Another COVID-19 fallout: Fertility treatments and new life on hold
September 21, 2020
By Hailey Eber
Heather Wirsing and her husband, Michael, started trying for a baby in 2016, long before the world had ever heard of COVID-19. But it was this year’s pandemic that made for a devastating detour on their fertility journey.
The couple, who live in Naugatuck, Conn., tried to get pregnant naturally before seeking medical assistance, initially with Heather’s OB-GYN, in 2017. In 2018, the couple met with Dr. Claudio Benadiva at the Center for Advanced Reproductive Services at the UConn Health Center in Farmington, Conn., and decided to try in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Heather, who works as a wedding photographer, spent a year losing weight to lower her body mass index (BMI) to meet the criteria for the procedure. This January, after shedding 85 pounds, the couple began IVF.
In February, Heather’s egg retrieval yielded seven eggs, of which two — a boy and a girl — were successfully fertilized and made it past Day 5, the crucial stage for embryos. Preimplantation genetic testing determined that the boy embryo was “normal” but the girl had potential abnormalities. The couple was scheduled to transfer the male embryo in March, but just five days before the appointment, their clinic shut down due to COVID-19.
“It was terrible. It was the worst day of my life,” said Heather, 37, of learning she would have to put her plans on hold. “It was a gut punch for me.”
On March 17, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) issued a number of guidelines for fertility care amid the pandemic, including the suspension of most treatments, including new IVF cycles, and suggested doctors “strongly consider cancellation of all embryo transfers, whether fresh or frozen.”
“Given what we know, as well as what we don’t, suspending non-urgent fertility care is really the most prudent course of action at this time,” Ricardo Azziz, CEO of the ASRM, said in a statement. “This is not going to be easy for infertility patients and reproductive care practices.”
For Heather and others like her, pausing fertility treatment was far from “easy.”
“For many women, the ability to wait is a luxury they can’t afford,” said Dr. Brian Levine, the founding partner and practice director at CCRM Fertility New York in Midtown.
In May, Heather was able to resume treatment.
“I was like, ‘Get me in there. Let’s do this, I’ve waited long enough,’ ” she said. The next month, she had the embryo transferred, but due to COVID regulations, her husband wasn’t able to be there. “It sucks,” she said. “That’s a really big part of it. It’s his baby as much as mine.”
The transfer resulted in a pregnancy, but it ended in a miscarriage after six weeks. When Heather underwent an ultrasound that confirmed the heartbreaking news, her husband could not be there with her then, either.
The Wirsings did another round of IVF this summer. Again, Heather had to go it alone. When she woke up from anesthesia, she FaceTimed with her husband, so he could be there when the doctor told her how many eggs they’d retrieved.
“We were trying to make it as personal experience as possible,” she said.
Sadly, this second round of IVF didn’t result in a pregnancy, and Heather is currently undergoing more testing. The Wirsings hope to try another round in 2021.
“We’re not going to give up. It’s the most important thing for us,” said Heather, who writes about her experiences at 1Plus2EqualsYou.blogspot.com. “We’re going to keep going.”
Not allowing partners to be present is just one way practices have had to adapt for pandemic times. Teladoc appointments have replaced in-person consultations, and in-office appointment times have been spaced out to keep waiting rooms less crowded. Some practices have divided their staff into rotating teams to lessen the potential spread of infection.
“We had to resume care in a new way,” said CCRM’s Levine.
Dr. Janelle Luk, medical director at Generation Next Fertility in Midtown, has a passion for educating women about their health. The pandemic has spurred her to start doing weekly Instagram live sessions talking to both patients and non-patients about various topics. “In some ways, COVID has brought me into many people’s living rooms,” she said.
Both Levine and Luk believe some of the changes have been positive. Levine loves how doing telehealth appointments affords him more time with his own family, and his practice now maximizes their time, such as doing a full “work-up” (which includes collecting bloodwork, doing a baseline ultrasound, a genetic carrier screening and a semen sample analysis) in a single day to avoid multiple visits.
It certainly worked well for one of Levine’s patients, Alyssa, a 31-year-old graphic designer who lives in New York City (last name withheld for privacy reasons). After two miscarriages followed by two unsuccessful rounds of IVF last year, her previous doctor advised her to consider donor eggs. Alyssa sought a second opinion from Levine.
“He said, ‘You’re 30 years old; there are good eggs in you. We just have to find them,’ ” she said.
Alyssa spent last December preparing for another retrieval, taking supplements with the intent of increasing the quality of her eggs. A January egg retrieval ultimately resulted in one healthy embryo, but Levine then discovered she had endometriosis, which had gone undetected by previous doctors and can make it harder to conceive. After undergoing treatment for that, she was ready to proceed with the transfer in March — just as CCRM had to pause treatment.
“I lost it,” she recalls. “I think I called CCRM every three or four days hysterically crying.”
In April, a nurse from the clinic called her to say they could resume. “I think we cried together,” Alyssa recalled.
In May, she had a successful embryo transfer, and is now 5-months pregnant with a baby girl — and ecstatic. “Everything I went through has made me appreciate every aspect of being pregnant,” she said.
While Heather and Alyssa had their journeys interrupted by the pandemic, others have been inspired to begin them.
Claire Sulmers is one of them. Earlier this month, she went to Kindbody in the Flatiron District to discuss freezing her eggs.
“This pandemic really did make me sit down and just think about things that I’ve been putting off,” said Sulmers, 39, who wants to put off motherhood while she focuses on her career as an entrepreneur.
“I’m normally flying around. I’m hosting events. This pandemic has derailed all of that,” said Sulmers, an influencer and founder of the style blog Fashion Bomb Daily. That kind of schedule is a worry due to the side effects of the meds. “We have this time now where we can kind of just chill. Why not just get it out of the way?”