The NI Regional Fertility Clinic was set up 25 years ago to help couples to conceive naturally. Stephanie Bell talks to one of the first mums to benefit and one who had a baby last year.
It was 34 years ago this month that Lesley Brown made history when she became the first woman to give birth to a test tube baby, Louise. Since then the procedure has brought happiness to millions of couples around the world who were unable to conceive naturally.
Lesley died last month in Bristol at the age of 64, but her legacy lives on.
One in six couples in the UK will seek specialist help to have the child they long for using that groundbreaking IVF procedure.
Being unable to have a child naturally can be is a devastating journey creating a sense of loss to couples that never goes away.
Everywhere they look there are painful reminders of what they can’t have — pregnant women, mothers pushing their prams or families simply going about their daily lives. Knowing that maybe no one will ever run up and say “Hi Mummy” or “Hi Daddy” is heartache which only those going through it can fully understand.
In the past 25 years, 3,000 babies have been born as a result of IVF treatment at the Northern Ireland Regional Fertility Clinic.
The clinic recently joined together with the charity Infertility Network UK to mark its 25th year with a special birthday party in Stormont for families who have had children through IVF. The opening of the clinic in 1987 offered In Vitro Fertilisation treatment free for the first time on the NHS.
In Northern Ireland, couples are entitled to one course of IVF free on the National Health, while in Scotland and parts of England they can receive three cycles. This is a major issue for those who can’t afford extra cycles and something Infertility UK has been campaigning to change.
The charity is holding a special information day for couples in October when they will be presenting details of new developments in fertility research and treatment as well as providing information and support in dealing with emotions and stress. The Hilton Hotel in Templepatrick is hosting the event on October 20 and those wishing to attend can email Sharon Davidson at email@example.com.
We speak to two mums about the reality of the journey for those who want nothing more than simply to be parents.
‘We thought we’d had our chance... then twins arrived’
Heather and John Lee from Bangor were among the first couples to receive IVF treatment in Northern Ireland. They have three children, Kirsty (23) and twins Matthew and Natasha (21). Heather says:
I had quite a history of gynae problems going back to my teens and had been through a number of operations and been diagnosed with endometriosis. I was advised that if I got married I should try for a baby straight away as my chances of being able to have children weren’t great and the more time that passed the less my chances would be.
I got married quite young and we tried for a family straightaway but after seven years nothing had happened. It was a very painful time and I went through all sorts of feelings such as despair and asking why me? I felt quite vulnerable and there was a lot of stress.
IVF was available in England. However we were advised that with the travel to England on top of the stress of the whole procedure it would be against us and that a clinic would be opening in Northern Ireland. We were one of the first to have our name down and we were 13th on the list. It was our only hope as we had gone through all the other fertility treatments available.
We started IVF in 1988 and our first attempt failed. We had a bit of a break and then tried again but there weren’t enough eggs. On the third attempt we got lucky. It is a long, drawn out process and quite intimate and invasive. You feel you should be getting something at the end of it and when it doesn’t happen it’s devastating.
When we were told I was pregnant with Kirsty we drove home in complete silence. We were stunned and speechless and to be honest it was some time before it finally sunk in. For the first few weeks I wouldn’t let myself imagine the pregnancy would hold. We were afraid to let ourselves hope. When it finally did sink in, we were really ecstatic but still scared too.
Kirsty was born in February 1989 and it was just the most amazing joy ever. The specialists had hoped my condition would correct itself during the pregnancy which apparently is quite common but it didn’t and Dr Tony Traub at the fertility clinic suggested I go for IVF again.
We thought we had our chance and that someone else should be given a chance. We could have gone through life absolutely happy with just Kirsty. Dr Traub assured us we had every right to extend our family if we wanted to and we were of course overjoyed. I got pregnant straightaway and I will never forget the first scan which showed we had two babies.
Life with all three children has been wonderful. Kirsty is expecting a baby in September and so I’m going to be a granny. I never thought I’d see the day that would happen. She recently graduated from the University of Ulster with a degree in Fine and Applied Arts and is a fantastic young woman. Natasha is studying at the University of Ulster and Matthew is at Glasgow University. We’re extremely proud of them all.
Going through IVF puts a terrible strain on you and you need a strong relationship to deal with it. You also need stamina to keep going.
At the time I would have given my right arm to have been a mother and it’s like a grieving process, even though we were lucky. There are a magnitude of feelings from despair to euphoria, The emotion is indescribable.
‘Life with all these children has been just wonderful’
‘We lost three babies but then we had our perfect sons’
Sharon Gorman, (38) a fund raiser with the NI Hospice and her husband Nigel, (42) who works in customer services with Royal Mail are from Carrickfergus. The couple lost three babies and underwent four IVF courses before having their son Adam, 16 months. Sharon says:
We got married in 2003 and began trying for a family quite soon after. When nothing was happening I knew we had to do something as I had a friend on the waiting list for treatment and knew the waiting time was a year and a half.
As I was nearly 30, I felt time wasn’t on my side so we went private in 2005 when I discovered I wasn’t ovulating. I was given the drug clomid to stimulate my ovaries but even with the maximum dose it didn’t work.
We then went through ovulation induction for 18 months. This involved me taking daily injections and going to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast twice a week at 7.30am to be scanned to see if I was ovulating. Again nothing happened. That was in 2006 when we also got a referral for our free cycle of IVF. Again, there was a year’s waiting list so we paid over £3,000 for a private course of IVF at the Royal. It didn’t work.
We then had our free cycle and I got pregnant in April 2008. My baby died at 10 weeks. We went private again at Origin fertility clinic in Belfast and I got pregnant with twins. It was an horrendous pregnancy and I was very sick, but the babies seemed to be fine. At 20 weeks I had a scan and was told one of the babies had died.
That was in August 2009 and I was due on Christmas Day. I was advised to continue to carry my daughter who had died, until the birth of my son. We didn’t really grieve because we still had a baby and I felt that I couldn’t fall apart for the sake of the child that I was still carrying. A few weeks later, I was having terrible pains and woke my husband at 3am. Even though it was too early, I thought I was in labour. I walked out of my bedroom and our wee girl was delivered on our landing. Grace was only 8ozs when she was born. That will haunt me for the rest of my life; it was so frightening and horrendous. A few days later my waters broke and my son James was stillborn after eight hours of labour. He was just 1lb 3 oz.
We were very calm and so proud. We have memories of that little space of time we had with both babies. I have a photograph taken of my husband holding James’s hand which was no bigger than his fingernail. At their funeral I carried Grace’s coffin and Nigel carried James’s. They were no bigger than shoe boxes.
The babies we lost taught us a lot about the goodness of people and gave us hope to keep going. I wanted to try again and luckily we were next on the Royal’s list. I
knew it wasn’t the end of the line and we couldn’t give up.
My consultant Dr Stephen Ong was wonderful and so supportive. I got pregnant again and was due in February 2011. I went into labour at 36 weeks and three days and Adam was born a perfect baby, weighing 6lb exactly. He has totally changed our lives. We’ll never forget the babies we lost. He’s not a replacement; you never forget. I’ve so much gratitude to the staff at the Royal and Origin.
We are just an average couple who wanted to have a family and we have paid out over £15,000 over the years for IVF. I think it is very unfair that you only get one free treatment. It takes such a toll emotionally and financially. It is the hardest thing ever to go through and it would be made a lot easier if some of the pressure was taken off by not having to pay so much money.
It’s win or lose, it either works or it doesn’t and if it doesn’t then that’s like putting £3,500 down the toilet. It’s very, very cruel.
I came across the Infertility Network at an early stage in my journey and they were amazing. The information online and being able to talk to other people who are going through the same thing made such a difference.
I don’t know how many times I go into Adam when he is sleeping at night and just look at him. When he calls us mummy and daddy it just kills me, it means so much. Simple things that other people wouldn’t think about are a big deal after everything we’ve been through. He is our world; he has changed our lives so much.”
‘When he calls us mummy and daddy it just means so much’
The baby who made history
- Blue eyed, blonde haired Louise Brown, born on July 25, 1978, was a miracle of medical science, the first test-tube baby
- Louise was delivered by planned Caesarean section at Oldham General Hospital after her parents, Lesley and John, had tried for nine years to conceive naturally
- The IVF technique was developed by Dr Patrick Steptoe and Professor Robert Edwards
- Louise’s sister Natalie was also conceived by IVF four years later and became the 40th |IVF baby
- In May 1999 Natalie became the first IVF baby to give birth — naturally — to a daughter Casey
- Louise had a baby son, Cameron, who was also naturally conceived, on December 20, 2006
- Louise and Natalie’s parents have both since died
Support for childless couples
- The World Health Organisation defines infertility as an illness, but because there is still a reluctance to treat it as such, treatments like IVF are often viewed as a luxury.
- Research shows that 96% of women affected by infertility suffer depression. One in five has suicidal thoughts — and some have acted on them.
- Infertility Network UK is a national charity offering advice, support and understanding to anyone undergoing treatment.
- The charity has three main arms; supporting the practical and emotional needs of couples undergoing fertility treatment; supporting those couples who have been successful in having a family through fertility treatment or adoption with Ace Babes and through “More To Life” which provide support to couples who are involuntarily childless.
- For more information on support groups, tel: Sharon Davidson on 028 9082 5677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org