Editor’s note; In 2009, shortly after marrying her (first and only) husband, Paolo, Elizabeth Heath was diagnosed with premature menopause and resulting infertility. Paolo and Liz are now parents to a baby girl, Naomi. In this series, Liz recounts the couple’s struggle with infertility, and how they finally achieved a successful pregnancy and parenthood.
Our flight to Alicante, Spain arrived late in the evening. The next morning, Salomé, the international coordinator for Vista Hermosa Clinic, met us at our hotel to take us to our appointment.
We waited in the lobby for what felt like a long time. Every time a young woman walked in or out of the clinic, I assessed whether or not we’d like her as an egg donor. “That one would work,” I’d whisper to Paolo. “That one has too big of a nose,” I’d say of another. He’d tell me to shush, but all the while, he was making the same assessments. “That one’s okay,” he’d say after a while.
When we were finally called into our appointment, we met with Dr. José Jesús López Gálvez, the clinic director, and Salomé, who translated between Gálvez and myself, while I translated any questions Paolo had in Italian into English, for Salomé to translate into Spanish. We were quite the international foursome. Paolo understood more Spanish than I did, so we made it work.
As is my nature, I jumped the gun and started asking about blastocysts and percentages of success and whether the doctor thought we’d need more than one try. He slowed me down. “Is she always like this?” he asked of Paolo, tongue in cheek, and Paolo told him I was. I had a feeling we were going to like this doctor.
Dr. Gálvez showed us a PowerPoint presentation that reasserted most of the research I’d done and the information contained on the clinic’s website: blastocysts are better and the chances of pregnancy on the first try are very good. We then completed a questionnaire with his and Salomé’s help. Were we both healthy? Did either of us abuse drugs or alcohol? “You mean you don’t need to take drugs to put up with her?” he asked of Paolo. Poor Salomé had to translate all of this to English, and then I into Italian—“Really, he’s joking, Mrs. Heath!” she said repeatedly.
The next step was a mock transfer, which was a simple, ultrasound-guided procedure to make sure my uterus was properly positioned to undergo the real thing. I passed with flying colors.
Then it was Paolo’s turn to step into action. He was handed a sterile-sealed specimen cup and a pair of surgical gloves, and sent to the Collection Room. At most clinics, the sperm collection room is a quiet, out of the way nook where guys can choose from a small selection of soft-core porn, sit in a comfy chair and discretely do their bit. At most clinics. At Vista Hermosa—and this is really the only negative thing I have to say about the place—the collection room is also the bathroom. When the door is closed and locked, there is a giant red-lit NO! sign above the door. But still, it’s the bathroom.
I filled out some paperwork and chatted with an English-speaking nurse in a nearby exam room while Paolo went to work. And went. And went. And went. I’d learned through our past year of fertility treatments and trials that my husband could make quick work of producing a sperm sample, so when he didn’t show up after a few minutes, I got worried. “This is not a good sign,” I told the nurse.
After about 10 minutes, Paolo emerged from the bathroom shaking his head. “Liz,” he said, “no good.” He couldn’t produce the sample. It was now after 2pm, and we had a flight back to Rome early the next morning. What the heck were we going to do?
Read Related: Facing My Infertility Part 2: Wanking at Straws
Salomé advised that we could go back to the hotel, Paolo could do his thing there, and then we could bring the sample back to the clinic via taxicab, provided that it was kept at body temperature and we arrived no more than 45 minutes after the sample was, ahem, produced. The clinic was just 10 minutes from our hotel, so that would work. But first, we needed to eat lunch, as we were both starving and Paolo, obviously distraught, needed to chill out a bit if he was to be successful in his mission.
Over tapas and a bottle of wine in a bustling restaurant, Paolo recounted for me the horrors of the collection room. First, he said, the tiny, soundless TV with the soft-core porn was mounted on the wall over the toilet, so he couldn’t sit on the toilet and also see the TV. Since there was no other chair in the small bathroom, he had to lean against the sink. His butt got cold from leaning on the cold porcelain, so he took off his t-shirt to put between his butt and the sink. So there he was, shirtless, with pants half down, leaning on the sink and trying to masturbate, all the while hearing clinic staff talking right outside the door. (I kept refilling his wine glass as he told his tale of woe.) Then, someone ignored the big red NO! sign and tried to open the door. It was just too much. Nearly rubbed raw by this point and experiencing a major case of performance anxiety, he had given up.
So after lunch, we walked back to our hotel, pulled out the laptop and got Paolo set up. “Just type in XXX,” he said. Hmm, I’m guessing he’d done this before…except that typing XXX in Google in Spain yields different results than typing it in Italy. “That’s not my XXX!” he exclaimed, clearly already keyed up that things weren’t going to work. I was able to call up a search results page with plenty of choices—really, does language matter for boom-chicka-wow-wow?—and I stepped into the sleeping alcove of our suite and tried to keep myself occupied while Paolo scrolled through the results.
What can I say? I know my husband. I heard a video playing with spanking noises and what sounded like a woodland animal having a seizure, and thought, “Oh that’s not gonna work.” Then another video came on that seemed to do the trick. Minutes later, Paolo called to me, “Liz! Let’s go!”
We dashed down to the elevator, Paolo with the sealed sample cup held in his underarm, under his shirt. We raced outside to the taxi stand and…there were no taxis. There were always taxis but this time, none. I ran inside and asked the concierge to call us a cab. He did so promptly, and gave me a card with the car number of the cab that would pick us up. Just as I went back outside, another cab arrived and Paolo started to get in. “No!” I cried waving the card at him. “We have to wait for this cab!”
Paolo paced and cursed, cup held firmly in underarm, until our cab arrived moments later and took us the mercifully short ride to the clinic. We arrived, breathless, at the clinic and left the sample in safe hands. For now, Paolo’s work in Spain was done.