No one goes into surgery thinking something terrible is going to happen. We just roll the dice and believe we will be in the percentage of people who are lucky. How else would we allow ourselves to be put under and sliced open so willingly?
I wasn’t so lucky in mid-summer 2018, I had just finished another egg retrieval for IVF, my 4th so far. I was trying to keep my hopes up that this one would result in a good embryo or two. The last egg retrieval had resulted in nothing, not a single good embryo, even though at 38 years old it didn’t seem like I could really be too old yet? Going into this retrieval I had been doing “everything” there was to do to will my body into producing good eggs — acupuncture, a special anti-inflammatory diet, high levels of C0Q10, and a host of other supplements.
So, this was it, if we couldn’t get any good embryos for a second time in a row, it was time for my husband and I to start thinking about letting this door close for good.
When I woke up from anesthesia I was told they were able to get 5 eggs from my one “good” right ovary. My left ovary is a real stinker, even with the flood of stimulation meds it stubbornly refused to respond this round. I imagined it sitting there, arms tightly folded, rolling his eyes at me, “Not happening lady, this shop is closed.”
My body also felt different this time, usually egg retrievals are no big deal for me. They put you to sleep, they wake you up, and then you go on your merry way. I can never even tell they’ve been up in my business. (It’s like getting a pap smear under anesthesia, just don’t google the size of the needle they use to suck out your eggs during the “pap” smear, it’s better not to know).
Anyway, this time I could definitely feel that something had been done. I felt off, tender, just sort of weird is the best way to describe it. My husband took me to breakfast thinking a good meal should help me bounce back. I crawled into the restaurant booth when I really just wanted to crawl home into a little ball. We cut breakfast short and got me home to bed, and he left to work with a quick kiss.
We figured a few hours of rest is all it should take and I would be feeling back to normal. My nanny had arrived super early that day so we could leave her with Cal while we had the procedure done. I crawled upstairs to bed and promised I would be able to let her off early, I just needed to rest up a little to shake this weirdness off.
As the hours ticked by my abdomen began to swell. I didn’t remember any swelling like this during my last retrievals. I started googling on my phone and all the articles that came up discussing swelling after egg retrievals is related to OHSS (ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome). Women at risk for OHSS usually have a much high number of eggs taken out during retrievals, like 15-20 or more. One benefit (if you can call it that) of my diminished ovarian reserve diagnosis is that my 5 measly eggs would certainly not put me at risk for OHSS.
I tried not to worry too much, I wasn’t a beginner at this infertility stuff, but the pressure in my abdomen was starting to become quite painful. I tried to drink my water and gatorade and keep my body very still; if I stayed in one position, it hurt less that way.
By now it was late afternoon, and when I went to use the bathroom I broke out into a cold sweat on the short walk to the toilet. I felt hot all over, yet also cold and dizzy. I put my hands on the walls in order to steady myself. After finishing up I crawled out on hands and knees into the hallway and called out to my nanny from the stairwell. “I’m so sorry, I can’t let you leave early today, I’m still feeling really weird and probably shouldn’t be out of bed.”
I called the nurses and told them how I was feeling. Swollen, very tender, weird, kind of sweaty. Apparently, none of my symptoms raise any alarm bells. They tell me most women don’t feel good after egg retrievals, and I needed to just rest and stay hydrated. I am shocked to hear this, because I am feeling so horrible by this point that I probably wouldn’t have chosen to do egg retrievals if this is what I would have to endure every time. I feel so sorry for all those other women.
My husband comes home from work early and picks up the sheet of paper by my bedside prescribing 8 glasses of fluid, and quickly diagnoses my problem to be dehydration, “due to not following the doctors orders exactly.” We proceed to get into a fight about how I am a bad patient who doesn’t follow doctor’s orders, and I snap back at him that he is the worst nurse in the history of nurses. I again get waves of cold sweats, and hot and cold flashes. Now I feel like I might even pass out. I don’t know if this is from the fighting or not. I look at him and tell him I think I might be internally bleeding. He asks me how that is even possible. I don’t know, I say.
I call the nurses again, and again they say they think I will probably be fine, that I should feel better in the morning. I tell them I am in so much pain that I won’t be able to sleep unless I can get a good painkiller to help me sleep this thing off. I search my cabinets for a good painkiller, a Vicadin or Percocet should do the trick. Usually I would have one or two leftover from something. I had some after my endometriosis surgery, but they were gone. Ugh, just one stinking pill! I remember feeling so frustrated that Advil and Tylenol were the only things in the house. And yet, God knew, God knew if I had found one strong pain med, and gone to sleep that night, I wouldn’t be alive by morning.
Not being able to get my hands on any pain meds is what motivated me to go to the ER that night. I was in SO MUCH pain. I figured that if sleeping this thing off is my best chance of recovery, then I needed to go somewhere where they will prescribe me something strong. My ever-so-wonderful nanny came back to watch Cal overnight and my husband and I head to the Santa Monica ER.
The ER is packed, and even though I am wheeled in hunched over on a wheel chair, cringing during every little bump along the way, they look me up and down and decide I am not as in dire need of assistance as, maybe, the guy who just rolled in with the chopped off arm. It wasn’t until I started vomiting and urinating on myself at the same time that they began to take me a little more seriously.
The nurse kept asking me if I ran marathons because my blood pressure was so extremely low. I told her no, and begged for her to give me something to stop the pain, but she told me she couldn’t because it would drop my pressure even lower and they couldn’t risk that. They needed to find out why it was so extremely low.
I remember I was wearing my husband’s gym clothes he brought from the car because I had peed my clothes, and for some reason I thought it was important that the nurse know that I don’t usually wear men’s underwear. That was the last conversation I remember because at that point I lost consciousness.
I guess that was the secret to finally getting some ER attention because then I was rushed in for a CAT scan and the next thing I knew the Doctor was standing over me, a million nurses were swarming me, things were buzzing and beeping all around me, and they were prepping me for surgery. The Doctor said, “you are FULL of blood, your abdomen is FULL of blood, you have been bleeding internally.”
I remember letting out a full round of swear words, and my first thought was, “Damn, now some random ER doc is going to go in and start poking around my precious reproductive organs,” I told them they couldn’t operate until they spoke with my IVF doc first. I wouldn’t let them just cut me open and start doing things in there until they had a conversation about what could possibly have happened during a routine egg retrieval. They were able to get a hold of my doctor via cell phone in the middle of the night and the two surgeons had a conversation. My husband knows I can be surprisingly “together” during extreme moments of stress. (I fall apart later when the trauma is over). I remember reciting directions to the nurses about calling my doctor while they were hooking me up to bags of blood.
They ended up calling my OBGYN who delivered my son three years ago, her practice is right next to the Santa Monica ER. She showed up at about 4am and took one look at me and shook her head. What the heck happened to you? I was squatting on all fours on the stretcher because the pressure was too great to lay on my back. She approved to get me on some dilaudid injections for the pain, 10x stronger than morphine I was told. The extreme pain was caused by all the blood pressing on my internal organs, I literally felt like my skin might not be able to hold everything in. I actually think I asked a nurse if there was risk I might explode. Funny to type now, but it sure wasn’t then.
Within a few hours the decision was made to have her go in and operate. I felt much better in her hands because she is an experienced delivery room physician. She performs cesarean sections all the time, she would definitely be careful and knowledgeable.
I felt dramatically better after the surgery. She said she could not believe how much blood there was in my abdomen, over 2 liters. It was determined that my one good ovary, the right one, had continued to bleed after the egg retrieval process. The chances of this happening are EXTREMELY rare. My OB doc said she had to cauterize and stitch it up. The nurses were told my injury was a “ruptured” ovary. They nodded their heads gravely and whispered in the corner about me every time they made a switch in nurse shifts.
My poor, poor ovary. Ruptured and cauterized. Now I’m sure it will be joining the other ovary, permanently on strike from making good eggs. Pushed past it’s limits and closing up shop. I sat in that hospital room in recovery for three days, I felt numb, like I couldn’t really even cry. Shocked I guess. I now had a scar with metal staples stretched across my abdomen, a cesarean scar without the benefit of the baby at the end of the journey.
I sat in those moments and really allowed myself to feel what it feels like to be at the end of the journey. When all you have done, all the money, all the procedures, all the hope, all the risk, all the pain, still doesn’t pan out with success. It breaks your heart. The sadness is deeper than tears can even convey. And my heart breaks with such deep empathy for everyone who has walked this battle, for it is truly so painful.
I had formely been of the mindset that if you just keep pushing long enough and hard enough, you will find a way to have that baby at the end of the journey. With all the advances in assisted reproduction and science, surely Doctors will be able to help you have that baby. But that is not the way the story pans out for many people, and this is a bitter pill to swallow, a pill no one wants to swallow.
But I let myself swallow it, I knew we would never do an egg retrieval again. And I knew it was very likely those 5 eggs they got from the retrieval would again result in no good embryos. I knew with all my conditions, MTHFR, hashimotos, endometriosis, etc., that even if we did get one good embryo it could easily miscarry in my body, like the others did.
What do people do when they are in this position? At the end of their rope with options. I don’t expect this desire to grow our family to just fade away. What are the answers?
Practicing gratefulness and thankfulness for what I do have, my everyday blessings, has been huge in healing and acceptance during this journey. I know it sounds cliché, but I promise you I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. I have earned myself a seat at the table of those who suffer. And I say from one fellow sufferer to another, practice the art of gratefulness. It is lifegiving. It is oxygen.
The pain will suffocate you if you let it. You must breath into the pain and fill it with love and acceptance. Thank it for what it has taught you, hold a place of reverence for it. You will never be the same because of this pain you have endured. Many of us go through our lives and don’t really know suffering. Sure, we think we do, but our lives are so safe and so privileged in so many ways. But there are those who know pain and know suffering, maybe it’s living with a cancer diagnosis, or those who have lost a child. We would never choose this path for ourselves, but it chose us, and our response to it is the ONLY thing we can control.
My faith has been very helpful in navigating this pain, I don’t believe God wanted this pain for me or caused it in any way. I believe he is mourning with me. I believe he is mourning the brokenness of this world every day, the disease, the hateful people, the deaths of those we love, lost much too soon. Does he have the power to intervene, yes, absolutely, I believe that. Does he not always choose to intervene in our stories for reasons that are good and perfect and his own. Yes, absolutely. And we will probably never know why for all the days we walk on this earth.
So instead, I chose to spend my time having faith in his goodness, and embracing the goodness that life offers. Being present in each day, and showing up with love, gratefulness and acceptance.