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After Years of IVF Treatment, I Made an Impossible Choice

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

By Heather Corbally Bryant

On my way to the hospital for what my doctor had euphemistically referred to as a D&C (there is a reason they use an acronym), I had to pass through a gauntlet of men and women carrying placards with images of fetuses, tiny hands, and an embryo with a miniature translucent heart beating.

It was a cold, dreary day. Freezing rain fell, and I pulled my coat tightly around myself as I got out of the car. As I opened the facility door, an elderly man leaned in close and hissed, “Baby Killer.” Inside, a nurse hustled me down the hallway to a private room, where she instructed me to change into a gown.

I was 32 years old, and I had been trying to get pregnant for more than three years. Three years of tears, pills, shots, ultrasounds, daily blood tests, and doctors pushing saline solution through my fallopian tubes. I had, in fact, technically already had one pregnancy, but the embryo implanted in my tube, and I had to have emergency surgery. At my follow-up appointment, my doctor said my ectopic pregnancy was bad luck but an encouraging sign—my body knew how to conceive. Then, he advised us to take the summer off from trying.

Just as the leaves began to fall, my husband gave me shots of Pergonal (made from the urine of post-menopausal women) every night, and my ovaries turned into grapefruits. Each morning, I drove his sperm into Boston during rush hour, keeping it warm between my legs. Several weeks later, a nurse at the fertility clinic called to tell me I was pregnant.

I began taking prenatal vitamins (a supplement I had yearned to keep on my kitchen counter for years). My husband and I roasted our first turkey and toasted our baby with champagne, with only a few sips for me.

But at our first ultrasound, there was no heartbeat. The technician circled the wand over my abdomen and then again from the inside. Before she said a word, I knew something was wrong. She returned with my doctor, who scheduled me for a D&C.

After the procedure, I woke to a cotton wool mouth, a half cup of ice chips, and blurry eyes. When I was more alert, my doctor returned. He said it was very good that I’d conceived again, this time in the right place. But I didn’t see anything good about having a second failed pregnancy—the result of what he called a blighted ovum.

After he left the room, I stared at a mobile fluttering above me—red, yellow, and gold origami cranes rippled, flipping around just as I imagined a baby might inside me. I wiggled my toes and discovered that I had fuzzy blue socks with skid treads on my feet. Unfamiliar hands must have put them on before they pulled and tugged deep inside me to remove the makings of a life.

When I could sit up, walk to the bathroom to pee, and keep down a packet of stale saltines and a miniature bottle of Ginger Ale, the nurses sent me on my way. At home, I crawled into bed and pulled my comforter tight around me. When I closed my eyes, all I could see was the origami cranes fluttering.

At my follow-up appointment, the doctor said it was time to try in vitro fertilization. After our first cycle failed, we had to wait nine months before we could try again. On a blistering summer day, my doctor left a message on my answering machine. He congratulated us three times over. I was very, very, very pregnant. We’d hit the fertility jackpot and conceived triplets.

I was 32 years old, and I have been trying to get pregnant for more than three years. Three years of tears, pills, shots, ultrasounds, daily blood tests, and doctors pushing saline solution through my fallopian tubes.

Yet again, I’d had a robust reaction to the fertility drugs; my ovaries were the size of honeydew melons. I could barely walk. All I wanted to drink was cartons of room-temperature tomato juice. The smell of pizza in the café where I met my summer school students made my stomach turn. My morning sickness lasted all day and all night.

Because my husband had to teach, I went to see my new doctor alone. In his office, the maternal-fetal specialist took out a pencil and drew a graph on a scrap of paper. Pointing to the chart, he explained what we were looking at—triplet pregnancies were risky, and combined with my history of pregnancy loss, the chances of all four of us making it through birth and delivery were low. I’d already had some spotting. This was my third pregnancy, and I had yet to bring a baby home.

We were left with an impossible choice. We could do nothing or elect to have a reduction—a procedure where one of the fetuses is injected with potassium chloride to stop the heart (the same heartbeat I had longed to hear back on that freezing day). We would be ending one life in order to preserve three. And the reduction also carried a chance, albeit a relatively small one, that we might lose the whole pregnancy.

Yet again, I had to walk through the same gauntlet, past the same crowd shouting Baby Killers. I stayed very still while my doctor performed an amniocentesis to help guide the needle. He chose the most vulnerable embryo, the one implanted too low in my uterus.

Afterward, it was quiet. I had to lie there for several hours under observation before I could go home. I bled into the thick pad someone had placed beneath me. I cried and then I tried not to cry. When my doctor came by to discharge me, I asked if he thought the embryo felt any pain. He paused before saying no one had ever asked him that question before but no, he didn’t think it was possible. I hoped he was right.

At my return ultrasound, we would hear two heartbeats, one just behind the other—two locomotives chugging along, the rush of blood, the sounds of life. Later, we would learn we were expecting a boy and a girl. Still later, I would develop many complications: spotting, gestational diabetes, and preterm labor. I would spend the last five weeks in the hospital on IV magnesium, trying to stave off the birth. Even so, the twins would arrive almost two months before their due date, and I would require two transfusions following a postpartum hemorrhage. After several weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, the babies would come home on heart monitors but, miraculously, with none of the usual complications of prematurity.

Just under three years later, we conceived one more baby. That time, my pregnancy was easy. Our son was almost two weeks late. When we brought him home on Christmas Eve, we dove into the chaos of having three babies under three—not quite triplets, but close.

Recently, I picked up one of my old journals, and a grainy black-and-white ultrasound picture fell out. When I looked more closely, I saw the grainy image of the tiny bean of my second pregnancy, the one that ended in a D&C.

I slipped it back in between the pages for safekeeping.


After receiving her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, Heather Corbally Bryant began teaching writing. Her work as a writer informs her life as a teacher: it is her mission to help others find and hone their voices. She has taught at Michigan, Harvard, and the Pennsylvania State University. Currently, she lectures in the writing program at Wellesley College.