When Is Enough, Enough? Does Fertility Treatment Have an End?

Some things are really hard to hear. Whether it is as simple as how your hair looks or how you look in that dress to how to treat an aggressive medical condition, the truth can really hurt. And oftentimes, accepting the truth can be nearly impossible. However, there are only so many times that you can hold your hands to your ears and play deaf. There are only so many times that you can ignore the flashing red lights in front of you. Ultimately, if you don’t change lanes you will find yourself at a roadblock that you can’t overcome or pass. However, knowing when it’s time to get out of the lane can be the hardest part. That’s what we are here for.   

As fertility doctors, our job is to guide you, to support you, to educate you, and ultimately to help you achieve your dreams of becoming a parent. We take the information provided to us by blood tests, ultrasounds, medical history, semen analyses, and family histories and with it try to see what is off, which pieces in this puzzle are not fitting together and how can we put the pieces back together.  

However, our job goes way beyond diagnosis. We are also there to implement and design treatment plans. Some plans you may like, and others, you may not. Some may seem too aggressive; others, too lax. Some may seem too involved, and others, too casual. Whatever it may be, you have to take the information and options presented to you, process them, and then proceed.  

But we cannot simply stand on the sidelines and watch you run into a 320-pound linebacker without a helmet. While your fertility doctor should be frank with you throughout your entire treatment course, this is particularly true when deciding on the best treatment strategy.   

At some point, the seesaw of pros versus cons is no longer even close to even. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine defines this tipping point as futile treatment (≤1% chance of achieving a live birth) and very poor prognosis treatment (>1% to ≤ 5% per cycle). Allowing a patient to continue to try when the odds are so incredibly low and not sharing such information is, in our opinion, criminal. Honesty is imperative in any doctor-patient relationship, but it is especially essential in fertility medicine.  

While we want to help you achieve your dream, we must be honest with you about the likelihood of achieving these dreams. Sometimes, dreams must be modified (donor eggs rather than your own eggs, a gestational carrier rather than your own uterus) in order to end happily.  

Closing the chapter on any stage of life can be difficult. It is wrought with confusion and anxiety. We are here to help you through this process, to help you move through the pages, and to reach the ending that will make you feel the most complete and the most content. Telling you what you want to hear may make you feel better, but it will likely not make you a baby. And although hearing what we have to say may sting, it may be the bite that leads you to parenthood. And in our line of work, parenthood is paramount. 

Scraped, Sucked, and Now Scarred: Uterine Adhesions

What’s going on inside your uterus is not a thought that crosses most of our minds on a daily basis. Sure, we are reminded of that organ every month when “Aunt Flo” arrives, but unless you are a medical student, a gynecologist, or a woman who is having problems getting or holding on to a pregnancy, you are probably not all that aware of your uterus. But news flash…the uterus is a pretty important organ with an essential role in reproduction.

This may come as a surprise, but it is actually a muscle. Yup, that’s why you get those intense monthly cramps—and why Advil and Motrin work so well at taking them down a notch. The uterus’s primary job is to carry a pregnancy. And not to get all science-y or medical, but when you think about how the uterus grows and shrinks, thickens and sheds, and carries and delivers, it’s sort of unbelievable. While its marathon is not 26 miles, it actually can go the distance for you several times in your life (depending on how many pregnancies you have). It goes from the size of an orange to the size of a watermelon, all in matter of nine months. Pretty unbelievable stuff!

So, how can you tell if your muscle is in tiptop shape? Obviously, given its location, you can’t stare at it in the mirror as it flexes! The best indication of how your uterus is functioning is the arrival of your monthly “friend.” For women who are not on hormonal contraception (pills, patch, IUD), you should expect a period about every 30 days. While the regularity of your period is not the focus of this piece, and you shouldn’t call your GYN to report a 27- vs. a 32-day cycle, no period or very minimal/light flow might be evidence that something is off inside your uterine cavity. Changes in the character (heavy vs. light) or content (days) of bleeding can also be the signal to seek help.

The uterine cavity (a.k.a. womb) is composed of two layers: the basalis and the functionalis. Think of the basalis as the bottom or the base and the functionalis as the top, or the functioning layer. Every month, when a woman menstruates, she sheds her functionalis, or functioning part. After its departure, the basalis works to replenish or restock this very important important aisle. When damage occurs, the front-line functionalis is the first to take the hit, and as you can imagine, the more soldiers lost, the worse the situation.

And while the uterus takes losing its front line hard, it takes losing its reserve troops (the basalis) even harder. Damage sustained down to the basalis can cause irreparable harm. If you lose the basalis, then not only do you lose that month’s war, but you will also lose all wars in the future. This is because your body will have no way to regrow what has been lost. So bottom line, varying degrees of insult can have varying degrees of injury. Maybe it really is all about the base…

However, while scar tissue in the uterus can translate into no period, what your uterus does is often a reflection of the message that your ovaries (and actually your brain) are sending its way. That’s why women who don’t produce estrogen for any number of reasons (too much exercise, too little food, or even menopause) don’t get a period. No estrogen = no uterine lining. No uterine lining = no period. The estrogen produced by your ovaries works to thicken the uterine lining (a.k.a. the uterine cavity).

So in many cases, women who are not getting a period have a functioning uterus. If the appropriate hormones are delivered in the appropriate fashion, all systems will be a go. Differentiating between the two and trying to figure out where the roadblock is, is actually fairly easy.

While it does take a visit to your OB/GYN and in some cases a fertility specialist, finding out who “did it” is simpler than a game of Clue. Professor Plum in the study with a candlestick it is not. A good history focusing on previous pregnancies, particularly how they ended D&Cs, abortions, retained placenta, and even a C-Section is of the utmost importance. These are the flashing red lights for who may have scar tissue lingering in their uterus and preventing a future pregnancy from occurring. Asherman’s syndrome is the medical term for this condition.

The uterus can develop scar tissue in response to some sort of an injury. Just like any scrape, cut, or bruise, the more significant the injury that caused it, the more significant the scar. While the injury is most frequently a D&C (dilation and curettage) after a pregnancy (be it a miscarriage, an abortion, or a piece of placenta that remained inside after a delivery), it can result from other causes (i.e. an IUD or an infection).

The degree of scarring can be determined by looking inside the uterus with a variety of imaging tests (ultrasound, hysterosalpingogram , hysteroscopy). It can also be suggested by how light, heavy, or absent your period is. For example, if the scar tissue is severe, it could have damaged most of the uterine cavity; this would cause minimal or no bleeding (medically termed amenorrhea). So while the ovaries are sending all the right signals, the uterus lacks the ability to respond to the message.

Even the most extreme cases of scarring can frequently be fixed. You just need to find a good doctor who has a good idea how to navigate the situation. Uterine scarring requires surgery to remove the adhesions (a.k.a. scar tissue) and restore the cavity (a.k.a. womb) to its original shape. While it can make a major difference in your baby-bearing ability, it is a fairly minor procedure, an outpatient procedure that lasts no more than a couple of hours.

The cervix is dilated to allow the placement of a camera. The camera is connected to a monitor (don’t worry; there will be no broadcasting or streaming!), which allows the surgeon a front-row seat to what is going on inside. After identifying the damaged tissue, instruments are threaded through a channel on the camera. The surgeon’s instrument of choice (we like scissors) is used to remove the scarring. Following the procedure, a tiny catheter is placed into the uterus to keep the uterine walls from touching each other for the next five to seven days. Additionally, while the catheter is camped out in your uterus, you will start about a 21- to 28-day course of estrogen and progesterone. The theory behind this cocktail, catheter, and medications, is to go full force on rebuilding a healthy uterine lining.

So does it work? Can even the most damaged of uteri be remodeled? In most cases, yes….mild and moderate cases of uterine scarring are fairly responsive to treatment. Most women go on to have monthly menses (can’t believe you would ever cheer about that, right?) and conceive. Subsequent pregnancies can be at higher risk for placental implantation problems (placenta previa, accreta), but most go the distance without any issues.

Severe cases can present even the most experienced surgeons with a formidable challenge. While it’s often not the removal of the damaged tissue that keeps the red light red, it’s the uterus’s ability to restore good healthy tissue that keeps things at a halt. If damage was sustained all the way down to the basalis, restoring a functioning cavity can be nearly impossible. In such cases, although recreating a functional cavity may evade even the most gifted surgeons, pregnancy can be achieved with the use of a gestational carrier.

Many things in life happen outside of our control. Even the most type-A of us who fight to plan and control every minute (trust us, we get it!) can’t script how our uterus will react to an insult. However, we can outline a plan of attack if something should seem off. If you feel that something is not right, go speak to your GYN, and leave out no details. We need to have all the facts when it comes to your medical history.

Together, we can come up with a road map to navigate a path through even the roughest of waters. It may take a lot of fight, including a few trips to the operating room and a few rounds of estrogen/progesterone, but ultimately with  time, the battle can almost always be won.

Seriously, Noooo Sperm! What Azoospermia Really Means to Men

Getting the phone call that you have flunked (even worse, scored a “zero”) yours or your guy’s semen analysis can be pretty devastating. The rush of emotions that runs through your head is more extreme than the waves seen in the famous Eddie Aikau surf competition. And when you realize what it could mean for your fertility, it’s like wiping out and then getting worked by the wave all in one go.

The first thing you should do is take a deep breath. One semen analysis doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. However, if the repeat test confirms that there is nothing there, further investigative work needs to be done.

The medical term for no sperm is azoospermia (this is different than aspermia, which is the absence of sperm and seminal fluid at the time of ejaculation). Because men with azoospermia frequently have normal ejaculates, they can go undiagnosed for years—sperm is microscopic, so unless someone is looking really close at it with a high-powered lens, you can’t see those swimmers.

While azoospermia is every guy’s fear, it is actually pretty rare, phew! Only about 1% of all men have azoospermia (it is higher in couples that suffer from male factor infertility, and in these patients can be as high as 15%).

If your guy is one of the unlucky 1% and are searching for answers and information, we recommend thinking about it in the following way: Imagine you have three connecting flights coming into the airport at the same time. One is from New York City, one is from Boston, and one is from Atlanta. They are all connecting through Chicago to LA—all the passengers will be on the same second flight although they originated in different places. Azoospermia is the end point for post-testicular, testicular, and pre-testicular conditions; they all arise from different diseases (or departing cities) but ultimately land in the same place.

From City A, we have post-testicular azoospermia. (The testicles are making sperm, but there is a blockage preventing it from exiting and getting in the ejaculate). From City B, you have testicular azoospermia. In these cases, the exit pathway is clear, but the testicles are not producing sperm. The latter or “B” cases are generally much more difficult and often require donor sperm. From City C, we have pre-testicular azoospermia. Here, the testes are ready and waiting, but the signal is either not coming down correctly from the brain OR, due to underlying endocrine (hormonal) problems, the testes have failed to produce sperm.

After the initial diagnosis of azoospermia has been confirmed (two azoospermic samples where the seminal fluid is centrifuged for 15 minutes at super-high speed), your guy is usually sent to a urologist (specifically, one that specializes in male factor infertility) to see which “city” you have departed from. Through a full review of the medical history, a physical exam, an ultrasound, and lots of blood work, the urologist can usually get to the bottom of why there does not appear to be any sperm in the ejaculate. The tests that your partner will go through in many ways will mimic what you have been asked to do—we will check his FSH , LH , testosterone, thyroid hormone , and prolactin. We will also do extensive genetic testing to see if we can identify the problem.

It’s very important to do the full genetic work-up because there are often abnormalities which, if identified, can be passed on to future generations. Not good. While you may not know exactly what or why we are testing your plus one for, you should make sure that a full testing panel is performed. You should also make sure that you sit with both yours and your partner’s doctor so that, together, you come up with the best plan for you as a couple.

We don’t expect to make you urologists or even sperm connoisseurs, but we do want to help you better understand the potential answers to the azoospermia conundrum. We are going to give you a very basic review (and no quiz!) to help you better answer the questions that are likely racing through your head the minute you get the news.  

Flight A = Post-testicular Azoospermia: Here the problem happens not in the testes but after the testes. Going back to basic bio, the problems happen in the ducts that connect the testes to the urethra (think vas deferens). It can also occur from ejaculatory dysfunction. We don’t want you to cringe or try and picture it in your head, but the visual that you should have is that, in most cases, the testes are making lots of good-quality sperm. The sperm has just been stranded on an island waiting for a rescue boat (or connecting flight!). The rescue boat is either a surgical procedure to unblock the blockage (basically re-open the road), or if the road is totally beyond repair (think most major cities highways), then we go above the blockage (a.k.a. the testes). The latter is called a testicular extraction of sperm (nickname TESE or TESA). Surgically, a urologist will enter the testes and extract sperm (ouch, that doesn’t sound fun—don’t worry, you will get anesthesia!). This sperm can be used to fertilize eggs in an IVF cycle. The rescue mission is usually successful, and the resultant pregnancy rates are often quite good. Bonus is that we can often freeze sperm for use in the future (like years later) IVF cycles. Obstructive azo (as we fertility doctors call it) occurs in about 40% of men with azoospermia.

Flight B = Testicular Azoospermia: When the testes themselves are the cause of no sperm, it can be a bad situation. Like planes in a blizzard, nothing is taking off for a long time. Despite our advancements and flashy technology, much like ovarian failure, we cannot overcome testicular failure. Think of testicular failure like premature menopause; for some reason, the testes stopped making sperm long before their time. We usually know that we are dealing with option B (as opposed to A) because the FSH is elevated and the testosterone is low. Much like ovaries that are sort of done, when the testes stop working, testosterone (which is made in the testes) stops being produced. Last, in a physical exam, the testes are small (medically termed atrophic), and we have a pretty good idea we won’t find sperm. However, with this being said, barring a serious genetic condition, many urologists and fertility doctors will still go for the testicular sperm extraction surgery to confirm that we are truly running on empty. However, it is important to note that many testicular cases of azoospermia are a result of genetic abnormalities. Unfortunately, we don’t really know many of the genes causing the significant decline in sperm production. Therefore, if the sperm is successfully extracted and used to fertilize eggs, you could be passing some “bad fertility/sperm genes” on without even knowing what they are. While we are not saying you should not use the sperm, we are recommending that you chat with your doctors and a genetics counselor first.

Flight C: Pre-testicular azoospermia causes of azoospermia are the rarest. They are most frequently due to hormonal abnormalities that result in testicular failure or mixed signals coming down from the brain. If the brain is on a break and does not appear to be doing its job (or something is impinging on its ability to do its job), we can usually fix that. With the help of medications, we can get things back on track. It may take several months to get the engines going again, but it will get there. In fact, if sperm production can be restored, your guy may not need any surgical interventions, and while you still may need our help to get pregnant, you may not need IVF.

There is almost nothing more devastating than hearing that you or your plus one has run out of eggs or sperm before your time was supposed to be up. It’s unfair, it’s frustrating, and it can be downright infuriating. While using our services or donor sperm (if it comes to that) is likely not how you envisioned making a family, our goal is to make you a father. We can most certainly do that; even when the waves seem big and you can’t imagine riding another one, we promise you can. Just hang ten, and let us guide you to calmer waters.

Round and Round You Go: We Hope It Stops Where You Want to Go!

Unfortunately, it is more the norm for us to see or hear about couples (and individuals) that have undergone years of fertility treatments without success. Month after month, they take medications, inject themselves with hormones, and hold their breath as they wait for the pregnancy test results. For many of these patients, be it for medical reasons, financial reasons, insurance reasons, or misguided reasons, there is little that is changed between the negative cycles. We like to call this the merry-go-round effect: couples/individuals who continue the same ineffective treatments month after month without redirecting or reanalyzing the situation. It’s a bad situation that we want to help you change.

Let’s face it: after the same treatment, be it timed intercourse, oral medications, inseminations, or IVF, has failed continuously, something needs to change. Whether it be moving on to more aggressive treatments (or, as we say, stepping up the ladder!), tweaking the current protocol, or seeking a second opinion, you need to shake things up. There are many available fertility treatments that can be, and likely should be, utilized.

A patient-doctor relationship should be a partnership with give and take, as well as back and forth. Gone are the paternalistic days of medicine where the doctor speaks and the patient listens. Treatment decisions should no longer be dictated, but rather, discussed. If this is not happening for you and you find yourself in the merry-go-round rut, then you need to put the brakes on. Make a phone call, send an email, or sit down with your doctor to review your case. Bring your list of questions, and ask away.

If you don’t like the answers, don’t be afraid to take them and your struggles elsewhere. At some point, you have to either ask the attendant to stop the ride or simply hop off. Eventually, circling in the same direction stops being fun, exciting, or promising; it also makes you nauseous, dizzy, and loopy!

So be your own advocate, and shut this ride down. The park is huge, with so many more rides and adventures to explore.

What Goes up Must Come Down: What to Expect AFTER an Egg Retrieval

To all you cyclists, runners, rock-climbers, and challenge-takers, the hill can be a real beast on the way up. Pushing towards that summit can be exhausting and physically painful. However, once you peak and start the descent it’s a feeling like no other. You did it. Now, enjoy the reward of the downhill. Much the same can be said of the post-retrieval bloat, discomfort, and weight gain. After you reach the peak, it is smooth sailing.

Women are often shocked at how much worse they feel after the retrieval than before. While the swelling, heaviness, and blah feeling are definitely there before the retrieval, they’re about 10 times worse after! When we tell patients this, they’re often shocked. How can that be? You’re taking the eggs out; shouldn’t the symptoms get better? No, in fact, they get worse!

Let’s do a little Bio 101. Eggs are housed in fluid-filled follicles, and follicles live in the ovaries. Many follicles = big ovaries. Seems simple. During the egg retrieval, we drain the follicles of their fluid, and within that fluid comes the eggs. However, after the follicles are drained of fluid they fill with blood. They become corpus lutea (plural for corpus luteum—you learn something new every day!). The CLs (everyone needs a nickname) make a lot of hormones that can make you feel not so hot (#progesterone). Additionally, they often fill with blood. As a result, the ovary stays enlarged, and your belly stays big. This hormone soup keeps the ovaries large, the belly filled with fluid, and you feeling like a balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!

Okay, so I am going to feel awful…how long will this go on? The length of the post-retrieval to menses (a.k.a. period) varies based on the trigger shot you were given. Women that get straight HCG or ovidrel will feel the bloat for about 12–14 days. The HCG hormone in both of these formulations is like gas for the ovaries—they keep the ovaries charged and the hormones pumping. And although the symptoms will improve significantly after about seven days, you won’t be back in your skinny jeans until you get a period about 14 days later.

If you were given a Lupron or Lupron +HCG trigger, your period of pain will be protracted (that’s why we give it!). Most women will start to feel better about three to four days after the retrieval and get their period about seven days later. For the majority of women, the blah-blech feeling will steadily increase post-retrieval until you hit the peak about three-ish days later; the summit will be higher and the climb further if your trigger medication was straight-up HCG with no Lupron chaser.

When embryos are transferred back into the uterus during the stimulation cycle and you get pregnant, it’s like you are racing the Tour De France rather than your local 10-miler. The pregnancy will make HCG, and the HCG will make that hill way longer. You won’t recover for several weeks into the pregnancy. It is for this reason, along with new data on the OB benefits of fresh cycles, that we push you to press pause and freeze the embryos. Trust us. Your body, your ovaries, and your brain will thank us.

They say life is about the journey and not the destination. And we mostly agree with that. However, in terms of ovarian stimulation and the aftereffects it’s all about the destination. The climb up will likely not be fun. Keep your eye on the top, and take one step at a time. We’re right there beside you, cheering you on!

I Am Ready to Race Again; Is It Too Soon? Pregnancy Interval

For any of you who have competed in a long-distance competition (be it a run, a swim, a hike, or a bike), you know what it feels like to cross that finish line. Total euphoria—combined with a fair amount of exhaustion, pain, and lots of blisters! The first thought that runs through your head, after the “I can’t believe I actually made it” moment is either “When can I do it again?” or “I am NEVER doing that again!”

The first group is already planning their next race, mapping out their training schedule, and thinking about how they could have done it better. While the “Okay, I can check that off my bucket list group” is looking for the nearest bar, a bath, and a bed. In many ways, pregnancy, labor, and having a newborn is very similar to the training and racing of a long-distance competition.

While the “Yes, let’s do it again” and the “No, I am so out” camps in pregnancy and parenthood are more fluid than the participants in long-distance competitions, (hard-core Group B members may move into Group A), people usually have a pretty set idea about how many times they want to be pregnant, how many times they want to give birth, and how many children they want.

Most of us even have a pretty good idea about how close together we want our kids to be (medically termed birth spacing). Whether you want them back-to-back or you prefer to space them apart is a personal decision. But how soon you can hop back on the baby machine is dependent on more than just your feeling ready. It also depends on factors out of your control such as if you had a C-Section or a vaginal delivery, if issues like high blood pressure or diabetes complicated your pregnancy, and if you required any additional procedures post-delivery. These all can hold you up even if your heart is ready to race again.

Regardless of what went down during your pregnancy, the time between delivery and a pregnancy should be AT LEAST 18 months. Any shorter inter-pregnancy interval can increase the chance of preterm delivery, premature placental separation (placental abruption), pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure in pregnancy), placenta previa (particularly after a C-Section), low birth-weight babies, and autism.

While the definitive reason behind why these events occur more frequently is debatable, fingers seem to point towards the “maternal depletion hypothesis.” Pregnancy and the stressors of a newborn takes a lot out of you, and your body needs time to re-fuel and re-energize before it starts the race again. Stressing the system before it is ready to function can interfere with its ability to do its job well.

Among the organs in the body that need a break, the uterus is at the top of that list, especially after a C-Section. The uterus is a muscle, and a muscle that is injured (particularly cut and sewn back together) needs to heal. Without adequate time to heal, there is a higher chance that it will open (a.k.a. rupture which is life threatening to  you and the baby) in the subsequent delivery. Furthermore, women who had a C-Section and want to try for a vaginal delivery in their next pregnancy (vaginal birth after cesarean section=VBAC) need extra-extra time to rest their uterus before it is pushed to push.

You don’t have to decide which group you are going to side with moments after crossing the pregnancy finish line (#delivery). Labor can be long and exhausting. Give it some time before you wave the “Yes, I want another baby” or “No way; I am done” flags. Even if you are raring to go moments after the race is over, give it time before you line up at the next start line. Hydrate, stretch, rest—do whatever it takes to get you ready to go again. The time off will do you good—and your next pregnancy.

How Old Is Too Old? The Age Limit for Pregnancy

We have all heard the stories, seen the headlines, and talked about it over the water cooler on Monday morning: “66-year-old woman delivers twins,” “65-year-old woman delivers quadruplets,” and most recently, “72-year-old woman delivers baby” (that last one really made us stop in our tracks)! It gets us talking and gets us thinking: How old is too old for a woman to have a baby? Is pregnancy in your 60s really healthy? Is it fair for a child to be born to parents who are 60?

The questions are endless. And although we are not advocating for Congress to raise the age for Social Security or cut Medicare benefits, we do believe (as does the American Society of Reproductive Medicine) that at some point we all must throw in our reproductive towel. Here’s why.

Let’s start by shedding light on how we women in our 50s and beyond (as well as most women in their late 40s) conceive. In nearly all cases, the pregnancies have been achieved with donated eggs. By the time we hit our mid-40s, our egg supply has pretty much gone kaput. And the ones that are still hanging around often lack the ability to make a healthy embryo.

But while the ovaries have waved goodbye to most things fertility, the uterus is still hanging on. It is like that friend you had growing up who could be dared to do anything (you know the kind we’re talking about… “Dare you to eat a worm…”). The uterus is sort of a pushover for anything with estrogen and progesterone. However, like your middle school friend, just because it will do it doesn’t mean it should do it.

There are guidelines released by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (they’re sort of like the fertility FBI) suggesting at what age people should and should not be pregnant (no matter how willing their uterus is!). This is what they have to say:

“Physicians should obtain a complete medical evaluation before deciding to attempt transfer of embryos to any woman over age 50. Embryo transfer should be strongly discouraged or denied to any woman over age 50 with underlying issues that could increase or further obstetrical risks and discouraged in women over age 55 without any issues.” (ASRM Ethics Committee)

Let us translate. What they are really saying is that it’s okay to attempt pregnancy in women over the age of 50 as long as they have really, really clean bills of health. It is not okay to transfer embryos, no matter how clean their bill of health, if they are over the age of 55. And while they don’t have your phones wired and your Internet tapped, even if you as the doctor or the patient don’t get “caught” doing this, if you violate the rules, you could get hurt.

Pregnancy complications increase markedly as women age. It can be a pretty dangerous nine months for both mother and baby. In medicine, when the risks start to approach the benefits, you have to seriously stop and consider what you are doing. Donor egg pregnancies in women who are above the age of 55 are one of those times. There is an increased risk of pre-eclampsia (pregnancy-induced high blood pressure), gestational diabetes, low fetal birth weight and, in some studies, fetal mortality. Additionally, nearly three quarters of the babies born to woman above the age of 50 are delivered via C-Section—and while we all think of a C-Section as nothing, it is a major surgical procedure.

Pregnancy is somewhat of a conundrum for us doctors. It is the first time and the only time that you have two patients AT ONCE (in the same body!). It is not only difficult medically but also ethically. Donor egg pregnancies in women who are older than 50 bring up the “fair-to-child” debate. This topic is more controversial than who you voted for this election season.

Let’s just say it’s a good thing there are curtains at the polling places and in doctor’s offices—privacy is key! And while medical ethicists could debate this topic for hours (similar to MSNBC and Fox re: presidential candidates) citing studies and data points on both ends, the bottom line is that no one really knows the answer.

There are those who say that it is not uncommon for grandparents to raise grandchildren, to provide economic support to the family/children, and to serve as the parents in a family unit, so what’s the big deal with women getting pregnant in their 50s? Is it sexist to limit a woman’s ability to have a child while allowing older men to keep on keeping on, no matter how old they are? Shouldn’t women be given the same opportunity as men?

On the flip side, there are those who argue that older parents can’t meet the physical and emotional demands of raising a child. And furthermore, there is a fairly good chance that the child will lose one or both parents at a young age—how can losing a parent or parent (s) before adulthood be fair to a child?

It’s a pretty intense debate. And while all the speaking points may get muddled in your head and you don’t really know whose side you are on, what is important to remember is the following: our jobs as MDs is to keep you informed and healthy. If we think something could hurt you, no matter how badly you want a baby, we must hold up a big flashing STOP sign. While we want to make you a parent and help you build a family, our primary duty is to keep you healthy.

When we say no, it is not because we are being ageists, it’s because we are being “aware-ists.” We are aware of what could go wrong and don’t want to see this happen to you. We won’t play truth or dare with your health. Trust us, no dare is worth it.

The Retrieval: The “Eggs” Are Cooked!

After multiple days and nights of shots, several early morning ultrasounds, and endless blood draws, D Day has arrived: it’s time for the retrieval! Your doctor has used the information from these early AM get-togethers to time the procedure perfectly. While the goal is to obtain the highest number of mature eggs (remember, only mature eggs can be fertilized!), we don’t want to risk quality. Therefore, while the shots could go on and on (don’t look so excited!), we stop them when we feel we have hit the sweet spot—the highest number of mature high-quality eggs.

The retrieval (a.k.a. the egg extraction) will occur approximately 35 hours after the trigger/final shot (hCG, ovidrel). The finale of shots and the retrieval are timed so that the eggs have reached their “finale” in maturation when they make their curtain call in the embryology lab!

In nearly all cases, the egg retrieval will take place in an operating room adjacent to the embryology lab. And while it may be cold in there (brrrr, blankets please!), there will be many people ready to make the experience less frigid and less frightening. In addition to the physician, the nursing staff, and the operating room staff, there will most likely be an anesthesiologist present who will administer pain medication to you during the procedure. This will alleviate almost all of the discomfort and erase most of your memory of the procedure. However, because anesthesia will be given, we ask you not to eat or drink anything after midnight on the night of the procedure (a small price to pay for a pain-free experience!).

The egg retrieval is a vaginal procedure; with the help of a vaginal ultrasound, physicians watch themselves as they pass a needle through the vagina into the ovary and ultimately into the follicle. The needle is attached to a suction system which, when activated via a foot pedal, allows the follicular fluid and egg to drain into a tube.

The tube filled with follicular fluid and hopefully an egg is walked from the operating room into the IVF laboratory; an embryologist will be anxiously awaiting its arrival (let the egg hunt begin!). In most cases, the retrieval is pretty short and straightforward and takes no longer than 20 minutes (timing can vary based on how many follicles you have to drain). You will wake up in the recovery room with little memory of the event, asking us when it is going to start!

In many ways, although the egg retrieval feels like the finish line, your journey is only just beginning. And while the stomach/thigh shots will come to a halt as well as the early AM rendezvous, the waiting game has just begun. Much of the real information about egg, sperm, and embryo quality will come over the next several days.

Although the waiting game is the worst, a lot of information will be gleaned during this time period. One word of advice: be aware of the dropoff that will inevitably occur over the course of the next few days. Follicle number does not equal egg number, egg number does not equal embryo number, and embryo number does not equal baby. (LINK: 5 + 5 = 2? The Difference between Follicle Count and Embryo Number) If you are prepared for this dropoff, the loss will be easier. Remember—don’t count your chickens before they hatch!

I Am in the Mood for a Chocolate Chip Cookie…Follicles and Ovarian Reserve.

Who doesn’t like a good gooey, moist, chocolate-filled chocolate chip cookie? The more chips the better, says every part of your body but your tush! The same can be said for the follicles (and eggs) in your ovaries. The more, the better—at least most of the time!

A big part of the fertility assessment is ovarian reserve. You probably hear your fertility doctor throw this term around like it’s candy (or cookies! ): “Your ovarian reserve looks good!” “Your ovarian reserve is not so good.” You may be nodding and thinking, “What in the world are they talking about?”

Ovarian reserve is the medical way of saying how many eggs you have and what their quality is. While most of our assessment comes from hormones and blood work (cue FSH and AMH), a big “bite of the cookie” comes from our ultrasound. This ingredient is as basic as sugar and flour to making a finger-licking calorie worth its cookie.

An ultrasound performed in the early part of your menstrual cycle (a.k.a. the follicular phase) can tell us a lot about what your ovaries have left to give. Is your bag of chips half full, or are you running dangerously low on supply? By measuring the follicles (a.k.a. “chocolate chips”), we can get a good idea about the egg quantity (a.k.a. ovarian reserve). We call this measurement of follicles your antral follicle count (nicknamed AFC).

An AFC is ideally done on day 2–5 of the menstrual cycle. By doing it early, we can catch you at what we like to call baseline. “Home base” is when we can get the best idea about what is going on in those ovaries because no follicles have yet to start running the bases.

Eggs are invisible (to the naked human eye). It doesn’t matter how high we crank the ultrasound waves, we will never be able to see those eggs unless we bust out our microscopes and speed-dial our embryologist friends. Eggs live in follicles. (Picture a dozen eggs that you would buy in a grocery store—the shells cover the eggs. Unless you crack them, you won’t see them.) We need to count follicles to find out about egg number. Although it is an indirect measure of ovarian reserve, it is pretty on point.

We do a lot of ultrasounds. We can look at the screen and pretty quickly size up those ovaries. But a little baker’s secret for all of you laypeople—the little black circles in the ovaries are the follicles. (Anything fluid filled on an ultrasound will be black). The ovaries are usually grayish/white. So put that together, and what do you get? Bibbidi bobbidi CHEW! You probably get the visual at this point…the more follicles (number of chocolate chips) in the ovaries, the chewier they look. The chewier they are, the more eggs you have!

On the flip side (or the less tasty side), the fewer the follicles and the more white/gray ovary, the lower the antral follicle count. The lower the antral follicle counts, the fewer the eggs. It’s a simple as your most basic recipe!

Surprisingly there are some times when cookies can be just too sweet. You know when you take that first bite, and you think, hmm, I can’t go much further? Well, the same goes for ovaries. There are some with too many chips. Polycystic ovaries can have too many follicles or structures that look like follicles. There is a plethora (think many, many bags) of these small follicles/cysts that can impact the regularity with which you ovulate and your ability to make a baby on your own. It can also lead to elevated testosterone levels and cause all of those unfavorable side effects (think hair and pimples).

Back in the day, women with “PCO ovaries” were routinely taken to the operating room to remove a piece of their ovary to cut down on these small follicles/cysts and all the negative things that they bring.

Just like chocolate chip cookies, we all have brands we prefer. Some of us swear by Duncan Hines, while others of us go for the Nestle Tollhouse. And there are those that are out there and like to make them themselves (go, girl, go!). Whatever your sweet tooth desires, there is something to get it going. Ovaries are the same way. Some of us may have chocolate chips galore while others of us are more like a sugar cookie.

While antral follicle count tells us a lot about what your egg number may be, it does not mean that just because your bag needs to be refilled, you won’t have a baby. It just helps us pick the right ingredients (fertility meds) in the right amount to make your cookie!

Why We Say that IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) Is Therapeutic and Diagnostic…

What on earth are those ladies talking about? Have they lost their minds? How can treatment tell you more about what the problem is than the diagnostic tests themselves? Isn’t the treatment supposed to treat the problem, not tell you what’s wrong? Yes and no and everything in between. Hold your questions for a moment, because we have answers.

A good chunk of couples today suffer from unexplained infertility. While much of that infertility is thought to be related to egg quality, often times unexplained infertility dodges our current diagnostic capabilities (the tests in our arsenal). No matter what tests we perform on you and your partner, we find nothing. Blood work, physical exams, ultrasounds, sperm checks, and the tube test: they all come back normal. This can be beyond frustrating, for both you and us! We want to give you answers just as much as you want answers. Unfortunately, despite our endless years of schooling, training, and post-training, we can’t.

In many cases, we can’t tell you about your reason for infertility until you go through treatment (a.k.a. IVF) and we take a magnifying glass to your gametes  and embryos.

Yes, ovarian reserve testing (FSH, AMH, AFC) tells us a whole lot. While these tests often help us diagnose the problem (diminished ovarian reserve-low egg quantity) and give us a good idea about how to treat the problem (and how much medication to treat it with), they don’t always tell the whole story. There are many women who have tons of follicles/eggs but have very poor egg quality. However, when their eggs come out and the resultant embryos don’t divide well, degenerate, and don’t make babies, we by the transitive property (woo-hoo, algebra) know a lot about the embryo quality. Furthermore, if such embryos make it to PGS (pre-implantation genetic screening = genetic testing for abnormal chromosome number), the abnormal-to-normal ratio can surprise us and provide even more answers to a previously unanswerable problem.

One of the most interesting parts of our job is to spend time in the IVF laboratory. Watching our skilled colleagues (embryologists) as they manipulate eggs, sperms, and embryos is fascinating. Through our time in their presence, we have learned a lot about infertility, fertility, and the grey in between. Eggs that degenerate, sperm that is abnormally shaped, and embryos that arrest, fragment, and break down provide us with a lot of answers (#diagnosis). If you get pregnant, then it is also treatment.

In many ways, we find answers in the smallest or tiniest members of our crew. It is for this reason that we say, nearly three times a day, that “IVF is both diagnostic and therapeutic.”

IVF is certainly not always the answer, for either diagnosis or treatment. It doesn’t always work and doesn’t always succeed in getting women pregnant. Even when the embryo quality is an A++++ in embryology labs that are not giving triple-A ratings just to get in good standings, IVF can fail over and over again.

We do not have tunnel vision, and we are not afraid to change directions or ask for directions. We want to do what’s best, and if that does not mean IVF or Western medicine or traditional treatments, we are open to trying new things. But just remember, when you hear “IVF” and think, “I will never do that,” and your doctor says, “IVF is not only diagnostic but also therapeutic,” that person has not lost his or her mind! The lab lets us in on a whole lot and in many cases leaves you pregnant!