Irish couple's unexpected joy as they conceive twice with IVF: 'I tell my babies that they're my little miracles'
Sandra and Gavin McSweeney tell our reporter about the unexpected joy of conceiving not once but twice via IVF
Anyone who has been through it, will tell you that IVF can be tough. There are the frequent doctor's appointments, the injections, the procedures, the scans, the nerves, the hopes and often the disappointments. There's the financial cost, the stress and the strain it can put on a relationship.
But then anyone who has been through it and held their baby at the end of it will tell you it was worth it. Not all of them, though, will want to go through it all again.
And yet Sandra McSweeney's story is proof that happy endings can happen twice. The 38-year-old from Ballygarvan, Co Cork can still remember that aching feeling of longing she felt when she and her husband Gavin (38) were trying to conceive.
"I felt like there were babies and buggies everywhere," she recalls. "I remember looking longingly at bumps. It was very difficult but at the same time I wouldn't have wished it on anyone, it's devastating not to be able to have children when you desperately want to have one."
When she was 27 years old Sandra was diagnosed with Endometriosis, a condition affecting the lining of the womb. She needed surgery to have a painful cyst removed, but the procedure revealed how damaged her womb was and one of her fallopian tubes had to be tied.
"I was advised that it might cause fertility problems, but I didn't really think about it too much," she says. "At the time I felt I had time on my side and I remember thinking, 'well, hopefully it'll happen'."
Unfortunately hope wasn't enough. Despite changes to her diet and trying acupuncture, Sandra's condition left her unable to conceive naturally. "It was devastating but we had to say 'ok, what other options have we?'," she says. "Thankfully Gavin and I were on the same page. We really wanted a baby and we wanted to give it our all to be parents but we also knew that we didn't want it to consume our lives and destroy our relationship."
In July 2011 they started In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) treatment with the Cork Fertility Centre. The process is one of the most popular routes taken by couples battling conception difficulties. Daily injections of medication are used to stimulate the ovaries to produce a number of eggs which are then collected and mixed with the male's sperm in the laboratory, allowing fertilisation to occur.
"The developing embryos are then monitored closely and the healthiest embryos are then transferred to allow for implantation," explains Dr Tim Dineen, Head of Laboratory Services at Cork Fertility Centre. "There are several stages and the average treatment cycle takes approximately eight weeks from the start of medication until a pregnancy test is taken."
Sandra's first cycle was cancelled early on because she had no follicles to produce eggs for collection. Their second cycle also ended prematurely when they were told there were no eggs.
"It was very upsetting," says Sandra. "Maybe we were a bit naïve but we felt like making the decision to start treatment had been the big thing, we weren't really prepared for set-backs."
And yet some statistics would suggest that only about 20-30 percent of IVF treatments lead to conception, with other factors like age also playing a part. Interestingly there is no official data available in Ireland for how many babies are born through IVF. Unlike the UK and USA, the State has no formal reporting procedure, something the fertility clinics here are seeking to change so patients can have access to transparent information on success rates.
With WHO statistics finding that one in five Irish people has some difficulty with fertility, it seems safe to assume that a growing number of people are choosing to go down the route of medical assistance, even if they're not talking about it.
Sandra and Gavin decided to be open with friends and family from the start. "We wanted to talk about it and we found that the more we spoke to people, the more we realised how many other couples we knew had gone through similar experiences," says Sandra.
"There's definitely a taboo there, even when we went to the clinic for appointments there would have been a lot of eyes on the ground, no one wants to make eye contact in case they see someone they know!
"But our attitude always was that if this was something that, if it helped us, then it was amazing, but definitely not something to be ashamed of and I don't know if we would have got through it if it hadn't been for the support of our friends and family."
On their third attempt, in March 2013, the couple completed a full cycle of treatment and Sandra was given a date to take a pregnancy test. After counting down for two weeks, the result was devastating: negative.
"We had to leave it for a while after that, just to get our heads around it, but I still knew that I really, really wanted to give it one more shot," remembers Sandra. "We went back and were advised that maybe IVF wasn't going to work for us and we might have to look at other options like egg donation."
But just over nine months later, and weighing a healthy 8lbs 2oz, baby Maisey was born.
She arrived just eight weeks after the death of Sandra's mother, and whilst she provided a light at a dark time, it was heartbreaking they never got to meet. Emotionally and financially both Sandra and Gavin's parents had been a vital source of support. A full cycle of IVF costs in the region of €5,000 with incomplete cycles a fraction of that cost depending on what stage of the process is reached. They were, says Sandra, "extremely lucky" our parents helped us out with money.
Which was one of the considerations they had to factor in when they decided to try for another child.
"I'm from a family of five and there are four in Gavin's family and we all live in Cork and are very close," explains Sandra. "I really wanted Maisey to have a sibling and I knew from the point of view of my age, the clock was ticking.
"But at the same time it felt a little bit greedy. We'd already been so unbelievably lucky to have our first baby. There are only so many favours you can ask for and it's hard to say, 'would you mind funding this again?' when the goal had been to have a child, which we did."
She doesn't know if they would have tried as many cycles again, but happily it's not a question that needs answered - after the first round of treatment she was pregnant with their son Joey.
According to Dr Dineen, the fact that Sandra had already had a baby was a good prognosis for delivering a second child, nor did embarking on the treatment plan again come with any additional risk.
Sandra wants to pay tribute to the staff at Cork Fertility and reassure other would-be mums. "I hope our story might give hope to somebody who is considering IVF and maybe a bit scared," she says.
Some nights she finds herself staring down at Maisey, who will be three next month, and 10-month-old Joey as they sleep.
"I just find myself reflecting on how unbelievably grateful I am," she says. "Every baby is precious but they are definitely extra special to us. I tell them they're my magic beans, they're our little miracles."
Advice for couples considering IVF
Research and review your choice of clinic asking questions about services offered, success rates, inspection records and any hidden costs. "Ideally you want to avoid long journeys as a number of visits to the clinic will be required for scans and having a local clinic will eliminate the stress and cost of travelling," says Dr Tim Dineen, Head of Laboratory Services at Cork Fertility Centre.
Ensure you fully understand your treatment plan and are aware of any possible side-effects.
Decide in advance whether to tell family and friends.
"It's important to look after your relationship during treatment," says Dr Dineen. "Complimentary counselling is available at Cork Fertility Centre and patients are encouraged to avail of this service."
Look after your health. "Start taking folic acid, engage in regular exercise (but nothing too vigorous), eat as healthily as possible and most certainly, stop smoking," advises Dr Dineen.