Monday 23 April 2018

'We called off the wedding ...and spent the cash on ivf'

Niamh Doherty and partner Maurice were planning their nuptials, writes Mary-Elaine Tynan, when they got some terrible news

Maurice Sweeney with his partner Niamh Doherty and daughter Emily Sweeney.
Photo: Tony Gavin
Maurice Sweeney with his partner Niamh Doherty and daughter Emily Sweeney. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary-Elaine Tynan

Only 18 months ago Niamh Doherty, now 35, was enthusiastically planning her wedding to her partner Maurice, due to take place this May. With the hotel, church and band booked, the wedding and bridesmaid dresses chosen, Niamh's childhood dream was on track. Keen to start a family, Niamh was also trying to get pregnant. The couple had no idea that the coming year would bring many unexpected and emotional upheavals.

In the meantime, Niamh saw her gynaecologist for a long-term problem with endometriosis. When she mentioned she had been trying to conceive for three years, the doctor recommended that both she and Maurice be urgently tested for possible fertility issues and although concerned by this, the couple didn't imagine the dilemma they would soon face. In fact, tests showed that Niamh's AMH (anti-Mullerian hormone) levels were extremely low, making it unlikely for her to ever conceive naturally. "I had to go on my own [to get the results] as Maurice was doing shift work ... I was so gutted... Afterwards, I walked down O'Connell Street trying not to cry."

While Maurice was very supportive, Niamh believed he suffered more than he admitted and says that while she intuitively felt the problem was on her side, she was relieved when it was confirmed. "I think it's harder [for men] – maybe an ego thing."

Niamh and Maurice are one of many thousands of Irish couples who experience fertility problems. According to Dr David Walsh, medical director of SIMS Fertility Clinic, it is believed that "as many as one in five couples – possibly even one in four" will have difficulties conceiving naturally.

Having barely digested the news, Niamh was advised to consider immediate IVF treatment so she and Maurice attended a public meeting held by the National Infertility Support and Information Group. "I was a bit sceptical about going ... maybe meeting someone I knew or that there would be only two or three people there ... but there were actually around 200 or 300 ... including a 21-year-old girl and couples in their 40s".

After speaking to doctors and councillors at the meeting the couple decided to consider IVF and made an appointment with the HARI unit (Human Assisted Reproduction Ireland) in Dublin. They learned that IVF in Ireland is an expensive process – approximately €5,000 per cycle (after a 20 per cent tax rebate and with most of the medication covered on the Drugs Payment Scheme). In addition, most women have at least two cycles and in fact only one in four IVF treatments results in a "live birth", according to Dr Walsh.

The couple knew they could never afford both a wedding and IVF and with most of their funds committed to their wedding, they applied for a credit union loan. After being assured that their application should be approved, they were devastated to learn otherwise. "We had savings but [because of] our mortgage, a couple of loans and a credit card ... they said no."

Niamh was particularly distressed about the decision ahead. "I had two things in my life that I wanted more than anything in the world and I could do one and not the other – and which one did I want more? It was excruciating and to this day I still want to do both."

It seemed the odds were stacked against the couple; in addition to their precarious financial situation Niamh was told that being in her mid-30s meant that, in some gynaeological circles, she was a "geriatric". She also spoke to a woman on her fourth IVF cycle without success. Clearly opting for IVF would be a very costly gamble which might conclude with no baby and no money for a wedding. Nonetheless, Niamh and Maurice cancelled their big day, losing some of the deposits, and started IVF treatment immediately.

After several weeks of medication and injections, Niamh's eggs were removed under general anaesthetic. Meanwhile, Maurice was directed to a small room in the clinic for his part. It all sounds reminiscent of that sordid scene in Road Trip when Niamh describes it "[Maurice] said that for all the wonderful work they do, it's actually quite degrading."

I marvel at how Niamh remained so positive but this, she says, was the key to the whole process. "I didn't have negative people around me ... Some people told me it doesn't always work but I thought 'shut up' because I had to believe it." In fact, while many women are reluctant to talk about the experience, she decided to be open to her friends and colleagues. "The more people we told, the bigger our support network was. We got a lot of support".

With 12 eggs retrieved in the collection process, only one was strong enough to be transferred into her uterus, making their chances of conceiving even slimmer.

"It was emotionally draining ... that two weeks between the transfer and testing was the longest of my life."

A few days later, Niamh was out shopping when she felt a sharp pain in her abdomen. Although she initially feared this was a bad sign, she grins now as she recalls that moment. "I firmly believe now that was the embryo implanting ... in a shopping centre."

While waiting to do the test, Niamh eventually lost patience and secretly bought one, and then another and another. More than six tests later she realised she was definitely pregnant. When she told Maurice just before Father's Day 2012, he was worried and scolded her: "He was afraid because I did it early."

And then, just as things were looking positive, Niamh started to bleed heavily. She had been told the risks of possible miscarriage and feared that her chance of having a family was slipping out of her grasp: "I sat in bed all day crying [and] texting Maurice, saying I was really sorry, I shouldn't have tested early." Niamh berated herself for days while waiting to take another pregnancy test. Finally the time arrived. "We bought two digital tests – it said 'pregnant two to three weeks' I was still pregnant. I remember ringing my mam and I said, 'Hello Nana'."

With the pregnancy confirmed, the couple had a few weeks until the first scan. At seven weeks, Niamh and Maurice waited nervously as the doctor did an internal scan. "I looked at Maurice. I started to cry and so did he, it was literally a blob, but we could see the little heart beating."

Finally, everything was normal and Niamh was considered to be a regular pregnant woman with the same symptoms and risks – "I was a hormonal mess, but when the baby kicked first, that was just magical."

Fortunately, the pregnancy was uneventful until Niamh was briefly hospitalised for high blood pressure in the final weeks. With threatened preeclampsia, she was soon induced.

She admits that labour was very tough. "I have no pain threshold ... when [the doctor] said I was only one centimetre, I felt like kicking him in the head ... I remember thinking 'I can't do this'."

But she did and only 13 months after having her worst fears confirmed, Niamh gave birth to a baby girl named Emily Therese. "Holding her for the first time – she looked like me. I put her to my chest and burst into tears."

With four-week-old Emily in her arms, Niamh beams. "Motherhood is better [than expected]. I didn't think that I could love anybody more [than my parents or Maurice] and I didn't expect that at half three in the morning, I would be thinking 'I love you so much that I don't mind being awake'."

While she has no regrets, Niamh is realistic about the process. "It's so expensive and it's tough on people when it doesn't work.

"I don't think that I'd be able to do it again – it's very tough emotionally. It wasn't until after we were told it had worked, we realised how hard it had been, regardless of all our positivity."

The family marked the original wedding weekend with a different celebration than they anticipated 18 months ago; Emily's christening.

Looking at her baby girl, Niamh glows

"It is a tough experience but look at her, she's so worth it. I have a bib for her and it says: 'Worth the Wait' and I put it on her all the time."

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