[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.]
I always thought that I would beat the odds, that I would be one of those 40-something women who would get pregnant even after all the doctors told her it was a statistical impossibility. But as much as I tried to hold on to my unfounded optimism, even my hopes were starting to fade.
After we completed the embryo transfer for IVF, the Italian fertility doctor told us to wait 14 days to take a pregnancy test. So I think I waited maybe 10 days to test, knowing what the pee stick would show—a single blue line. And I tested again, several times, for days afterwards, still holding out hope that something might change. Paolo kept telling me to stop testing, that I would only be more disappointed.
To tell the truth, we weren’t heartbroken at not being pregnant after IVF, maybe because we never really expected it to work. I think we were more sickened by the time we’d wasted preparing for the procedure, and the money we’d thrown away. It was now March; when we spoke to the pretty doctor, she said the earliest we could try again was June or July.
LIFE GETS IN THE WAY
While we were struggling to decide what to do, life threw us a few curve balls. That spring, Paolo’s mother, Franca, was diagnosed with a malignant stomach tumor. The oncologist assured her it was operable and that she did not think it had spread, but the entire family was thrown into crisis mode. Paolo and I were still thinking Project Baby, but it took a backseat to more pressing concerns.
Then, something really unexpected happened. I missed a period. I figured this was the result of my peri-menopausal state, but by the time I was two weeks late, I went to see our family doctor anyway. “Well for God sake, take a pregnancy test!” he told me. I had taken a test, I told him, several. All negative. So he wrote me a prescription for an hCG blood test. HCG—human chorionic gonadotropin—is the hormone women produce when they are pregnant. It’s detectable in blood or urine, and it’s what makes the second blue line on a pregnancy test. Most home pregnancy tests are sensitive enough to detect hCG as low as 25 mIU/ml, in other words, a very early pregnancy. It’s rare, but not unheard of, that a woman can have a negative home pregnancy test—done with urine—but a positive blood test.
Read Related: Facing My Infertility Part 3: A Cup Half Empty
So, we ran the blood test to rule out pregnancy. It just so happened that the test result was due the same Friday that Franca had her surgery—an hours long, incredibly invasive procedure. Paolo was at the hospital with his cousin Diana, a nurse who works there. They were waiting while Franca was prepped for surgery and Diana was able to retrieve my test result.
I stayed at the family home, making lunch for Paolo’s then 96-year-old grandfather, Gino, and Franca’s granddaughters, and trying to keep everyone calm while we waited for news of her surgery. The phone rang around lunchtime. “Liz!” Paolo said breathlessly, “You’re pregnant!” Before I could say, “Whaa?” Paolo, overcome with emotion—I guess his mother having potentially life-threatening cancer surgery and finding out his wife was pregnant all in the same day was all a bit too much—passed the phone to Diana. “Yes Leez”—the Italians always call me Leez instead of Liz—“you’re pregnant!”
Franca came out of surgery in good shape, but facing a long, slow recovery. As she was being wheeled out, still groggy, Paolo whispered in her ear that I was pregnant. When he and Diana arrived home later that day, I saw the test results. My hCG was 29 mIU/ml, which would indicate that I was about two weeks pregnant.
But wait a minute. Pregnancy is measured from the first day of your last menstrual period. Since I was two weeks late, my hCG number should have reflected that I was about six weeks, not two weeks pregnant. It should have been in the 1000s, not barely registering at 29 mIU/ml. So while I tried to be joyful about the test results, something just didn’t feel right.
Saturday morning, I did yet another home pregnancy test, and this one showed the faintest second blue line. I might not have been very pregnant, but I was finally pregnant enough for it to register on the pee stick. I showed the stick to Paolo, and we both gazed at it under the bright kitchen light as if it was a crystal ball in which we could read our future.
We didn’t get to enjoy being pregnant for very long. Saturday evening, I started spotting. I researched on the Internet and found that was nothing unusual in early pregnancy. Okay, that could be normal. I’m still pregnant. But by the time we went to bed, I was bleeding as if my period had started. “It’s over,” I told Paolo. “Vediamo,” he said. We’ll see. But I knew this wasn’t going to be our baby.
By the wee hours, I was cramping so badly that I had nausea and diarrhea. I tried not to wake Paolo as I heaved and moaned in the bathroom, but he heard me and came in. We were not yet married a year, and up until then, I don’t think Paolo had ever seen me so physically vulnerable—and just plain gross. I kept apologizing, for losing the pregnancy, for vomiting and bleeding and having diarrhea in front of him. I had never felt more pathetic and hopeless. He helped me back to bed, and kept insisting that we go to the emergency room. I told him I needed to sleep for few hours. The cramps had subsided but I was exhausted from the intense pain and besides, there was no pregnancy to save—that I knew.
We went to the ER in the morning, where my hCG tested at 26, and no doubt falling fast. I’d likely had a blighted ovum, which occurs when an embryonic sac attaches to the uterine wall but the fetus does not develop, or a chemical pregnancy, meaning a pregnancy that registers on a pregnancy test but miscarries shortly after. In any case, there was no more baby. It was as though my last withered egg had made a desperate, Hail Mary pass to conceive and fallen just short of the touchdown line.
I saw Franca a few days later, in her hospital room. She had tubes coming out of her mouth, nose and stomach, and was too weak and uncomfortable to talk. But Paolo had already told her that I’d miscarried, and her eyes registered concern when I entered the room. “Better now than later,” I told her with a shrug.
That night, as Paolo and I lay in bed talking, staring at the ceiling and wondering aloud what to do next, he said to me, “I think we should go to Spain.”