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Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: What to Do When Your First IVF Treatment Fails

Can’t stop, won’t stop; it’s not for nothing that this may be one of our favorite sayings. As overplayed as it might be and as trite as it might sound, it’s pretty much how we aim to live our lives, how we chose to tackle our challenges, and how we hope to make it to the end of a marathon. We push each other, we push ourselves, and we push ahead to get to OUR end.

But life is not a race, and there is no set finish line (except for the obvious one that we won’t harp on). How you end your day, how you end your career, and how you end any struggle in many ways is up to you. You set the start line, the halftime, and the finish line. Much can also be said for how many rounds of fertility treatment you decide to do and how long you continue to try for a baby.

Knowing when to call it quits can be nearly impossible. Whether professionally or personally, it’s hard to know when enough is enough. In terms of fertility treatment, specifically IVF cycles, how much is too much? How many is too many? When do you move on to something else?

A recent study from England published in a very prominent medical journal (JAMA) recently addressed this question. It got a whole lot of press and found its way into the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and all of the morning talk shows. It basically showed that women who hung in the game were more likely to get pregnant—quitting after a couple of failed IVF cycles was not the right move. Although they didn’t find a magic cutoff number after which patients should be told to exit stage left, they did find that nearly 70% of women under the age of 40 got pregnant after six IVF cycles. While about 30% of women got pregnant on the first cycle, many took longer to cross their finish line.

The results were less promising for women older than 40; while they also got pregnant at a higher rate after more IVF cycles, the total number did not exceed 30%. Bottom line, even though this study got as much press as a Kardashian wedding, it’s important not to misanalyze the data.

This study is NOT giving the green light to endless IVF and fertility treatments. This study is NOT saying that multiple IVF cycles are always the way to go. This study is NOT saying everyone who does multiple IVF cycles will get pregnant. This study is simply saying that, if you can emotionally, physically, and financially (unfortunately, finances come into play big time) swallow the treatment AND your doctor believes you are a good candidate, it’s okay to keep on keeping on.

Knowing when to bow out is nearly impossible. Unfortunately, there is no magic number. But here’s the CliffsNotes version from girls in the know… For starters, we use age, pregnancy history, and ovarian reserve testing to decide when enough is enough; these initial parameters can shed a lot of light about what’s to come.

Additionally, we use IVF response as a gauge of how much gas you have left in the tank—are you responding to medications, are you producing follicles, is your estrogen level rising?

Last, we use embryo development and, if available, embryo genetic testing results (PGS/CCS/TE biopsy, which tests for aneuploidy) to help patients decide whether further treatment is a go. For example, if patients have done several IVF cycles without any viable or normal embryos, we are hard pressed to recommend continued fertility treatments with your own eggs. And while no, history doesn’t always repeat itself, in these cases, it comes pretty close.

We are not dictators, czars, fortune tellers, or goddesses (although we wish we were)—and we are not afraid to admit that. We can’t tell you that more will be better; it may just cost more money, cause more physical discomfort, and evoke more emotional anguish. But quitting too early can be a real shame.

Just like in sports (from two women that love to pound the pavement!), there should always be a day for rest, always a moment to breathe, and always a time to stop. Without a break, you get injured. Without a day to sleep in, you get fatigued, and without days off from work, you get frustrated. In cases where there is no definable finish line for you or your partner, you may need your doctor to help you set it. When you collectively find that line in the sand, be careful not to step over it. Things will start to sink quickly on the other side.

The Art and Science of IVF

As first-year medical students sitting in the back of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine lecture hall, we had no idea what to expect from the Art and Science of Medicine course. We all thought of ourselves as scientists (I mean, this was medical school!). Art was far from most of our minds. Questions like “What will this class be like?,” “Will it be lecture-based or textbook-based?,” and “Will the exams be graded or simply marked Pass or Fail?” flooded our minds. In typical Jaime and Sheeva fashion, poised with pens in our hands (we were both ferocious note takers!), we were ready to transcribe every word uttered by the lecturer to soak up and eventually memorize every piece of data shared. However, what followed surprised us: we would not be note taking, we would not be studying, and we would not be test taking.

We would learn about the art of medicine.

Art and medicine may strike some of you as odd. It did us! Medicine is a practice rooted in science and data, not color or design. The people you knew who became doctors did it because they liked facts, not pictures. However, in reality, how we diagnose a disease, how we treat a problem, and how we formulate a plan are really an art. The many available imaging modalities, medications, and surgical procedures are our colors. How we blend them to get the best outcome for you, the patient, is our art.

For fertility doctors, ovarian stimulation in particular (a.k.a. how you get the ovaries to produce multiple eggs) is our art. What protocol we select for a patient, when we increase and decrease medications, and how to obtain the highest percentage of mature, good-quality eggs is our art (not to be confused with ART= assisted reproductive technology!). Sure, we have scientific data to guide us in our decisions, but what can make one IVF cycle more successful than the other has a lot to do with the art of ovarian stimulation. And we bring you back day after day for blood draw after blood draw and ultrasound after ultrasound not because we like to torture you but because it helps us customize your design, your art.

Don’t get us wrong. There is a lot of science in what we do. The laboratory is our science. The embryologists, the culture system, and the genetic testing are science. And without the science, our art is just some strokes on a blank canvas. It takes both, the art and the science, to treat a patient and to achieve success in all areas of medicine.

So, if you ever wonder why we do what do and how we decide on treatment protocols, they are our art. And when they are combined with science, it can make a beautiful picture!

Double Duty…Why Two Is Not Always Better Than One

It would be nearly impossible to count the number of times patients tell us the following regarding how many embryos to put back into the uterus: “I want two…it’s like two for the price of one!” “I want to be one and done!” “It’s like getting a twofer!”

And while we understand the desire for two (trust us, the thought of minimizing the number of times one is pregnant does sound appealing), twins are not just double strollers, matching onesies, and names that start with the same first letter. Twins and triplets-plus can be complicated, not only for the babies but also for the mother. Therefore, serious thought needs to be put into how many embryos are put back into the uterus.

Old-school fertility doctors routinely transferred several embryos into the uterus at one time; twins, triplets, and even quadruplets were sort of the “cost of doing business.” Back in the day, our IVF techniques weren’t so great. The procedures were new, and there were a lot of unknowns. To increase a patient’s chance of getting pregnant, multiple embryos were put in. Although even then, “the more the merrier” wasn’t our motto, (women are not meant to carry litters!), we were limited in our ability to identify which embryos had the best chance of making a healthy baby.

Fast-forward 20-plus years, and we are actually really, really good at this stuff. Not only do we know exactly what a three-day-old embryo needs to grow in versus a five-day-old embryo (can you believe it they are already picky eaters at this age!) but we also actually have the ability to check them and make sure they have the right number of chromosomes!

Now, while we can’t tell if they will look like you or your partner or go to Harvard or Yale, we can take a few cells and check to make sure they have the correct number of chromosomes. (The magic number is 46!) When this technique is done and a healthy embryo is found, we almost routinely only put one back in because even this guy or gal more than half the time makes a baby.

If you are considering an IVF cycle or are maybe even in the midst of one, make sure to have a long and serious discussion with your doctor about the number of embryos to transfer back in. Nowadays, not every IVF center is the same; many have the ability to grow embryos in the laboratory to day 5, rather than the traditional day 3. Although two days may seem inconsequential when it comes to most things in life, for an embryo, it’s a big deal. Just these 48 hours gives the embryo time to develop and the embryologist who is watching the embryo develop more information to pick the one that has the best chance of making a baby!

If you are lucky enough to have several A-plus embryos and your doctor only recommends putting one back in, the others can be frozen. Yup, we said frozen. Don’t worry; frozen embryos are not like frozen chicken! Embryo freezing has come a long way, and now in many centers, frozen embryo transfers have a better chance at making a baby than a fresh one. Simply stated, you won’t lose anything from freezing the extra embryos and putting only one embryo back in at a time. Sticking with the “one and done concept,” many couples get all the embryos they will ever need in one fresh cycle, thanks to good freezing techniques!

It’s sometimes hard to imagine that anything can go wrong in twin pregnancies. Nowadays, our schools and parks are teeming with twins; it really has become all the rage! But take it from us, not every twin pregnancy ends in a cute Anne Geddes photo. Twins have a higher chance of almost all risky pregnancy complications. On the fetal side, these include stillbirth, preterm delivery, and the serious problems that can come along with having a preterm baby: neurologic, cardiac, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, and serious developmental issues. Additionally, a high percentage of twins will experience some delay (motor and verbal skills) in the first two years of their life that requires treatment.

On the maternal side, women carrying twins or more have a much higher chance of serious medical complications. These include diabetes, high blood pressure (preeclampsia), heavy bleeding, hyperemesis (significant nausea and vomiting), Cesarean Section, and post-partum depression. Although most twins and most moms of twins will be running (actually, probably sprinting) and laughing in no time, there are a number of twins that will suffer permanent consequences from prematurity. The risks are real and should not be ignored.

And partners of those who have twins don’t get off easily, either. Sure, they don’t have to endure the insane stretch marks, the prominent varicose veins, and crazy swelling that multiple babies in one uterus at one time can bring, but let’s face it, double the work comes with added stress on the relationship. Studies have shown that divorce/separation rates are higher in families of multiples. Having a baby is not easy, sleepless nights and long days can be beyond difficult; imagine multiplying that by two!

We live in America too, and trust us, we get it. Other than pounds, for most of us, more or bigger always seems to be better. Why have one of something when you can have two? While we are not going all one-child-policy on you, we are advocating having one child at a time. It will be healthier for you and healthier for your unborn children. While twins are adorable and the bond they share is unlike any other sibling relationship, we are big fans of taking it one step at a time if possible.

When building a family, slow and steady is the best and safest way to get to the finish line.

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. 

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!

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!

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!

Who Doesn’t Want Half and Half in Their Coffee? IVF Stimulation Medications

Calories, shmalories… We like our half and half! In fact, the lighter the better (sweet is good, too!). Half and half gives coffee that creamy taste that is not replicated by any amount of whole or skim milk. The same can be said for ovarian stimulation medications—the ovaries of most women like half FSH and half LH. In many cases without this combo, the response is bland and lackluster.

But before we go any further, let’s take it back to the “beans” (a.k.a. the basics). While FSH and LH are hormonal medications used in IVF, they are also hormones produced naturally in the brain. It is the steady production of FSH and LH throughout the menstrual cycle that results in egg production and ovulation.

Because in a natural cycle you never see FSH without LH, many fertility doctors prefer to keep this dynamic duo intact when selecting IVF stimulation medications. As a result, combined protocols (as we call them in fertility medicine) are definitely leading in the fertility polls. Most of us have seen better ovarian response, better egg quality, and hence, better embryo development when the two are mixed. But taking it back to the beans (a.k.a. the basics), FSH and LH are two hormones that are normally made in the brain.

Great, now they want me to take two shots? Unfortunately, yes, we do. And while we would love to minimize the number of times you have to stick yourself, doubling up will likely do your ovaries wonders. When we stimulate ovaries for IVF, as unnatural as it feels, we are trying to mimic a natural cycle as much as possible. Nature happens for a reason! By giving both FSH and LH together, we are coming closer to what happens when we are not there. These two were paired together before we got there—it seems silly to separate them!

Yes, there are certain women who do better with straight whole or skim milk or even black coffee. For example, women who suffer from hypothalamic amenorrhea (no periods due to low hormones from the brain) need LH. Their ovaries will sit on the runway all day without a blast of LH. On the flip side, women with the real deal PCOS do better with minimal LH in their stimulation. Their ovaries see LH all the time (been there, done that), so it’s better not to put fire on an already flammable situation.

The debate over whether to use FSH alone or FSH + LH has gone on longer than the Coke vs. Pepsi debate. There is evidence on both sides to support combo protocols vs. straight FSH or LH. While doctors may have a preference for one (and can certainly find evidence to support it), most large reviews have demonstrated that (like us) two are better than one. When sitting down with your doctor, before you start the shots, ask them what you are getting, why they are giving it to you, and why they like this for you. Asking questions will quell some of the confusion and anxiety that those bags of needles and boxes of medicines bring upon their arrival.

Your choice of cocktails is very personal. Trust us, we get it. While some of us are vodka soda fans, others like to mix with cranberry juice. And then we have the more elaborate amongst us who go for Cosmos, Long Island Iced Teas, and Mojitos. (Watch out the next day: sugar hangovers are the worst!) Whatever you like to mix with your alcohol, you probably have a reason for it. Same goes for your ovaries and us. Everything we do has a purpose. The difference is, we’re helping make babies, not Bellinis. Here’s to your success, your health, and your fertility. Cheers!