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Desperate to start a family, but after two years without success our marriage was under strain... then IVF gave us our precious baby daughter

Research shows that one in six couples here will have difficulty conceiving. Moira couple Caroline and Carl Henderson tell Karen Ireland of the despair they suffered until a Belfast fertility clinic helped them have their little girl Aibhilin

Caroline and Carl Henderson met on a blind date in 2001 set up by friends who thought they would be an ideal match - and they have been a couple ever since.

Now living in Moira, Caroline (32) is a special needs teacher and Carl (39) works for Globus as an all-Ireland sales manager.

"We got engaged in Thailand, where Carl proposed when I was working out there as a teacher. Then we got married in Donegal, where my mum is originally from," recalls Caroline.

The couple relished the early days of married life and setting up home together, but one thing was missing from their otherwise idyllic life.

"After we got married, we decided we wanted to start a family right away - but nothing was happening," says Caroline. "This was a very stressful time for us. I was waiting and hoping every month that I would fall pregnant. I think I stopped counting at month 28.

"At the same time, well-meaning friends and family were asking us when we were going to stop travelling and start a family. It really hurt, as we were hiding this huge secret and it did put a huge strain on our marriage, too.

"Going to social events, such as family christenings or baby showers, were a nightmare. The same questions about when we might have a baby were always being asked."

After two years of trying the couple, who are originally from England but moved to Northern Ireland in 2012, went to their GP, who referred them to a specialist. Here, they discovered there was a fertility problem caused by a male genetic factor.

"We were told, at this stage, our only hope of having a child would be through IVF," reveals Caroline, who was heartbroken at the news.

Carl adds: "I felt so guilty when we found out it was a male problem. I felt like I had let Caroline down and it was all my fault.

"I had promised her this wonderful life and a happy family and the one thing we wanted more than anything else - a child - I was unable to give her. It was a very difficult time for us."

The first chink of hope came, when Caroline found out about an open day at GCRM-Belfast, a fertility clinic based at Edgewater Road.

"The doctor we saw at our local hospital told us about a clinic he worked in one day a week and we decided to attend their open day. We knew if we went on a health service waiting list it could be months until a doctor could see us.

"We looked around the clinic and instantly felt at home. For the first time we didn't feel as though we were on our own. They were offering an Access Fertility programme that returned 70% of the money if the treatment wasn't successful after three rounds of IVF. We talked about it and we had told our families about the fertility issue.

"My dad, bless him, offered to lend us the money, which was £9,000. I'll never forget that gift he gave us. We knew if it didn’t work out we would get some of the money back so this took the financial pressure off. We knew we needed IVF so we signed up for the programme.”

The treatment the couple were recommended is ICSI, (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), which involved Caroline taking drugs to stimulate her eggs. Afterwards, the strongest eggs are then picked and fertilised with Carl’s sperm which are injected directly into the egg.

“That’s the science bit,” explains Caroline. “At one stage we thought we were going to have to cancel the treatment as my body reacted really badly to the drugs. I was tired all the time and it looked like the eggs weren’t going to grow.”

Despite this setback, though, the couple persevered.

“I just had a feeling of hope and I wanted to go on with the treatment,” says Caroline. “After five days the embryologist looked at the eggs and picked out four. At the last minute she picked one which she thought looked perfect — and that egg turned out to be our miracle baby.”

An agonising two weeks followed when the couple had to wait to find out if the treatment had worked and Caroline was pregnant. “I was just glad we were on the road to treatment and had got this far” she says. “I tried not to hold out too much hope as it is unusual for it to work the first time. I kept myself busy and tried not to dwell on it.”

When the fortnight was up, though, the couple got the joyous news they had so longed for — the treatment had been successful and their much longed-for baby was on the way.

“We returned to the clinic eight weeks later for our first scan, where we heard our daughter’s heartbeat for the first time. It was amazing,” says Caroline.

“Everyone was hugging and it felt like we were part of a huge family.” Caroline says the following seven months were a dream and her pregnancy was trouble-free, as was the labour: “Our baby is just chilled out and relaxed, like that egg.

“We went to Craigavon Area Hospital for the birth. I had to spend three nights there as my blood pressure was high, which apparently can be normal with IVF, but apart from that everything was fine — and our precious baby, Aibhilin was with us.

“We found her name the night I went to pick up my drugs to start treatment. I was feeling hopeful so we started looking at names. We picked ‘Aibhilin’ as it is Irish for longed for/wished for — which she very much was.”

Now their beautiful daughter is five months old, and Caroline says every time the baby doesn’t sleep well and she is up with her for most of the night, she thinks back to all the months of longing and wishing — and counts her blessings. “Motherhood is hard work, but it is also the best, most amazing thing I have ever done.”

Carl adds: “In the beginning I buried my head in the sand and didn’t want to talk about the fertility issue. I was a typical male. Now though, I would encourage others to be open and talk about any problems and seek help which is out there.

“I am so happy about our experience, I would shout it from the roof tops. I feel like all my lottery numbers have come up at once.”

Caroline says she has decided to share her story in a bid to help others and to, hopefully, remove the stigma attached to infertility. “We didn’t talk about it for a long time and that is wrong. I would urge others going through this to be open with family and friends as there is nothing to be embarrassed about.

“It’s just nature and it is no one’s fault. There is help out there, so go and talk to your GP and see what your options are. Above all, talk to each other and keep the lines of communication open in the relationship.

“We count our blessing with Aibhilin everyday. We still have three eggs frozen at the clinic so we hope one day soon to give her the gift of a brother or a sister.”

Such is the scale of infertility issues here that GCRM-Belfast has introduced a 100% refund programme in association with Access Fertility, making treatments more accessible.

The new refund programme aims to give peace of mind to those struggling to conceive.

Ash Carroll-Miller, CEO of Access Fertility, says: “We are thrilled to work with GCRM-Belfast, which is deservedly building a reputation as one of the top clinics in the UK and Ireland.

“An IVF journey comes with many challenges and we want to make treatment more affordable and help patients achieve their dream of having a baby.”

The New Access Fertility IVF Refund Programme at GCRM-Belfast offers a 100% refund if patients do not have a baby. The treatment, which covers up to three cycles of IVF and all frozen embryo transfers, is open to couples where the woman is aged up to 37-years-old. For details go to www.gcrmbelfast.com or tel: 028 9078 1335 to find out more about the new 100% Money-Back Guarantee Programme at GCRM-Belfast

Fertility tips for those struggling to conceive

Get fertility smart

If having children earlier is not something you wish to consider, options for fertility preservation now exist, such egg freezing. However, if you are choosing this option, good advice from a reputable clinic is critical, so that you fully understand the pros and cons of such procedures.

Healthy weight = Increased Fertility

Calculate your BMI when trying for a baby. For women, a healthy BMI of 20 to 24.9 is ideal, which will help regulate your menstrual cycle and increase your chances of successful pregnancy.

Alcohol and nicotine

Smoking can cause hormonal imbalances and damage to the female reproductive system, which can have a critical effect on your chances of conceiving. Furthermore, smoking significantly increases the risk of miscarriage within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. For men, smoking can have a profound effect on your sperm count and has been linked to increased sperm DNA damage, which will all affect your chances of conceiving naturally. Heavy alcohol intake in men has been linked to reduced testosterone production and reduced sperm quality, whereas in women excessive consumption is linked to ovulatory problems. Those trying for a baby should try to reduce their alcohol intake, or try to cut it out completely.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Antioxidant-rich food such as fruits and vegetables help to protect the egg and sperm from damage. Highly processed foods such as processed meat and sugary foods contain chemical preservatives that can harm fertility. Omega 3 essential fatty acids found in fish oils and good-quality flaxseed oils also play an important role in pregnancy.

Vitamins and supplements

Women should start taking 400mcg folic acid before trying to conceive and during the first three months of pregnancy. Folic acid is important for pregnancy, as it can help to prevent birth defects known as neural tube defects, including spina bifida. If you didn’t take folic acid before you conceived, you should start as soon as you find out that you are pregnant.

Exercise, but in moderation — don’t over-exercise

While you need to keep a low BMI and eat healthily, too much exercise can also be detrimental if you are trying to conceive. You should avoid vigorous and prolonged exercise, as this can cause disturbances to a woman’s monthly cycle, leading to a lack of ovulation. While trying to conceive, opt for brisk walks and yoga sessions — as opposed to triathlons and cardio sessions at the gym.

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