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A Look Back at IVF and Louise Brown

in vitro fertilization IVF.jpg

a blog by Traci Shahan, RN, WHNP-BC, Doctor of Nursing, Albrecht Women’s Care: A Center for Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, April 4, 2011

I am seasoned enough to recall when Louise Brown was born. Presto! The world was aflame with awe at the spectacle of a test tube baby — a creature that maybe only Mary Shelley could have conjured with pen in hand by candlelight during dark night hours. Who could even think of a lone sperm and egg meeting up in a dreary lab somewhere in England, uniting, then resulting in what appeared to be a beautiful, healthy baby girl? Might a female Frankenstein trudge the planet if some lab process went amok one day?

Oh, the brouhaha that ensued!

My Take on the Controversy over IVF

I must factor in here that my take on Brown’s birth was certainly affected by where and how I lived — in the middle of the United States, in a middle class family who, although we went to church every Sunday, had no religious doctrines that made me fear the wrath of an Old Testament god. I wasn’t scared like some of my friends who had the ticked-off, white-bearded old guy in the sky image to wrestle with. Although a couple of those friends combed scripture for guidance about this test tube baby business, they came up empty handed, save for the Vatican’s edicts of contraception-free sex.

I, on the other hand, was the product of a father wedded to both my nurse mother and Cartesian rationalism. We talked over spaghetti dinners of my mother’s experiences as a charge nurse in the ER earlier that day, and if other techie babies might be born in the future. My parents weren’t so sure about this, but, secretly, I prayed that I myself might have a test tube baby, given that we had just studied sex ed in school. Let's just say that after Mrs. Davidson’s description of intercourse, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of trying for a baby the good old-fashioned way. (As fate would have it, I got my wish, and learned onerously the profundity of the idiom: “Watch what you ask for ...)

See, it wasn’t too long before this time that I had fallen daftly in love with science. My sixth grade science teacher had helped open whole new tiny universes to my youthful brain when, after a jaunt with a bucket to the local pond, I peered into the microscope and saw that the drop of water I had carefully deposited on the slide actually contained a whole world, alive and teeming with moving creatures where just a few moments prior, the water had simply been a pedestrian liquid — still, colorless and boring — in the bucket.

So when on the 6 p.m. nightly news, Walter Cronkite announced the arrival of Louise Brown, I felt just like I did with the pond water: full of alacrity and magnanimous respect for life. There was and is, I might add, a great majesty and mystery in life of which many of us never are aware, and little Louise’s birth helped prove it.

Fast Forward a Few Decades

Today, Ms. Brown is by all accounts enjoying a full life, her fertility doctor won a Nobel Prize last year, and I work as an REI nurse practitioner, having had twin girls via an in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycle that defied all odds of success. (I had miserly ovaries and a uterus shaped not unlike Quasimoto on an arthritic day.)

Nowadays IVF is pretty commonplace, having lost much its mystique and becoming more affordable and available.

But what is IVF? It is really very simple. IVF is the process in which ovaries are stimulated with fertility medications to prompt the development of multiple eggs. The eggs are extracted by a needle through the vaginal wall, then placed with sperm. Sometimes, sperm are injected with a microscopic needle into the eggs. The fertilized eggs are placed into the uterus either three or five days after they are extracted from the ovaries. Nature then takes over, fostering fertilization and replication of cells, which will multiply and then become a human being.

After the return of the fertilized eggs to the uterus, the wait for 10 to 14 days — the two-week wait — actually feels like several long and arduous lifetimes. When the phone call finally comes that, (a) you are pregnant or (b) you are not, you will almost certainly cry. Or shriek as I did for several moments until my poor doctor on the other end of the phone directed me to sit down before I collapsed from hyperventilation. Either way, I can almost assure you that it will be a conversation you will never forget.

I cannot stress enough how hard these two weeks can be. Be ready with your armamentarium of weapons to defend yourself against negative thoughts, wily emotions, well-meaning people, mean-spirited people, and the ticking of the clock that will drive you insane. Eat comfort food, take the meds directed by your doctor, take walks after your bed rest period, write, gnash your teeth, play grunge rock in your garage with your old guitar, wear bad clothes, wear great clothes, spend an entire day in your bath robe, have a massage, write letters to everyone who has ever mattered to you (tear up the ones that contain negative sentiments and do NOT send them). In short, care for yourself as you would your best friend recovering from chemo.

Next week, I am going to parse the stats of IVF. So put your #2 pencil behind your ear, get some scratch paper in front of you, and sit by your computer to start your own research.

You deserve kindness, loving, supportive people and a full life. And you must be intentional in allowing this to happen. Until then, warm wishes are coming to you from Colorado.

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