Infertility struggles hit homeFive-month-old Ian Darst has a reputation of being a good baby. He cracks a smile for everyone he meets, barely crying, screaming or complaining about a thing. He’s just a quiet little bundle of joy. And it took him almost six years to get here.
By: Riham Feshir, Woodbury Bulletin
Five-month-old Ian Darst has a reputation of being a good baby. He cracks a smile for everyone he meets, barely crying, screaming or complaining about a thing. He’s just a quiet little bundle of joy.
And it took him almost six years to get here.
His parents, Tara and Andy Darst, struggled to get pregnant at the prime age of 27 and 30. The couple, who live on the border of Cottage Grove and Woodbury, exhausted all medical procedures covered by their insurance company before deciding to save up for a more invasive infertility treatment that costs thousands of dollars.
About a dozen providers in the entire state of Minnesota offer “in vitro fertilization” or IVF, treatment, which is only about 20 years old. One of them is Dr. Jacques Stassart, owner of Reproductive Medicine and Infertility Associates (RMIA) clinic in Woodbury.
“It’s a very young field. People who were once told they could never get pregnant are now successful,” he said.
‘Never dreamed of it’
At the time the Darsts decided to have a baby, most of their friends were also at that stage in their lives. It was that much more difficult to hear the news of Tara’s infertility when she was surrounded by so many newborns.
“It just got more and more disheartening the longer it took,” said Tara, who’s now 33.
She started with the basic hormonal medication for a few cycles, then resorted to intrauterine insemination (IUI), which is artificial insemination of the sperm without actually fertilizing the egg.
That didn’t work. Then she learned she had endometriosis — a disorder that causes abnormal growth of the tissue lining the uterus, which often leads to infertility.
The couple decided to take a yearlong break from medical procedures in 2008 to save up for IVF treatments, which all in all cost them around $30,000.
“We’ll just do what we can to come to this little guy,” said Andy, as he tightly held Ian close to his chest. “Kind of ‘whatever it takes’ was the mentality at the time.”
“Who needs money? You can’t take it with you anyway,” added Tara, with a laugh.
And it worked, though it took an additional year and the loss of one pregnancy at nine weeks and Ian’s twin embryo at eight weeks.
“Because so many people in our circle knew the struggles that we’d had, knew that we were in treatments … we didn’t have the option of sharing at 12 weeks that we were pregnant,” she said of the first unsuccessful pregnancy, adding, “When we lost it at nine weeks, of course it made it that much harder to have so many people to have to call and tell. It was like sharing terrible news over and over and over again.”
The Darsts lost the first pregnancy around Easter of 2010, so they tried IVF again a couple months later with three embryos. One of them was mature enough to freeze and the other two were transferred.
“That round, we got pregnant with twins and we lost one at eight weeks. And the other one is Ian,” she said, as she looked and smiled at her little guy dressed in an orange polo shirt and gray plaid shorts.
For a number of patients suffering from infertility, going through a few rounds of IVF is pretty common.
“Some patients get pregnant first attempt, some patients get pregnant second attempt, some patients get pregnant third attempt, and some patients don’t get pregnant at all,” Stassart said.
But the odds for younger would-be moms are more positive than for those in their late 30s or 40s.
A study done by RMIA and published by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine in 2010 revealed that the clinic’s IVF program deemed successful for patients younger than 35, with 92 out of 97 patients getting pregnant from first attempt implantation.
Overall, Stassart said looking at the success rate per attempt and success rate per patient are two different things. Some patients are willing to try up to three times before giving up completely, which increases the success rate.
“If you look at a program where you do up to three (attempts), those success rates will be anywhere in between 70 and 92 percent per patient” as long as the patient is under 39, he added. “We have many patients that get pregnant on a second, or third or even fourth attempt.”
The clinic does about 400 fresh IVF implantations every year – equivalent to about 250 patients, since multiple implantations can occur in one process.
‘We’re totally ready’
Brenna and Eli are a young St. Paul couple who weren’t willing to share their last name for privacy reasons. The aspiring parents finally discovered last August they weren’t going to get pregnant without extra help after going through a number of tests, procedures, meds and surgery to unblock Brenna’s tubes.
“Of course we were both just devastated,” said 29-year-old Brenna. “I think especially me, just knowing that your body won’t do what it’s supposed to do, it’s very frustrating.”
They spent all winter and spring of this year getting screened and tested. Then they picked a date to start IVF at RMIA in the beginning of July.
That’s when Brenna started taking hormone injections, lots of pills, and getting blood work and ultrasounds done weekly, she said.
“It’s definitely consumed our lives, which is just fine with us, of course,” she added.
The high school sweethearts come from large, close-knit families they call The Brady Bunch — Eli is the baby of a blended family with five older sisters and one older brother and Brenna is the middle child of three.
Eli will have his 10th nephew born in a couple weeks, in addition to nine other nieces and nephews all under the age of nine, who the couple gets to see every week at dinner.
So it was only a matter of time before Brenna and Eli, who’ve been married four years, decided to have a baby of their own and add to the growing family.
Brenna just recently had her embryos implanted and is waiting to hear some good news this week. The whole process takes about 12 days before a woman gets tested for pregnancy. But after that, Eli said an early IVF pregnancy is still risky.
They’re optimistic, though.
“I feel really, really positive. We’re totally ready,” Brenna said last week. “They gave us really great numbers, they gave us an 85 percent chance at pregnancy … all of our fingers and toes are definitely crossed.”
There is also a good chance Eli and Brenna will have twins since they had two embryos implanted. So they’ve already picked a combination of names: boy-boy, boy-girl and twin girls’ names.
It’s not always easy to stay positive in situations like these. Relationships can either be strengthened or crippled.
When asked how the Darsts stayed positive throughout the entire five-year process, Tara answered, “Sometimes we didn’t,” shaking her head. “Sometimes we didn’t.”
But they didn’t give up.
When Ian was born, it was the most overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, she said –an indescribable feeling of finally being able to parent a child.
“I just cried, I didn’t know what else to do,” Tara said.
“Like, ‘Hey! We really did it. Here he is,’” added Andy with a smile.
It has been a similar long journey for Brenna and Eli, who said they started out with negative thoughts but are now excited to have a second chance at building a family.
“It was really, really hard for both of us. I for sure felt really helpless in the whole thing,” said Brenna. “There is definitely good things and bad things. It’s quite an expensive, unexpected procedure. So many people can have babies for free and we’re paying thousands and thousands of dollars.”
So far the emotional rollercoaster has brought them closer together. It’s not just about the medical procedures; it’s a lot of scheduling, calling in prescriptions and time management required of the husband and wife.
Both couples said they never thought they would have to go so far, at such a young age, to get pregnant. Seeing “all the pregnant ladies walk around, all the families with children – it’s a little hard to watch,” said Eli.
And it’s the complete opposite from the mentality they had as teens and young adults.
“It’s so ironic too, you spend all of your teens and 20s hoping to not get pregnant, doing everything you cannot to get pregnant,” added Brenna. “And when you want to, it’s a struggle.”
According to 2010 census data released this year, the number of married couples living with their own children under the age of 18 makes up 33.2 percent of the local population, while the number of total family households in Woodbury adds up to 74 percent.
Building a family – one embryo at a time
Over the last 20 years, RMIA treated 50 patients who have had three separate pregnancies from the same IVF cycle using frozen embryos, in addition to two patients who’ve had four pregnancies, Stassart said.
“It used to be a very uncommon situation, but now it’s becoming more and more common,” he added. “We can do that now because we have the ability to freeze the extra embryos. Fifteen years ago we could not do that, it was either use them or lose them.”
While visiting RMIA last week, Tara Darst ran into a few of the staff members who got to know her during her IVF process. As they saw Ian for the first time, they smiled and repeatedly said, “We’ll see you again soon.”
Tara is one of the patients who decided to freeze one of the viable embryos to use in the future. She plans to return to RMIA for implantation in hopes of getting pregnant with Ian’s little brother or sister.
On the other hand, 46-year-old Misti and 43-year-old Gary Walker of Blaine, traveled to RMIA in Woodbury for IVF treatments, but they were only able to get pregnant with 17-month-old Gage from a donor egg.
“I just couldn’t believe that we’re not meant to have our own child,” said Misti, who has two boys from a previous marriage.
But she didn’t hesitate to go that route and ended up doing it again this year. Misti is now 15 weeks pregnant with twins from another donor.
“It’s tough, it’s a long process. It gets to be disappointing when you’re trying so hard and you have to do it a certain way. It just changes how your life is,” she said.
The entire process cost them about $100,000, but after Gage was born, “it was absolutely worth every last dime,” Gary said.
Couples at the clinic struggling with infertility have to take it one test a time without giving up because they say nothing beats holding one’s own newborn for the first time, seeing them smile for the first time or hearing them laugh for the first time.
“It gives your life purpose,” said Brenna.