[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.]
Per instructions from the fertility clinic, Paolo and I refrained from “having relations” for three days prior to him giving a sperm sample. This is a routine guideline, so that the sperm produced for the sample are highly concentrated and, presumably, motivated to get out of the starting gate. And let me tell you, when your boyfriend lives 3,000 miles away and you only see him once every several months for just a few weeks at a time, refraining from nookie for three days is no fun.
Plus, for Paolo, it came with other complications. The morning we were set to drive to Tampa for his “performance,” he awoke looking very dejected. “Liz,” he said, “there’s bad news.” Yup, he had had what the Italians call a notte bagnata (wet night)—what we call a wet dream. So our three days of chastity had been for naught.
We set out for the clinic in Tampa anyway, Paolo already starting to have performance anxiety. His sperm wouldn’t be good enough, he was certain, and that’s even if he could, ahem, deliver the package. That we got lost and stuck in a huge traffic jam in downtown Tampa didn’t help reduce the tension in the car.
We arrived to our appointment, late, and after paying upfront, waited and waited to be called. We never saw a doctor, but we explained to the nurse what had happened the night before. “Well, try anyway,” she said, but she acknowledged that Paolo’s nighttime emission could pose a problem.
Paolo, perhaps a bit nervous about masturbating in a foreign language, initially wanted me to join him in the Collection Room. I helped him start the VHS player (VHS?! The clinic commanded those high prices and they couldn’t switch to DVD?), and found a video that he deemed would do the trick. I asked him if he wanted me to stay in the room and he said yes, but I was to sit on the other side of the exam curtain. That lasted all of a few seconds before he shooed me out of the room, to our mutual relief.
So I sat in a neighboring exam room, talking to the nurse and eating leftover Christmas candy that she offered me. And sat. And sat. And sat some more.
Paolo finally came out and handed the nurse the plastic cup tucked in a white paper bag, shaking his head the whole time. Thanks to his mishap the night before, his hard-fought battle in the collection room had ended with a scant sperm sample. The nurse took the cup out of the bag and, holding it up to the light, said skeptically, “I don’t know…” The sperm would have to be analyzed to determine whether it was suitable to use for insemination. Plus she was pretty sure there was only enough for one try, not the three tries that a normal sample will yield. Fine, we decided, we still had three days before Paolo left for Italy. We’d drive back up and leave another sample if need be.
The clinic called before we were even back home in Sarasota, an hour-long drive from Tampa, and told me that the sample was no good. Two days later, when we should have been going to the beach or a museum or shopping, or having sex on the last full day of Paolo’s visit, we drove back to Tampa, and paid yet another $100 for a second sperm collection. As if that didn’t add insult to injury.
This time, Paolo needed no help with the VHS player, and I didn’t even ask if he wanted me to stick around. He made quick work of his task, and exited the collection room with shoulders back and head held high. “Okay!” he told the nurse with a thumb’s up. We had a winner!
The plan for the next few months was for me to track my ovulation, do the one-hour drive to the clinic and back on my most fertile day, and be inseminated with Paolo’s sperm, which was there on ice. Except this time, it was my turn not to cooperate, or rather, my body’s. My periods, which had been semi-regular up until now, decided to go haywire. Maybe it was the stress of planning a wedding long distance and preparing to move out of the country. Maybe it was just my body doing what it was destined to do. But I didn’t get a period for weeks and weeks. When I finally did, the ovulation monitor never yielded the smiley face that was supposed to show up two weeks or so later, to tell me we were good to go.
Instead, we threw away $500, wasted two days when we should have been relaxing and enjoying our brief time together, and suffered a lot of unnecessary stress. As we’d learn in the following months and years, that was just the tip of the stress iceberg.