change a thing.
Not all couples choose to go for the fertility treatment.
Times Media production editor Leon Muston, 36, and his wife Tersia, 36, decided to adopt after two miscarriages and heard that their chances of falling pregnant naturally were slim.
Tersia, who runs her own photography business, said that after a lot of tests, they realised their only options would be to get a sperm donor as well as a surrogate mother.
“We did not see the point of going through all that trauma while there are just so many children out there in need of a home.”
There is a happy ending for this couple as they adopted a beautiful baby girl, Skylar, a month ago. She is now four months old.
But the adoption process was not easy. “Going through the medical examinations, police clearance and then the waiting. The biological mother had a 60-day period in which she could change her mind. They ran newspaper ads to try to trace the biological father and he had 90 days to show up.
“It was extremely difficult, as you want to love your baby but the fear of her being taken away is always at the back of your mind,” Tersia said.
The biological parents’ time for changing their minds is now over so Skylar Muston is permanently settled with her happy new family.
The emotional hell of being unable to have a child
SOMETIMES I feel like I am trapped in my own personal hell. Maybe comparing infertility to hell is a bit extreme, but from my experience, it has got to be one of the worst things a woman can go through.
Being able to conceive is something that is supposed to happen naturally.
My husband and I have been trying to get me to fall pregnant for almost three years and, after two years, decided to seek professional help from Dr Danie Botha. Just when I thought things would get easier, they did not.
After blood tests and an internal examination, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). I was in shock and denial about it.
My mom had five daughters (twins included) so never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen to me.
At first I felt shame. I did not want to talk about it to anyone. The time we kept it to ourselves was the hardest and loneliest part of this journey. As soon as I started to open up about it, I could not believe how many other women have been going through this.
It makes life easier knowing you can vent to a woman who has gone through it because unless you have walked this road, you do not understand.
When you have hit your 30s, like I have, and that biological clock is ticking (loudly I might add) being diagnosed with a fertility condition is the last thing you want to hear.
Thoughts raced through my head like, “Why didn’t we start to try sooner?” and “Why did I pursue my career so hard?”
After the news sank in, we started treatment.
I was not prepared for the emotional aspect of the treatment. The drugs made me feel anxious, depressed and nauseous.
I battled to cope with all of these reactions and on top of that I had to wonder: Will this even work?
Well, the first time it did not. Nor the second. I was devastated. Waiting for that call from the clinic with the pregnancy results was the worst part.
After the last attempt failed we took a break as it was becoming unbearable. We have spent thousands on treatment and we have not even done IVF yet.
There is always hope and I’m not prepared to give up on my dream of having my own child.