What It’s Like to Try IVF in Vancouver

Fifty thousand dollars and five miscarriages: the IVF stories rarely told.

August 2, 2018

By Becca Clarkson

As of this July 25, it will have been forty years since the first baby was born from an in vitro fertilization procedure. Forty years is how old Reisa Pollard was when she and her husband tried to have their baby naturally. Before telling her story to a full audience at Vancouver’s Playhouse, Pollard asked us to picture her ovaries as a gum ball machine, and her eggs as the gum balls. The TedX programs contained a bio for each speaker, but nowhere under Pollard’s name and interior design credentials does it suggest that she is a candy aficionado or fertility expert.

She went on to explain that all women are born with a full machine of gum balls, but that refills aren’t available. By the time a woman turns 40, the chances of turning one of those stale gumballs into a baby, even with in vitro fertilization, is less than two per cent, but that’s when Pollard started trying to have children.

“I grew up learning how not to get pregnant,” Pollard explained while unwrapping a leopard print pashmina from her neck and placing it on the table between us. She’s dressed like her interior design company’s name, Beyond Beige, would imply. Reisa didn’t order anything at the Bean Around the World, where we met between her Monday evening meetings, but is buzzing like she’s made of caffeine. Seeing her up close rather than from row 31, seat 33, I found myself wondering if the 47-year-old had any work done, or if having children later in life works as a youthful elixir.

“I thought I had the same chances of having a baby as I did when I was 25,” Pollard said. “And while I was a subscriber to the mantra ‘40 is the new 30,’ my eggs weren’t as easily fooled by the tricks of Botox and Spanx.”

I resisted the urge to follow up on whether she was referencing Botox colloquially or if that was also something she subscribed to. Pollard’s not a smoker—though on the journey to her current career she did work as a marijuana grow op consultant—but her raspy voice unapologetically filled the cafe as she took me through the timeline of her five miscarriages over six years. TedX had asked her to present a topic on material design, but without undermining her own profession, Pollard came back with a topic less “first-world and trite.”

“They were worried, but I told them I wouldn’t be doing what I set out to if it was really sad and heavy,” Pollard said. “I think it’s important to keep it light and funny so that people have more dialogue.”

Pollard and her husband, who is seven years her junior, celebrated their first year of marriage the same year they were mourning Pollards first miscarriage.

“It felt like I was being punished and having to pay the ultimate price for inadvertently putting career in front of family,” said Pollard, who as a woman used to getting what she wanted, decided she could no longer trust her body to deliver on what she felt her biology had promised her. When she made her first IVF appointment, Pollard didn’t realize she was already pregnant, but as she held her son in the delivery room nine months later, Pollard already knew she wanted another child.

“It was an incomparable feeling to the success I’d achieved professionally,” said Pollard. While her friends and family joked that she’d be in diapers by the time her second child was out of them, her husband was behind her plan to bring one more child into their family. They wanted to adopt and while, according to the Adoptive Families Association of BC, there is no age cap for adults to do so, Pollard says there’s very much still an age stigma.

“It felt like I was being punished and having to pay the ultimate price for inadvertently putting career in front of family.”

“We were told that, with an open adoption, we’d be way down on the list because any one viewing our family criteria would be able to see that I was 42,” said Pollard, laughing as she recalls being worried that her and her husband wouldn’t have another child for three to four years because of all the paperwork and adoption entails.

The couple continued to try naturally conceiving until nature delivered Pollard’s fourth miscarriage on her 44th birthday. She only had one shot at IVF, as the doctors could only find one egg to harvest, but luckily she got pregnant after the first try. She almost died trying though, as her fear of needles caused her to faint in the kitchen while injecting pre-procedure medication and her husband was not close by to catch her fall. In fact, she and her husband were not feeling close at all.

Had it not been for marriage, Pollard supposes she would have waited even longer before being proactive about starting a family. But after miscarriage number five, her determination alienated her from her husband, who couldn’t understand why their already miraculous child wasn’t enough for her.

“There was no stopping me now, I needed that baby fix,” Pollard half joked, adding that she did start to feel resentful of her husband at times. “He alluded to the fact that he couldn’t see me go on like this, so it made me feel like I had to hide my grief from him in fear that he’d try to use it—not maliciously—but as an example of why I shouldn’t keep trying.”

The audience laughed at the right cues as Pollard inches them closer to the edge of their seats—there were no more eggs, what could she possibly do? Well, she could buy eggs.

Regulations passed in 2004 as part of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act make it illegal for gametes to be sold or purchased in Canada, which has resulted in a market for “fertility tourism.”

According to Dr. Sonya Kashyap, owner of Vancouver’s Genesis Fertility Centre, the intention of the act was to avoid people being financially coerced into giving up their gametes. However, by limiting Canadians ability to financially compensate, a lot of fertility treatment business is sent south of the border, which makes procedures costly and inaccessible for many.

“It’s created an inadvertent reproductive discrimination for anyone with financial barriers, and particularly same sex couples or single parents,” said Kashyap of the notion that fertility science gives everyone an equal opportunity at procreating.

Pollard joked in her presentation about thinking her and her husband could just throw money at their problem, but the $50,000 spent was a serious investment. B.C.’s Medical Service Plan only covers the costs of fertility treatment consultations, but offers no financial assistance for the procedures or accompanying medicine required.

“[The Assisted Human Reproduction Act] created an inadvertent reproductive discrimination for anyone with financial barriers, and particularly same sex couples or single parents.”

“Some people are deaf and they want to hear—well they’ve got financial assistance from our government,” said Pollard. Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba all cover parts of fertility treatments. A single round—which rarely results in pregnancy the first time—can cost anywhere between $7,000 to $9,000 and require thousands more in associated medication costs or egg and embryo freezing.

Pollard said shopping online for her egg donor felt like shopping for her next annoying teenager, and her husband found it to be too bizarre a process to participate in.

“I was told the best eggs go fast, so when you find one you like you should put it in your shopping cart. Then you just click check out, pay and they send it in the mail.”

But her package had a “low rate of return” she was told over the phone when the fertility centre was explaining the negative results of her pregnancy test. They offered to pay most of the costs for Pollard to try again but then another woman using her donor’s eggs had a miscarriage, and an autopsy had to be done of the fetus to make sure there weren’t any genetic issues with the donor.

Three weeks later, she was told they were all clear to try the donor egg on Pollard but there was another problem—they had to wait for her menstruation cycle to be over, but Pollard was late that month.

“When the receptionist at the clinic told me to take a pregnancy test, I felt like punching her in the face over the phone.”

Pollard says the bedside manner she dealt throughout her fertility treatments would be enough to deter a lot of women from persevering through the emotional challenges of infertility.

“They’re still coming from a very medical orientation and don’t have the ability to really step into someone’s shoes and realize what they’re missing telling you. It’s all very perfunctory—you’re going to do this, this and this. I wish someone had just told me how weird and shitty I would feel.”

When Pollard’s pregnancy test came back positive, her first thought was “Great, now I’m going to have to have another miscarriage before they can put in this stupid donor egg.”

But after six years, seven pregnancies, five miscarriages, a round of IVF, two donor eggs and a couple of lucky rolls of the die, Pollard won the baby lottery. Once the audience’s applause died down, Pollard acknowledged that while not everyone will win the odds like she did, the education system needs to start teaching students about infertility in adolescence, and that society needs to continue educating themselves in adulthood.

“Assistance with conceiving and miscarriages are not something to be ashamed of. It’s part of the journey, and you are not alone,” Pollards voice rings through the theatre. “The more we understand about fertility, the more we can make timely, informed choices, even if your choice is not to have kids.”

She doesn’t ask me whether I want children, but she does ask for my age. After I tell her I’m 26, her blue eyes pierce mine in a way I thought was reserved for cliched writing.

“Knowing what I do now, I wouldn’t choose to have children at the age I did and if I could give a kid that advice, you know, I would,” Pollard said. Barely missing a beat, she wraps her scarf back around her neck and then, more surprisingly, her arms around me.

“Good luck!” She called back, leaving me and my empty cup.

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