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An IVF Love Story

by Jennifer Redmond, Editor-in-Chief, April 14, 2010

Nina*, a corporate compliance office from Connecticut, calls this “a love story.” Her 9 and a half-week-old son Max was conceived as the result of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Nine and a half months earlier, her husband William – Max’s biological father – died unexpectedly at age 41. So while this is a story about love, it’s also about assisted reproductive technology.

Years of TTC

Nina and William had been trying to have a baby for five and a half years before they sought fertility treatment for unexplained infertility. Over the course of approximately the next 18 months, Nina underwent nine cycles of intrauterine insemination (IUI), all of which failed. IUI was the only infertility treatment procedure her health insurance plan would partially cover. IUI is also a less invasive and less expensive procedure than IVF. “No one goes through nine IUIs if they’re not desperate to conceive,” Nina says. Determined to be parents, Nina and William decided to try IVF, which Nina called a “huge financial sacrifice.”

"We would have sold our house if we had to,” she says.

“Throughout the [IVF] cycle, which is physically and emotionally demanding, William was really present, excited, and supportive.” Nina says. “I was so bruised [from the injections], so tired, and he was so there … an absolutely amazing guy,” she adds.

An Unexpected Death

On June 9, Nina went to her fertility clinic to have an ultrasound to monitor her cycle and developing eggs. As is standard, William signed a consent form allowing his sperm to be used in the cycle. According to Nina, “I did my sonogram and had eight eggs. I needed seven or eight to do IVF. I dropped off the consent paperwork and went directly to work.”

That evening, when she arrived home, she found her husband dead. His death was seizure-related, and completely unexpected.

William’s body was taken to Bridgeport Hospital in Connecticut. Nina says she isn’t sure of how it all came together, but because she had had an optimistic sonogram and had turned in the consent form earlier that day, her IVF cycle was top of mind. “I had the presence of mind to say, how can I get the sperm? It came to me that I was meant to do this,” Nina says.

A Fertility Doctor Helps Out

Nina called Dr. Michael B. Doyle, her fertility doctor (reproductive endocrinologist) at Connecticut Fertility Associates in Bridgeport.

“On the day that Bill passed away,” says Doyle, “Nina called me with the tragic news and within minutes the possibility of freezing his sperm was brought up.”

“Several years ago,” he continues, “I had been involved in a somewhat similar case in which a young man was killed in a motorcycle accident and his girlfriend expressed interest in freezing his sperm. That case was much more problematic because I had never met the man or his girlfriend and therefore we had consent issues. In addition they were not married and his family could not be easily reached for consent.”

“With Nina and Bill this was much easier because Bill was one of those rare husbands who accompanied his wife to literally every office visit … and there wasn’t the slightest amount of doubt about what he would have wanted,” Doyle explained.

Doyle spoke with urologist Dr. Robert Weinstein and they immediately decided to perform bilateral postmortem orchiectomies (surgical removal of the testicles.) Weinstein performed the procedure bedside a few hours after William had been pronounced dead. According to Doyle, removing the testicles “was much easier and more practical than attempting to actually aspirate his sperm in the hospital.”

“Within six hours of Bill’s death, the testicles had arrived to our IVF lab and we spent the evening dissecting the tissue and extracting the sperm. Since Nina’s egg retrieval was still days away, however, we needed to freeze the sperm until her retrieval occurred, and then thaw it to use to fertilize her eggs,” he adds.

A Funeral Plan and an IVF Cycle

A grieving Nina was faced with a funeral to plan and a pending IVF cycle. She says she also had a lot of soul searching to do. “I don’t know how anybody could have wanted a child more than me except my husband,” she says. But still, she wondered, “Am I doing this to have his memory live on?” “Can I do this on my own?” “I’ve lost my husband; my companion is gone,” she thought.

“Because this was Nina’s first IVF cycle and she was 40 (with a history of elevated FSH levels) we could only hope for the best,” says Doyle. “She continued taking all her meds and had her egg retrieval on June 17, [eight] days after Bill died. At that time, our Lab Director was very pleased with the yield and performed ICSI [intracytoplasmic sperm injection] on eight mature eggs. Five fertilized normally and four developed into high-grade blastocysts (of which three were transferred and one frozen). Nina remained remarkably positive and at peace with every aspect of her decision, and despite her age, felt very certain that a part of Bill would live on,” Doyle adds.

“My mom was there when they removed the eggs and put back the embryos,” when Max “was conceived and born,” Nina says.

New Life as a Single Mom

Max was born on February 7, 2010 -- Superbowl Sunday -- just like his mother was 41 years earlier. It wasn’t an easy pregnancy or birth. Nina developed preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure that affects both the mother and baby. She spent two weeks in the hospital before delivering her son by c-section as he was in a breech position. Following the delivery, he had to be resuscitated and spent two days on life support. Nina, too, almost died during delivery.

Nina had thought she would try and have another child immediately, given that she has one frozen embryo and her husband’s frozen sperm. “I’m 41, and time is running out,” she says. But her difficult pregnancy and delivery has ruled that out.

Nina is hoping to use a surrogate to carry a second child. “I’m keeping the embryo frozen. If I come into money, if I win the Powerball, I can pay for surrogacy,” she says.

But in the interim, she’s adjusting to life as a working mother, parenting without her husband. “It’s been very difficult,” she says. Max had emergency surgery less than a week ago for pyloric stenosis, a condition that affects the gastrointestinal tract. (William had the surgery at 4 weeks; the condition can be hereditary.)

“Max is recovering and doing very well,” Nina says. "It’s been stressful, but wonderful at the same time. Max is a joy and a daily reminder that life is good.”

A love story, indeed.

*To protect Nina’s privacy, she asked that we not use her last name.